OPINION: The skinny on wolf reintroduction in Colorado

Anne Janik

The question — vote yes on Proposition 114 to actively restore wolves to our landscape — or vote no, and let them wander into our state with the chance they may or may not survive and establish a reproductive population.

The state biologists have confirmed the occurrence of six wolves along the Colorado- Wyoming border.

A sustainable population of wolves requires enough individuals to create a good gene pool; much like domestic dog breeders select lineages likely to produce the best genetics for healthy individuals. In Yellowstone National Park, the original 31 introduced wolves came from 14 different packs.

If Colorado starts with only a small group of wolves (e.g. the wolves in Northwest Colorado), survival will be difficult because of accidental fatalities, depredation removal, poaching, and legal hunting when they cross over into Wyoming. Additionally, since adult wolves do not typically breed with their offspring, a larger, diverse start up population is needed. To establish a sustainable, reproducing population, reintroducing wolves from several different packs and locations will be necessary.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park and speak with a few of the original pioneers spearheading the wolf project in the park. These scientists clarified information referenced in various commentaries over the last few months.

To clarify the issue regarding gray wolf subspecies, it boils down to Canus lupus irrelevant — a subspecies designates a population of the same species that generally do not interbreed due to geographic barriers. Any differences among these subspecies are meaningless except to a few specialists. Another example to consider is the seven subspecies of Canada geese.

These subspecies, which are different sizes, could interbreed if their flyways or nesting areas overlapped. Decisions on which individual to transplant are more related to prey preference (elk vs. bison) and logistics of the capture/release effort rather than subspecies.

On the Western Slope of Colorado, livestock and wolf interactions are a big concern. Data from the Northern Rockies (Idaho Montana, and Wyoming) where wolves are thriving alongside ranching operations, indicate livestock losses (confirmed and highly suspected) from wolf predations is estimated at one head of cattle per 10,000 animals; and in sheep, three in 10,000 animals. These losses could be larger depending on wolf pack size and range, ungulate availability and habitat, and livestock management techniques. Ranchers are compensated for livestock losses from wolf predation and the depredation wolves are killed so as not to pass on their hunting preferences and genetics.

One commenter was very concerned about human and wolf interactions. Yes, there has been a rare occasion of a wolf attacking a person (i.e. Banff National Park incident 2019) but to put this in perspective, over the last 10 years, there have been 30-60 fatal dog attacks on humans every year in the U.S.

Some people are concerned that wolves will affect hunting success for deer and elk. Yes, there are going to be short-term and long-term effects on ungulate populations related to predation by wolves. Those outcomes will be dependent on a myriad of factors that can singularly or in combination influence elk and deer populations such as herd size, forage availability, drought, winter snowpack, human hunting and disturbance during elk and deer fawning/calving.

The numbers of wolves combined with these other factors could, season to season, change localized ungulate populations and hunter success. But, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists have tools to monitor and manage wildlife populations such as habitat improvement, area closures, and reduced hunting pressure to sustain desired ungulate populations and meet hunter expectations.

There are questions about the cost of a reintroduction program and who pays. The Colorado state estimates of the reintroduction program are approximately $300,000, and $500,000 the first two years (2021-23) for development of a gray wolf reintroduction plan; this will increase to $800,000/year for implementation which could span a few years than decrease again to a population monitoring level.

Federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) funding is available to pay up to 75% of the costs of the reintroduction as long as the species remains listed under the Endangered Species Act. CPW is eligible to obtain additional funding from the USFWS under several grant programs. There are also several environmental non-profits that contribute to the effort. As a comparison, consider the amount of federal (tax) dollars that have been spent over decades to successfully eradicate wolves.

Wolves have inhabited the western landscape for a lot longer than Euro Americans. Wolves are part of the natural fauna in a complete ecosystem. Proposition 114 will return them to Colorado’s landscape. If you subscribe to a basic natural resource mantra of the West — first in use, first in right — wolves have a place on our public lands. Would wolves still be here, if they had a good lawyer back in the day?

Anne Janik is a wildlife biologist from Montrose County.

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