The gray wolf, once numbering in the tens of thousands throughout North America, have faced public vilification and extermination programs that drove it to near extinction in the US. Now Colorado will vote on whether to reintroduce them into the wild after an 80-year absence, thanks to an effort that has cattle ranchers outraged but which conservationists say could restore an ecosystem that has long suffered without the apex predator.
The species was systematically exterminated by controversial, US government-backed programs in the 19th and 20th centuries. This was primarily due to wolves’ attacks on the cattle, a booming industry that has been integral to the expanding west economy. By 1940, wolves were almost completely gone.
Their inclusion on the 1973 Endangered Species Act, along with a 1995 effort to build a home for them in Yellowstone national park, has helped bring their numbers back up to 5,500 in the lower 48 states.
This year, a ballot measure in Colorado will let voters decide whether a home should be built for the gray wolf in the state. Polling indicates the measure is likely to pass, though segments of both the ranching and hunting communities are strongly opposed.
Conservationists argue that eradication of wolves threw the ecology of the Rocky Mountains into disarray, with elk and deer excessively grazing in open lands where they otherwise would have been targets for wolves, created a domino effect that has harmed a variety of species.
Colorado’s vote comes at a time when safeguards for gray wolves are threatened: the Trump administration announced last year intentions to remove the animals from the endangered species list.
“Gray wolves are the ecological engines of the northern hemisphere,” says Rob Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, who spearheaded the ballot measure and has been working to reintroduce wolves into Colorado for over 25 years. He points to the successes of the Yellowstone reintroduction as evidence that similar efforts would be good for Colorado’s environment.
“The Aspen groves, which hadn’t regenerated in 50 years, were totally coming back” as a result of wolves returning, he says. “And with that regeneration came more beavers, which led to more beaver dams, which was good for the rivers, which led to more trout, and on and on with a cascading effect.”
He adds that wolves also benefit the landscape by forcing elk to move around. When the elk aren’t hunted, they “can hang out in river bottoms, which causes mass erosion, and the water gets shallower and hotter”, he explains.
Edward points out that the measure safeguards ranchers against losses by offering compensation for any wolves that kill their livestock, but Terry Fankhauser, executive vice-president of the 153-year-old Colorado Cattlemen’s Association – which represents the 11,600 cattle farms and $2.8bn industry in the state – believes the matter is more complex than just wolves killing cattle.
“Beyond the kills, there are indirect impacts of wolves being reintroduced to cattle,” Fankhauser says. “Cattle are fight-or-flight animals and they’re continually on the lookout for predators. And when there’s reintroduction of wolves, there’s a decrease in gestation, pregnancy, and weight gain, much like elk, deer and moose.”
Potential disruption of wild animals is also a concern for opponents of the ballot measure, who advocate on behalf of hunters who don’t want to see their game disappear. Preserving targets for hunters was also the motive behind the controversial, government-sponsored practice of shooting wolves in Alaska from helicopters. Sarah Palin’s endorsement of the practice was fuel for attack ads when the then governor ran for vice-president in 2008.
The proposed measure would call for the Colorado parks and wildlife commission to construct a plan – building on scientific data and concerns from public hearings – to reintroduce wolves into public lands by the end of 2023. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund would like to see enough wolves introduced to return balance to the ecology, with the additional aim of creating a habitat that links the wolves of northern states (along with Canada) and southern states (along with Mexico) stretching the length of the Rocky Mountains.
Fankhauser is concerned that the ballot measure will tie the hands of those tasked with reintroducing the wolves to Colorado, forcing them into blunt action where a nuanced approach is needed.
“We should not be making biological decisions at the ballot box,” he says. “And to arbitrarily decide, through a population vote, that we need x amount of wolves in Colorado without considering that ecosystem, it’s not only irresponsible to the ranching community, but to the wolves themselves.”
Rehabilitating the wolf’s image
The Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, another opposition group that describes itself as a group of “concerned sportsmen, farmers, ranchers and businesses”, has been playing up fears that wolves could be a danger to humans. Its homepage cites a story from last summer about a family of campers in Canada being attacked by a wolf, which has the potential to make the millions who enjoy camping in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains a little anxious.
Edward finds the suggestion wolves pose a threat to humans wildly misleading. (The Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
They’re curious about us, like their descendants, the dogs
“That is a one-off rarity,” he says. “Millions of people have camped in Yellowstone since wolves were reintroduced, and there has never been an attack. Wolves do not see humans as prey. They’re curious about us, like their descendants, the dogs.”
A poll commissioned on behalf of Edward’s campaign showed that two-thirds of likely voters said they were in favor of the wolf reintroduction, with only 15% opposed. The poll showed no divide between rural and urban voters, which is noteworthy considering how large the cattle industry looms in the Colorado economy and culture.
Meanwhile, supporters of the gray wolf have been working to overhaul its fearsome image. A Denver-based musical collective, Lost Walks, wrote and performed a rock opera about a wolf who saves a pregnant woman in danger in the Colorado wilderness.
“It felt important to us to use our voices for a creature who is voiceless,” says Jen GaNun, the band’s creative director. “When we found out about how wolves were and are hunted and treated today, we felt like we had to use our internal momentum in this project we started to be a part of a social and environmental movement.”
Profits from the album have gone toward the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, and live events have doubled as signature collection opportunities for the ballot measure.
“We have gotten some messages of opposition,” she says, “but mostly find that people are in support and on the side of science and kindness towards animals and the greater ecosystem.”