Sunday, December 20, 2015

Wolves, wilderness and elk: Canis Lupus in Colorado

By Andrew Gulliford
The Parks and Wildlife Commission recently considered not introducing wolves into Colorado. That’s too bad, because wolves are coming. They may already be here. You don’t think so? Then why is there a wolf sighting form on the CPW website and why do so many Coloradans claim to have seen Canis Lupus in the high country?

Theories on how top-tier predators order and stabilize landscapes have now been proven. To understand the potential for wolves in Colorado, it is vital to learn lessons from two decades of wolf recovery in Yellowstone National Park.

I teach my college students that wolves brought butterflies back to Yellowstone. I explain that wolves cut the coyote population in half. With fewer coyotes there are more small rodents and mammals aerating the soil and providing better grasses. But the largest and most dramatic effect has been culling the Yellowstone elk herd. By 1995 the ungulates had done severe damage to the park. Wolves changed that.

Elk had grown lazy and lived in riparian zones eating willow sprouts and young aspen trees that could not rejuvenate. As wolf packs began to hunt elk, the wapiti were slowed and caught in downed timber along rivers and streams. So elk learned safety meant higher sagebrush benches where they could see and smell better.

With fewer elk, plants recovered. Aspen thrived. And in this new thicker forest of riverine vegetation, beaver colonies established small pools, attracting other animals, insects, and yes, butterflies.

Thousands of wolf watchers at Yellowstone National Park add $35 million to the area’s economy. So who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf? Hunters who see fewer elk. Ranchers worried about their cattle, and sheepmen forced to adopt new herding techniques.

I’m a big game hunter. Why would I want more competition for the cow elk I like to shoot? Because I believe in intact ecosystems. I believe hard science trumps superstition and false facts.

It’s been decades since the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission convened its Wolf Working Group. It’s time for a new wolf working group and also wolf education sessions that were a goal in the group’s original report but have never occurred.

So how would wolves change Colorado ecosystems? We have yet to find out.

First, they have to cross the Red Desert of Wyoming and Rio Blanco and Moffat Counties where many ranchers carry rifles in their pickups. A Forest Service wildlife biologist told me that wolves are coming, but “there’s all those guns between us and the Wyoming wolf packs.” In the Mount Zirkel, Maroon Bells, Raggeds, or South San Juan Wildernesses, we only need a breeding pair. Just two wolves. A young male and female with amorous intent.

In June 2004 a wolf died along Interstate 70 after being hit by a car. Five years later in 2009 a GPS-collared wolf traveled 3,000 miles before dying from a banned poison in Rio Blanco County. In April 2015 a coyote hunter accidentally killed a gray wolf near Kremmling.

Wolves are coming to the Western Slope. Then what? Colorado Parks and Wildlife already has a plan. It’s over a decade old, but “Findings and Recommendations for Managing Wolves that Migrate into Colorado” by the Colorado Wolf Management Working Group offers interesting scenarios.

Strategies involve adaptive management, monitoring of wolves, and damage payments for livestock killed. Key ideas include “Migrating wolves should be allowed to live with no boundaries where they find habitat,” and that “Wolf distribution in Colorado will ultimately be defined by the interplay between ecological needs and social tolerance.”

Once here, CPW staff “will implement programs to make sure that wolves are included as a part of wildlife heritage.” Canis lupus will be an eco-wildcard. No one knows how wolves will fit into Colorado’s landscape. Many of us are waiting to find out.

With an estimated 300,000 elk in Colorado we can afford to lose a few to a top predator.

So if wolves are coming to Colorado, why not help them out? Why not re-introduce them? Twice in 1982 and 1989 the state’s Wildlife Commission passed resolutions opposing reintroduction of wolves. It’s time to revisit that decision. If wolves arrive on their own, we’ll have to live with where they appear. If wolves are introduced, there can be more flexibility on where they live and certainly more planning.

Wolf reintroduction first requires a positive vote from the Colorado State Wildlife Commission. A second affirmative vote must come from the Colorado State Legislature because the legislature voted itself authority over the introduction of threatened or endangered species.

I tell my college students that wolves are coming home to Colorado. Hopefully in my lifetime, certainly in theirs. We need them back. We need to hear their howls on moonlit nights deep in the Weminuche Wilderness or high on the Flattops.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.


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