March 2005

Wolves at the door?

Debates rage over how, and wether, to return the animals to Colorado

By Jim Mimiaga

Number 293, as she was known, was born and raised in the Swan Lake pack of northern Yellowstone National Park before she became the first confirmed wild wolf Colorado has seen in 60 years.

A restless yearling, the 1 1/2-year-old gray wolf was not the dominant female of the Yellowstone pack, which in wolf society meant that she could not start a family of her own yet.

Frustrated, she set off alone to find a mate, weaving a five-month, 420-mile trek across Wyoming before encountering the “Berlin Wall” of wildlife migration — Colorado's Interstate 70, a mammoth, sometimes eight-lane, swath of asphalt directing a furious stream of heavy traffic through the Rocky Mountains.

Scrambling out onto the highway 30 miles west of Denver, witnesses said, she dodged several vehicles and managed to cross but struggled to squeeze under the opposite guardrail. Panicked, she doubled back and was struck by oncoming traffic. Within days, biologists investigated and confirmed that the wolf, wearing a transmitting collar, was indeed from Yellowstone, and had wandered there on her own before being killed. Her last meal had been a deer.

But 293’s fatal encounter last June was not in vain. Her discovery and remarkable story helped to inspire a new set of management guidelines that protect wide-ranging wolves who will inevitably migrate to Colorado from packs in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico. Moreover, recent key court decisions favor more wolf recovery in the West and have spurred momentum to help return the symbolic predator to its former Colorado range.

Recovery mother lode

Wolves who do wander here will be protected, agreed a 14-person panel appointed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife a year ago to confront the issue.

Following six public meetings, the working group — made up of two sportsmen, four wolf advocates, four livestock producers and two local government officials — submitted rule recommendations to the Colorado

Wildlife Commission outlining what should happen when wild wolves arrive in the state by themselves. “The recommendations are not a recovery or reintroduction plan,” emphasized Gary Sciba, a wolf biologist with the CDOW who provided technical assistance for the group.

“The focus was on migrating wolves only and the consensus was that they should be left alone to live when they arrive.”

The plan addresses negative and positive impacts wolves have on communities, habitat, big game and livestock. It lays out parameters for dealing with problem wolves, compensation guidelines for livestock loss due to wolf predation, management of prey populations and education.

It foremost states that wolves should be allowed to “live with no boundaries where they find habitat” but that “wolf distribution will ultimately be defined by the interplay between ecological needs and social tolerance.”

Other key components focus on methods to minimize livestock-wolf conflicts and provide monetary compensation for livestock, including:

  • Allowing CDOW to re-locate or kill wolves causing problems with livestock or directly threatening humans.
  • Establishing a state-operated wolfdamage fund for livestock losses that pays 100 percent of confirmed losses and 50 percent of probable losses. Those funds shall not be derived from sportsman dollars and should not encroach upon other game-damage payments earmarked for predators such as mountain lion, bears and coyotes.
  • Having the CDOW, over time, bring the wolf into existing management programs and policies for other carnivores.
  • Repealing an outdated bounty law for wolves.

“This is a good first step,” said Rob Edward, a working-group member and director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu, which advocates restoring predators to the southern Rockies. He points to the south San Juan Mountains near Pagosa Springs as prime habitat for wolf recovery because it has the fewest people and roads, plus vast acres of remote public lands.

“A recent Fish and Wildlife survey that showed 71 percent approval in Colorado for reintroducing predators proves this is what our citizens want,” he told a packed house of Fort Lewis College students last month. “The 25 million acres of public lands in the southern Rockies is a mother lode for wolf recovery that connects the south with established northern state populations.”

Judges rule for wolves

The possibility of a more definitive re-introduction plan for wolves in Colorado received a boost last month when U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones ruled for environmentalists in a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the Endangered Species Act, wolves must be recovered into a “significant portion” of their former range, before being downlisted from “endangered” to the less-protected “threatened” category. But in 2003, when the USFWS moved to take the wolf off the endangered list nationwide, giving ranchers more legal power to shoot them, it violated the act, contended Nina Fascione of Defenders Of Wildlife, one of several environmental groups that filed suit.

“So the judge ruled that wolves must be returned to the endangered status because the USFWS plan to de-list included some areas, like Colorado, that did not have legally or biologically recovered wolf populations,” she said.

However, in the Northern Rockies states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, wolf-recovery programs have been very successful, pointed out Ed Bangs, northwest wolf recovery coordinator for the USFWS. Those areas host 835 wolves, with the vast majority in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

“It’s been an incredible success story; we have more wolves in more places with fewer problems than we ever thought,” Bangs said. “Yellowstone is the best place in the world to view wolves, but it will not be a total suc- cess until we get the wolves off of the endangered-species list. It is a bureaucratic challenge now.”

The USFWS is still reviewing the decision, he said, adding it is unclear what the recovery parameters are now for wolves.

The answer is the powerful legal language of the Endangered Species Act that demands more substantial wolf populations nationwide, said Defenders’ Fascione. “It doesn’t work to say wolves are recovered in Colorado just because they are in Yellowstone, that’s premature. A more suitable plan for the service would be to say, ‘OK, we have wolves recovered in some areas but they still need federal protection in others.’”

Mexican grays under fire

Meanwhile in the Southwest, the Mexican gray wolf has been brought back to some degree along the New Mexico-Arizona border in the Blue Mountain Range. Fifty-one wolves wander the desert mountains there, but have suffered under heavy gun-fire from opponents.

It is a felony for a private citizen to shoot animals listed as endangered, unless people are under direct attack, a virtually unheard-of occurrence with wolves.

On the same day that a federal judge ruled for more wolf recovery nationwide, a New Mexico judge dismissed a lawsuit by ranching organizations challenging the reintroduction program there. Judge Christina Armijo wrote that the livestock-owning plaintiffs’ claims lacked merit and had raised false allegations.

“The decision vindicates the hard work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in putting Mexican gray wolves back in their rightful place, in the forests of the Southwest, and affirms the importance of science, not fear in this work,” said Susan George, Defenders of Wildlife senior counsel, on their web site.

Environmentalists applaud the Southwest program for its commitment to wolf recovery in an area with so much opposition. Defenders said Colorado’s plan is also pro-active and is improved in that there are no boundaries set for migrating wolves. In the Arizona-New Mexico project, when wolves cross a political boundary established for their range, they must be captured and returned.

“That’s goofy — wolves are not reading the recovery plan,” Fascione says. “They can’t be trained to not cross this line or that one.”

Ranchers’ fears real

But livestock depredation by predators is not an illusion, respond industry officials, and steps need to be taken to better compensate for losses.

“We couldn’t support wolf re-introduction because it is one more expense and problem we have to deal with, but we know the issue is unfortunately not going away so we have worked towards solutions,” said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Woolgrowers Association, who is also a member of the wolf working group. “However we are not in the business to raise food for wolves.”

A key component of the recommendations is establishing separate funding for livestock confirmed killed by wolves.

“It should not come from funds that cover losses from other predators,” Kline said. “If Colorado wants wolves, they need to get out their checkbooks and figure out how to pay for it because sportsmen and the livestock industry should not have to shoulder that cost.”

Already cattle and sheep ranchers battle with predators such as coyotes, mountain lions, bears and eagles, said Casey Brown, who runs cattle in the San Juans. Adding another to the mix is not palatable and leads to revenue losses.

“How would you feel if you lost $7,000 worth of income in one year?” he asked. “That is what we’re up against. But there could be pluses (to wolf reintroduction) because they prey on coyotes and they are a real menace to ranchers, more so than wolves.”

So-called undocumented depredation losses are what pinch operations, Brown said. Defenders of Wildlife began a program in the mid-1990s that has paid $400,000 to ranchers who confirm predator losses with wildlife officials. But only 50 percent of an animal’s value is offered for probable losses, and many more are a total loss because there is just no evidence left.

“After all the other animals feed on the carcass, a hoof here, an ear there, you can’t tell what killed it so there is no compensation,” Brown said. “Our local wildlife guys work hard to get us a fair return, but the higher-ups say no because the proof isn’t there.”

Budgeting more money for loss of livestock would go a long way towards easing fears of wolf reintroduction in the state, he said. Other solutions could be increased guard dogs and stopping the practice of de-horning cattle so they can better defend themselves. To avoid wolves getting a taste for beef, carcasses should be removed from grazing allotments quickly.

Smith said it is critical that wildlife officials and agencies follow through with the promises they give. “If you religiously deal with problem wolves, whether they are killed or quickly relocated, then your credibility is going to go up, but it has to be consistent.”

Natural balance

It is a misconception that wolves by themselves will cause an elk population to decline, said Doug Smith, an expert on wolves, Yellowstone’s wolf project leader, and co-author of the upcoming book “Decade of the Wolf.”

“It is a combination of factors including drought, severe winters, hunting rules and other predators,” he said.

“But it’s true that you will have a better ecosystem integrity with wolves, than without them.”

The poetic saying: “What whittled the antelope so swift but the wolf's tooth"”applies to elk as well. They are alert, powerful animals precisely because of wolves preying on them through the ages.

Smith said research shows, with wolves in the area, elk move toward heavy stands of timber instead of remaining in meadows where they are more vulnerable. This improves stream ecology, restores cleansing wetlands,, prompts more aspen growth and also makes hunting more of a challenge.

“Their browsing patterns change and so they don’t camp out in riparian areas and willow stands eating to their heart’s content,” he said. “With wolves back in Yellowstone we have seen vigorous willow growth and this in turn has improved songbird and beaver habitat.”

This angers some hunters, because while the elk will likely still be in the same drainage as last year, they won’t be in the same meadow where they were handily shot before.

In Colorado, elk herds are growing out of control, and wolves could play a role in helping keep the population down to a more healthy number. Beyond that, say advocates, restoring the natural balance is a virtue worth saving.

“Where there are wolves, a primeval light turns back on in elk, they begin to move around more, they are more vigilant, the dance is restored,” remarked Edwards of Sinapu.

A ‘people problem’

“Wolves are actually very tolerant animals, it's people that can't live with them,” said Bangs. “The hopes and fears about wolves are exaggerated. They are not as good as some people hope, and not as bad as others fear.” Wolves tend to stick with traditional prey of deer, moose and elk, he said, noting that only 6 percent of wolves in the Northwest attack livestock, but because some do they have garnered an unfair reputation as indiscriminate killers of pets and livestock.

“We kill problem wolves to nip that behavior in the bud, but most do what they learned as puppies, to go for traditional prey. They are afraid of new things, like livestock, and most pass them by,” he said. “As a comparison, mountain lions eat twice as much big game as wolves, are more likely to attack pets and livestock than wolves and will stalk and attack people, which wolves virtually never do. There are hundreds of mountain lions in the state but you don't see anyone arguing that there should be zero.”

There are no documented cases of a healthy wolf attacking a human being in modern North American, according to the Denver Post.

Smith agreed. "Wolves are a very polarizing issue and not many minds are changed; if you start out not liking them then nothing changes your mind and vice versa.”

He said in Montana, loss of sheep and cattle to wolves is “minuscule” compared to the damage done by bears, coyotes and cougars. Also, because wolves are so adaptable, reintroduction in the Northwest has done nothing to limit other land uses such as mining, road-building and logging.

But livestock producers disagree with numbers given by government biologists. Kline said the frequency of wolf-livestock depredation is actually much higher, especially on private property, because the statistics used don’t reflect the unconfirmed kills.

“Even a few wolves can cause a lot of damage,” Kline said. “Added stress on the sheep and cattle leads to low conception rates, there is increased management time with more predators, more guard dogs are expensive and all this means less overall value of your product.”

The argument that wolves “pass up” beef for dinner is suspect, Kline said. “In Colorado, where would the wolves go? There is a false notion out there that because we have a lot of public lands they can live there,” she said. “But that is the high country in summer. In the winter, wolves will migrate lower along with elk and deer where the habitat is much more fragmented with deeded property, people and livestock.”

Will other wolves make the long journey that 293 did, prompting more excited calls of possible sightings? Probably, biologists say, but whether that will be enough to result in a population of wolves here any time soon is unlikely.

Reintroduction will allow wolves to recover faster and therefore improve the chances of de-listing the species, allowing local wildlife officials more management control, but “that will be an uphill battle,” Smith said, “because with wolves nobody wants to know the truth.”