Associated Press file photo
By the mid-1930s, wolves had been all but eradicated from Colorado. Feared by ranchers trying to protect their livestock, the species fell victim to America’s expansion and the taming of the West.
Jonathan Romeo/Durango Herald
But during the last 10 years, wolves have been reintroduced to areas of Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona. For the most part, packs have remained stable, with wildlife officials estimating about 1,650 wolves living across the West.
Even in California, two adult wolves and five 4-month-old pups were spotted in early August in a northern part of the state, marking the first sighting of the species in the state in almost 100 years.
Still, no wolf is believed to have set foot in Colorado for almost a century.
Michael Soulé, a renowned conservation biologist, believes the return of wolves to Colorado is inevitable, and the ramifications will have an incredibly positive impact on the region’s overall ecosystem.
Soulé spoke Wednesday at the San Juan Citizens Alliance’s first Green Business Roundtable of the fall. Considered the “Father of Conservation Biology,” he also will be speaking at the Durango Arts Center’s members’ exhibit at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
Soulé told about 100 people at the Henry Strater Theater that large predatory animals are the most crucial component of a balanced habitat.
As a professor in San Diego, a few students stopped by his office to ask about potential class projects. He took the students to two nearby canyons: one with songbirds and another without. He asked, “Why is that?”
“The answer is one had coyotes and the other didn’t, and the one with coyotes had a lot more kinds of birds. It was the opposite of what the students expected,” he said.
That’s because Soulé believes the presence of coyotes even out the amount of cats in the area, which can devastate bird populations. It’s a small example that can be applied on a grander scale when thinking about biodiversity.
“Top predators maintain diversity of the ecosystem, and that’s why we need to protect them,” he said. “But it’s hard to protect them because they eat animals people invest livelihoods in.”
Soulé pointed out that when pioneers migrated west, they traveled with a mindset to control and dominate the land, as evidenced by the prevalent Manifest Destiny attitude.
Frontiersmen scoured the wilds, butchering large animals along the way, sometimes just for sheer sport. The result is that, today, cattle are among the most abundant animals in the world.
“It’s really shocking how few wild animals are left in the world,” Soulé said. “Domesticated animals totally dominated the world. There’s not much space left for anything else.”
But Soulé said there is hope as thousands of organizations work to protect the wildlands that are left on the planet – specifically Rocky Mountains, which contain more wildlife than any other part of the country, excluding southern parts of Florida and Texas.
“This spine of the continent is really important because it’s a major road for species to adapt to climate change,” he said.
“Ecosystems are moving about three miles a year because of climate change. As it gets hotter and hotter, things have to go further north to survive. There’s no other factor that effects nature as much as warming will.”
When Soulé opened the floor for questions, attendees focused on the reintroduction of wolves. He acknowledged the difficulties of such an action, especially when ranchers who depend on livestock are taken into account.
“But the wolf is really important for protecting nature. They control populations of deer, which destroy vegetation and then ecosystems collapse,” he said. “Ideally, ranchers would be interested in protecting wildlife.”
Soulé drew the difference between American and European mentalities when it comes to raising livestock. In Europe, he said you never see a herd not looked after by a human or dog for protection. Whereas in America, livestock is commonly left unattended, making easy prey for wolves.
Soulé believes it is “politically possible” for a ballot initiative to pass that would require state wildlife officials to reintroduce wolves to Colorado, citing a recent poll that said 70 percent of Coloradans are in favor of repatriation.
But, he said the issue would be a big fight that would fragment the state. The Front Range, with its more “universal view,” would easily pass the measure. The Western Slope, however, takes a more local approach and knows how it would affect the economy.
“It’s not black and white,” Soulé said. “In the long run, it would be better for wildlife and biodiversity to have the top predator back in the system. Will it happen overnight? No, I don’t think so. But it’s possible.”
Soulé referred to issues such as these as “wicked problems,” meaning there’s no outcome desirable to all parties in the community. He told The Durango Herald after the lecture there are a lot of wicked problems in his profession.
Soulé is co-founder of The Society for Conservation Biology, and was listed as one of the 20th century’s 100 Champions of Conservation by Audubon Magazine. He said protecting non-domesticated species has long been his mission in life.
But he did admit it’s hard to hold hope when fact after fact shows the planet is headed on an irreversible downturn, evidenced by the growing impact of global warming and alarming rate of animal extinction.
“A lot of people in this profession know what they love, and what they work all their life to protect, is going to be lost,” he said.
“For me, there’s always a possibility of slowing things down, and protecting pockets where native species can survive. We can’t give up. If we can just save a few things, it’s better than nothing.”