RMWAF: Ag should invest in learning to ranch with predators, initiative will remain on ballot | TheFencePost.com

RMWAF: Ag should invest in learning to ranch with predators, initiative will remain on ballot

Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s most recent wolf sighting update prompted several stakeholder groups to urge proponents to withdraw Initiative 107, the ballot measure that would force the introduction of gray wolves into the state.

The update includes known and credible sightings of wolves including a lone male in North Park, a report in Grand County, confirmed sightings near the pack of six wolves in the northwest corner of the state, and a new report of an animal wearing a wildlife tracking collar in Larimer County that, if confirmed, would be the furthest east in the state in nearly a century.

Rob Edwards, board director of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, said proponents have no intention of dropping the ballot initiative. He said in any other year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has not released wolf updates though a document of frequently asked questions about wolves points to increased interest in wolves and reiterates that the CPW commission has no resolution or position on the initiative.

In reference to the wolf sighting in Larimer County, Edwards said every wildlife biologist he has spoken to has told him this is a hybrid. He also said the animal is not behaving like a wild wolf, which he said all adds up to “much ado about nothing.”

“Colorado does not have a self-sustaining wolf population and never will absent of introductions,” he said. “People in Colorado want wolves back and we’re going to the ballot to give them the opportunity to have their say on that.”

The measure is estimated to carry a price tag of about $6 million and, according to Coloradans Protecting Wildlife, following massive budget cuts, the state does not have the means to responsibly fund forced wolf introduction.

Shawn Martini, Colorado Farm Bureau’s vice president of advocacy said, “The continued reports of wolves in Colorado only underscore the need for the Sierra Club and other proponents to pull down their ballot initiative. Colorado already has wolves. It even has them east of the Continental Divide. Ballot box biology is not the Colorado way. The proponents shouldn’t try to force taxpayers to foot the bill for an expensive political outcome over something Mother Nature already has well in hand.”

Edwards said the cost of wolf introduction is a drop in the bucket given the $350,000 CPW spends annually on testing for Chronic Wasting Disease in deer and elk, something that could decrease with a functioning wolf population throughout western Colorado, keeping the elk and deer moving.

“The agriculture industry argues that this isn’t a good use of money yet money is spent every year out of the wildlife cash fund to pay for game damage from elk that come to the bottom land and eat the hay,” he said.

According to Colorado State University’s People and Predator Series, a partnership between The Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, in collaboration with the CSU Center for Collaborative Conservation and CSU Extension, the largest commercial cost is from wolves harassing and/or killing livestock. Savings of hay damaged by elk herds is not listed as either a consumptive or non-consumptive benefit of wolves by the series.

While the economic cost can be calculated based on market value of livestock, it has proven difficult to determine exact livestock losses. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed a total of 136 cattle (both adults and calves) and 114 sheep (adults and lambs) killed by wolves in 2014. In contrast, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported 2,835 cattle and 453 sheep killed by wolves in the same region and year. The USFWS data are underestimates because they don’t include livestock killed by wolves but are never found or reported, whereas the NASS numbers are likely overestimates because they are based on self-reported surveys of livestock producers and do not include verification of kills. Thus, these vastly different estimates of the number of livestock killed by wolves makes it difficult to calculate the precise cost of wolf depredation. What is known is that the proportion of livestock killed by wolves is low, and mortality caused by wolves is a small economic cost to the livestock industry as a whole. Despite this difficulty, CSU said wolf predation isn’t fairly spread across all producers, making some ranchers take particularly high losses and others low or no losses.

According to CSU, several studies show that costs could be many times higher when including unconfirmed deaths and indirect losses such as lower market weights, reduced conception rates due to stress, and producer mitigation costs to deter wolves or to seek compensation. For example, one study found that calves in herds that experienced predation were 22 pounds lighter and, when added across all calves in those herds, accounted for a greater loss than confirmed depredations.

Costs will fall disproportionately on livestock ranchers and potentially those reliant on the big game hunting industry. The distribution of who pays these costs, versus who gets the benefits, presents a significant social and political challenge. This challenge can be met, and potential social conflict reduced, if Colorado maintains a productive dialog with those most affected by wolf reintroduction, according to CSU.

Edwards said the vast majority of agriculture producers in counties with active wolves never have an encounter with wolves. He said rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the initiative, agriculture producers ought to partner with the aforementioned group at CSU to learn how to coexist with carnivores.

“The people who are fighting this on the agriculture side, which is really the only significant opposition, a lot of them have been operating out on the land in a wolf-free world here in Colorado for over 80 years,” he said. “I get that this initiative challenges their sense of security but we know from the data this isn’t the end of the world, it’s not the end of any rancher or ranch, we can figure this out together.”​ ❖

— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at rgabel@thefencepost.com or (970) 768-0024.