Unpacking the reports: Confirmed wolves, leaving it to the experts, and figuring it out
According to a Jan. 8, 2020, release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a scavenged elk carcass found in Moffat County, is consistent with wolves and wolf predation. A hunting party in northwest Colorado observed six large canids traveling together last October, capturing video of two of the wolves.
Last week, the elk carcass near Irish Canyon, near the sighting location, was investigated and determined to be consistent with wolf depredation based on tracks and lab results. CPW Northwest Manager JT Romantzke called the eyewitness report credible.
“The latest sightings add to other credible reports of wolf activity in Colorado over the past several years,” said Romatzke. “In addition to tracks, howls, photos and videos, the presence of one wolf was confirmed by DNA testing a few years ago, and in a recent case, we have photos and continue to track a wolf with a collar from Wyoming’s Snake River pack.
Romatzke said this most recent sighting is evidence of the presence of wolves in the state. These confirmed sightings join a July 2019 spotting of a collared wolf near Walden. Moffat County District 2 Commissioner Ray Beck told the Craig Daily Press that his county opposes forced reintroduction and was the first county to adopt a resolution in opposition.
Confirmation of wolves naturally entering the state comes the same week the Colorado Secretary of State announced the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund submitted the required signatures to put the question of wolf reintroduction before voters.
Rob Edward, president of the RMWAF, said he’s happy to hear a few wolves are wandering into the state’s northwest corner and while he said it’s good news, it doesn’t change the game in terms of their goals with the ballot initiative.
“The best way to ensure that we get a viable population of wolves here in our lifetime is to reintroduce them,” he said. “We’re not changing course in any particular way.”
Edward said the state should protect wolves that are already here and, at the same time, embrace the idea that a few wolves in the state means moving forward with reintroduction is appropriate. As for the effect of reintroduced wolves on the wolves confirmed in Irish Canyon, he said the two groups would potentially be family members, enjoying genetic diversity. Though he said the decision would ultimately be that of the CPW, he anticipates reintroduced wolves would come from those in the Northern Rockies.
The potential, he said, for reintroduced wolves to move into territory established by New Mexico’s wolf population is desirable as the two would establish a connection between the northern population of wolves and the Mexican wolf population. The “tight genetic bottleneck” of the Mexican wolves, he said, would benefit from the genetic diversity if it were to occur.
Albert Deeds, a past director of the Colorado Trapper’s Association with a degree in wildlife biology, was involved with the wolf reintroduction efforts in Wyoming. Deeds, who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo., said he’s not against wolves but said the most compelling reason to avoid forced reintroduction is the lack of management tools possessed by other states.
Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have wolf hunting seasons and Deeds said historically the first season is successful for hunters and subsequent seasons are less so. These three states have legal trapping and snaring seasons, however, and it is those seasons Deeds said that control the wolf population. Colorado outlawed trapping and snaring in the 1990s by Amendment 14 only making available a 30-day exemption for livestock depredation.
Deeds, a seasoned hunter and trapper, said wolves are quickly wise to hunters and adopt nocturnal habits to avoid them, making hunting a challenging job. A trapper who sets 100 traps, for example he said, is far more successful than a single hunter.
In Colorado, a trapper with a 30-day exemption may be unsuccessful given the wolf’s large territory, only frequenting certain areas periodically. Deeds said, without trapping as an option, those attempting to manage populations are left with their hands tied.
The benefit of a wolf, he said, is the management of large ungulate populations in the event of no other management tactics. The assumption that wolves will kill only the sick and the weak is untrue. Wolves, he said, are not a tool to control only sick ungulates nor are they a political tool to remove hunters and ranchers from the land.
“The weak are the calves, the babies,” he said. “Everything eats babies — black bears, coyotes, golden eagles — everything. Having some wolves here would be a great thing if they weren’t used as a political tool to remove agriculture and hunting from the land.”
Edward said he recognizes the challenge of depredation, especially from a rancher’s perspective, and accounted for it in the initiative language. He said depredation, while it hurts, is not the end of the world for either individual livestock producers or the industry, and said describing elk populations in the Northern Rockies as decimated is overzealous.
Determining at what population size the wolves will be considered repopulated, Edward said, will be left to the experts at CPW.
“The ballot initiative language very clearly directs Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department to figure it out,” Edward said. “In concert with the scientists and the public, figure it out. It’s not impossible. Wolves aren’t that difficult — they’re politically charged but they’re not that difficult.”
FIGURE IT OUT
Edward said “figuring it out” is exactly what ranchers and hunters in the Northern Rockies have done, learning to coexist with reintroduced wolves and deal with change. The agenda, he said, is to restore the balance and allow ranchers and hunters to be part of the landscape in perpetuity. This week in Wyoming, Rep. John Winter, R-Thermopolis, introduced a bill establishing a $90,000 fund payable directly to the state’s Department of Agriculture to compensate livestock producers for wolf depredation outside areas where the state manages wolf populations. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, Winter’s bill is the first state-level bill but federal conservation legislation introduced by Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., also includes key provisions for livestock losses. Last year, Wyoming paid producers $382,601 for depredation losses only in areas where the wolf population is managed by the state, namely the Jackson and Yellowstone regions.
“Ballot box biology is always a poor choice,” Deeds said. “We should be leaving wildlife management to the state wildlife biologists. They don’t want wolf reintroduction because they already know we don’t have the tools to be able to manage wolves.”
Steve Kaverman a longtime volunteer naturalist and interpretive guide from Canon City, Colo., said wolves belong in Colorado. During his 20 years of visiting and leading tours in Yellowstone National Park, he followed reintroduction closely and said the “dire predictions by ranchers and hunters were exaggerated and self-serving.” In an email he said, while Colorado is not Yellowstone National Park, it is home to the wolf and if properly managed, has ample wilderness territory to sustain a healthy wolf population.
Numerous counties in western Colorado have passed resolutions opposing forced reintroduction, a result Edward said of county commissions being influenced by landowners, in many instances who are ranchers.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, according to the agency’s 2019 Fact Sheet, is funded primarily by licenses, passes, fees and loans, contributing $125 million of the total $231.8 million budget. To a lesser degree, CPW is funded by federal and state grants and loans, lottery proceeds, Great Outdoor Colorado funds; sales, donations, and interest; general fund and severance tax; and registrations.
“CPW has a pretty limited budget, so here’s the question,” Deeds said. “What wildlife programs should we take the money away from to spend on wolves? If wolves are coming back naturally, why hasten the process and spend money that has to be taken away from other wildlife species?” ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.