May 14, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cormac McCrimmon | Photo by Patil Khakhamian
In November of last year, Colorado voters approved Proposition 114, which directs Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to reintroduce gray wolves to the state. Although official reintroduction won’t take place until 2023, CPW has been working with scientists and citizens to determine what reintroduction will look like.
Voters approved Proposition 114 by a very narrow margin. One of the biggest challenges in the coming years will be changing public perceptions about wolves and working to bridge gaps between ranchers, hunters and wildlife advocates.
One of the tools CPW is using to address public concern about bringing back wolves is education. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is now offering a series of webinars, in which participants can listen to experts discuss issues related to wolf reintroduction, as well as ask questions and give feedback.
The first session took place at the end of April. Longtime wolf ecologist and researcher Diane Boyd joined CPW and over a thousand viewers to share some of what she’s learned as a wolf ecologist working in Montana, as well as advice for how Colorado can prepare for the inevitable difficulties wolf reintroduction will bring.
When Boyd began researching wolves in 1977, tracking wolves looked quite different from it does today. GPS trackers, cell phones and game cameras didn’t exist. Instead, researchers relied on radio collars, which had limited range, as well as bush planes and skis to follow packs and analyze wolf behavior.
Despite new technology which makes gathering population data easier, wolves retain a cultural mystique that is sure to complicate reintroduction efforts.
In Colorado, much of the controversy surrounding wolves comes from hunters — who fear that wolves will reduce elk populations — and from ranchers — who are concerned that wolves will kill livestock.
Boyd discussed how one of the biggest problems is that many ranches are prime habitat for wolves. Elk and other prey often migrate to lower elevation ranches in the winter. Ranches provide the open space for wolves to thrive and sometimes even an easy meal.
Addressing these concerns, Boyd advised bringing ranchers into the fold before problems arise.
“Wolves live by their feet,” Boyd said. “They will end up where you don’t expect.”
Leaders must acknowledge the likelihood that wolves will migrate between public and private lands, as well as cross the Continental Divide, she said.
States like Montana have used tracking programs to monitor both wolves and cattle. By tracking both animals, ranchers can work with wildlife experts to receive compensation when they lose cattle to wolves. Although Colorado has already promised to compensate ranchers for lost livestock, ironing out the kinks in the system and deciding where the money will come from may take time.
Between the costs to pay wildlife rangers, track and monitor packs and compensate ranchers, the state can expect to shell out close to a million dollars for the program.
Boyd highlighted many creative funding mechanisms that can help to cover the budget. These include the sale of lottery tickets, wolf hunting licenses, USDA wildlife funds, nonprofits and even personalized license plates.
Although many wildlife advocates may gasp at the idea of hunting wolves in Colorado someday, hunting can help to keep pack numbers in check, provide revenue to keep the program running and may even persuade hunters to embrace wolves.
Fortunately for hunters, Boyd presented a series of studies from Montana showing that factors like weather and health have a much higher impact on big game than predators do. Elk and moose are very susceptible to hard winters and environmental factors like warming weather, which is a boon to ticks.
Despite research that only shows a loose connection between gray wolves and elk herd size, Boyd notes that oftentimes, “social and cultural perceptions don’t mesh with science,” and many hunters remain strongly against the plan.
Across North America, wolves have proven very effective at rebounding. Boyd credits their success to the species’ pack mentality, as “social carnivores,” their high fecundity rate and flexibility as habitat generalists.
Although hunting drove wolves in Colorado to extinction in 1945, wolves from Mexico as well as those living in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Canada occasionally make their way to Colorado. The fact that wolves already travel through Colorado means that reintroduction efforts may help packs in other states migrate through the region.
In the coming years, one of the best methods the state can use is monitoring. Just as researchers flocked to Yellowstone National Park to collect data on wolf reintroduction there, Boyd invites researchers to embrace the coming change in Colorado.
“It will be a fantastic opportunity for universities to build research partnerships,” Boyd said.
Perhaps Colorado College professors and students will soon get the opportunity to study wolves firsthand.
Despite the controversy that surrounds wolf reintroduction, Boyd argues that the best thing Colorado can do is convince citizens of the value wolves bring. For some, that value might look like tourism dollars, for others, it could be cultural or ecological value, or the recreation value to hunters and wildlife viewers.
If you’re interested in following Colorado’s gray wolf reintroduction, consider attending the next Colorado Parks and Wildlife webinar.