Sept 25, 2020 | By Jon Lamson | Illustration by Xixi Qin
While the fate of wolves in Colorado is perhaps the very last issue on the mind of voters in this upcoming election season, Colorado voters have a consequential decision to make on Nov. 3 that doesn’t involve Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Cory Gardner, or John Hickenlooper. If passed, Proposition 114 will require the reintroduction of gray wolves into western Colorado by 2023, a move which promises to have significant effects throughout Colorado’s ecosystems.
Historically, gray wolves roamed throughout the majority of North America, from northern Alaska to central Mexico, from the Pacific Northwest to New England. However, wolves were systematically eradicated from most of the country by the mid-20th century in response to conflicts with ranchers. The last of Colorado’s wolves were killed in 1940, and since then they have been unable to reestablish a residential population within the state.
From an ecological standpoint, returning wolves to Colorado would have wide-ranging positive effects. The phenomena of trophic cascades (widespread changes throughout many levels of an ecosystem caused by the addition or loss of an apex predator) is well established within the study of ecology, with the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone serving as a particularly stark and well-known example.
The Yellowstone wolves were reintroduced in 1995, and have had wide-ranging effects. Their added predatory threat has helped control (and stabilize) elk populations, and has notably kept elk herds on the move, preventing them from overgrazing riparian forests. As willow stands have regenerated, beavers, who rely on them for food and shelter, have also rebounded. The beavers then engineer river habitat, building dams that help store water, mitigate seasonal high-water pulses, and generally improve aquatic habitats.
In Colorado, preserving and restoring riparian forests is a particularly important objective. These forests tend to be hubs of biodiversity, and can help control flooding, stabilize habitat by slowing processes of erosion, recharge groundwater, shade and cool river water, and improve water quality.
Wolf kills also benefit a variety of scavenger species, including bears, crows, and vultures, while many bird species will also benefit from improved riparian habitats. Since gray wolves are historical apex predators within the Rocky Mountains, it is only logical that their eradication has been a major disruption for the ecosystems that evolved with their presence.
Gray wolves have already been reintroduced in Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, and New Mexico, and there is a small pack of wolves that has been spotted in northern Colorado this past year. However, three out of the six wolves in the pack were likely killed this spring, according to Colorado Public Radio, and such a population simply cannot repopulate Colorado on its own. The wolves were likely killed after crossing into Wyoming, where it is legal to kill wolves without a permit in most of the state (compared to Colorado, where wolves are listed as an endangered species). This development casts doubt on the idea that wolves will soon recolonize Colorado on their own, without introduction.
Proposition 114 has been endorsed by the Global Indigenous Council, the Sierra Club, the National Resource Defense Council, the Denver Post editorial board, and a multitude of environmental organizations. While the proposition requires the state to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by the reintroduced wolves, the bulk of the opposition is coming from a coalition of ranching and hunting groups. Stop the Wolf PAC, an arm of the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, is led by Denny Behrens, the Colorado Regional Director for BigGame Forever, an organization that fights gray wolf and greater sage grouse conservation efforts, and is advocating for “proactive management” to ensure “abundant wild game,” sponsored by companies such as Browning and Hoyt Archery. On its own website, the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition lists the National Rifle Association (NRA), BigGame Forever, and multiple other hunting and ranching organizations as partners.
Outlining one of their main arguments against reintroduction, Stop the Wolf PAC recently released a television ad featuring a jogger being targeted by a computer-generated imagery (CGI) wolf while ominous classical music plays. While the dangers of CGI wolves to humans remains unstudied, gray wolf attacks on humans are uncommon, and deaths are rare. Since the start of this century, there have only been two people in North America killed by wolves, and none in the past ten years.
Stop the Wolf also claims that wolves will spread diseases such as hydatid disease and chronic wasting disease. However, human contraction of the former requires direct contact with infected feces, is not transmitted from person to person, and results in mostly asymptomatic infections in humans. In the case of chronic wasting disease (never recorded in humans, although it affects deer, elk, and moose), a 2011 paper led by National Parks Service researcher Margerat Wild, published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, suggested that wolves actually limit the spread of the disease in elk by killing infected individuals.
While wolves can certainly prey on cattle, losses can be compensated relatively cheaply, looking at programs in states where wolves are currently present. Despite concerns of hunters, wolves will likely have the effect of stabilizing elk populations while promoting healthier ecosystems. It is evident that proactively managing our environment to maximize numbers of elk and moose (a species not native to the state, introduced in 1978) to subsidize the hunting industry seems downright foolish.
In the midst of a mass extinction, actively supporting our ecosystems is essential for our collective survival. While there are certainly more pressing votes to consider this November, with Proposition 114, Colorado has a clear opportunity to significantly reverse some of the ecological damage that has accompanied the violent European colonization of this region. It is time for Colorado to put ecosystem health and our collective wellbeing above the interests of the hunting and ranching industries, and vote yes on Proposition 114.