The drive to reintroduce Wolves has been sweeping across the American West and has now made its way to Colorado. The proposal is officially being put to vote this year and, if the initiative is pushed through, has the potential to be implemented by 2023. While the plan is seemingly picking up steam due to one-sided coverage and large amounts of out-of-state funding, the proposal is not as flawless as it may seem.
One thing that is often overlooked by those supporting the reintroduction is that there is already a pack of Wolves whose range includes Northwestern Colorado. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) confirmed the presence of an active Wolf pack in this area after a number of them were spotted feeding on an elk. Contrary to what most supporters of the bill would believe, these wolves are not unwelcome and are actually the result of an existing management plan that the CPW has had in place for years, promoting the natural migration of wolves in Colorado. Although the CPW already has this program in place and possess the majority of the scientific information regarding this issue, its leading researchers are legislatively mandated not to comment on the current initiative to reintroduce wolves. Because of this, some of the most well-informed voices on the issue are being silenced, allowing for “ballot box biology” and misinformed opinions to dominate the political discussion.
The reintroduction of wolves will also significantly affect the state’s ungulate populations and the outfitters that rely on them. These populations have already been struggling in Southwestern Colorado, with 54 of the 64 deer and elk units below population objectives in Colorado occurring in this part of the state. Although the numbers of wolves being introduced are capped at a level deemed safe for these deer and elk populations, wolf populations tend to explode in nearly every state they are introduced. This was evident in a previous reintroduction project in Idaho which now sees wolf populations nearly 1000% over its original minimum recovery goal. The effects of this introduction and the explosion of the wolf population are reflected in the state’s elk numbers, most notably in the Lolo Zone in Central Idaho which experienced an 81% decrease between 1992 and 2017. Although it would perhaps be unfair to attribute these population drops solely to the reintroduction of wolves, the potential for this to repeat itself in Colorado is not something that cannot be ignored.
In addition to the negative impacts on local ungulate populations, the initiative will also threaten the endangered Mexican Grey Wolf that has undergone a significant and expensive recovery plan in the neighboring state of New Mexico. Although these wolves are in another state, the introduced population will likely spread rapidly as they follow elk into the West Slope, Rocky Mountain National Park, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. A reintroduction project from 1995 in both Central Idaho and Yellowstone showed just how fast these populations can spread. The 1995 project reintroduced 15 wolves into Central Idaho, and an additional 14 into Yellowstone National Park. Today, these wolves total to more than 3000, spreading nearly 600 miles from their original release point into Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and California.
Another argument supporting the reintroduction plays in the growing fear surrounding Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and its spread throughout the Western United States. The argument is that the reintroduction of wolves would stop deer from overpopulating and would, in turn, stop the spread of the disease. While this may sound logical, the theory that wolf reintroduction is the answer to the spread of CWD has no scientific backing. In fact, the world’s foremost Wolf researcher, David Mech, says that these claims are merely speculation, pointing to the spread of CWD in Montana and Wyoming, two states where wolf populations are thriving.
In addition to these ecological impacts, the proposed reintroduction would have significant financial implications for Colorado taxpayers, ranchers, and outfitters. In terms of taxes, states such as Wyoming and Washington that have implemented similar plans pay up to $1.5 million per year on the program, and up to $6 million by year eight after the reintroduction. These numbers are often ignored by those in favor of the bill due to the fact that the majority of the support comes from out of state donors. This includes $1 million in donor money and 15 members of the proponents scientific advising team coming from out of state. In addition to the massive cost to its citizens, Colorado and its local businesses will also lose a significant portion of the $3.5 billion that is received annually from its sportsmen and women from the purchasing of deer and elk hunting tags and equipment.
Even with all these points in mind, it is important to educate yourself and form your own opinions on this issue, as it will likely pose serious implications to much of the American West. Organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are a great resource for all things surrounding this issue and are deeply invested in preserving Colorado’s wilderness, completing over 782 conservation and hunting outreach programs in the state since 1987. RMEF has published their recent take on the matter.
Although it may be perceived as such, critics of the reintroduction are by no means anti-predator but rather feel that, like all species, wolves should be properly managed by those with the greatest knowledge to do so.