Colorado starts preparing for return of wolves

Wildlife agency expects wolves to soon repopulate Colorado

by Allen Best

In January, the Colorado Wildlife Commission rejected a proposal to deliberately reestablish wolves in Colorado. That decision was met with a sigh of relief by many ranchers, who fear wolf predation to livestock.

“Every dog has its day, and hopefully ours will last just a little longer,” said one rancher from Carbondale.

State parks wolf image

Photo/Colorado Parks and Wildlife

But this week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued a press release that said its time to prepare for the eventual recolonizing of Colorado by wolves.

In flying over the state, each year to observe big-game herds, the agency said, wildlife biologists have never seen wolf packs, dens or other evidence of wolves at population levels. They expect that to change.

“Wildlife managers believe that is likely to change in the near future and are preparing for the eventual establishment of wolf populations in the state,” the press release went on to say.

Hunters were reminded not to shoot wolves, as they are protected under the Endangered Species Act. There’s a long list of possible punishments for those who willingly violate the law.

Wolf restoration in Colorado is not an issue of habitat. Studies since the 1990s have found good habitat and prey for wolves, especially in the Flat Tops area of northwest Colorado.

Acceptance by humans is another matter. In 2004, a panel of wildlife biologists was assembled for a program at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Included were state and federal biologists, among them Ed Bangs, who then headed the Yellowstone reintroduction. The question was put to them: did they see wolves being restored to Colorado.

All four said no, they did not—because people would not accept wolves.

While Colorado in January was clear about not reintroducing wolves, many people—including ranchers—do think that wolves belong here.

“I can’t wait for the wolves to come back,” Jay Fetcher told Steamboat Today in May. “Too many elk,” he explained. “That’s the short answer … I just think that the elk need harassed where we are, and the problem is, when hunting season comes, the elk are gone. They know when that opening season is, and they know to go to private lands. In June, they’re all in my hay meadow.”

Fetcher isn’t alone in this view. In 1997, the late Mel Coleman spoke at a book conference in Denver. Coleman, a third-generation rancher in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, who has since died, related that he thought there were too many elk for the range. He said he’d welcome wolves.

But these seem to be the exceptions. The more common view was expressed by Steamboat-area rancher Marsha Daughenbaugh. “They’re predators, and they can do a lot of damage,” she told Steamboat Today for the story in May.

Others are willing to accept wolves that recolonize Colorado on their own. Some think that will occur most rapidly in Colorado’s southern portion as a result of the deliberate effort to restore Mexican wolves into Arizona and New Mexico.

The gray wolf, however, has already been straying into Colorado. The U.S. government transplanted three packs from Canada into Wyoming and Idaho in 1995 and 1996. Yellowstone National Park as of December had 99 wolves living in 10 different packs. That is a stable population, says Douglas W. Smith, who heads the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project.

Soon after they got comfortable in Yellowstone, though, some began drifting southward to Colorado. The first known migrant arrived in 2004. The evidence was irrefutable. His body, smacked dead on I-70 about 30 miles west of Denver.

In 2007, two state wildlife officers videotaped an animal with what they described as strong wolf-like characteristics near the Colorado-Wyoming border. In 2009, a collared-gray wolf was found death north of Rifle. And then in April 2015, what appeared to be another wolf was videotaped north of Walden.

Then came the report in April this year of a wolf, mistaken for a coyote, shot by a hunter north fo Kremmling, in northwest Colorado.

Earlier this year, the big questioned seemed to be whether wolves would recolonize without a nudge from wildlife mangers. Smith of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, told the Steamboat newspaper that he did  not expect that a population will be re-established without deliberate efforts, as was necessary for Yellowstone. Packs need the resiliency of larger numbers, he explained, and there also need to be enough to have genetic diversity. In the case of Yellowstone, that turned out to be 41 wolves.

In other words, having an Adam and Eve pairing of wolves in Colorado isn’t enough to produce Cain and Abel. They need company—from the start.

Tom and Roz Turnbull  prefer no helping hands for wolves. They have been ranching near Carbondale since the early 1960s, and she grew up there. While they understand that wolves could benefit the ecosystem by reducing elk herds, they’re not sure the value surpasses the harm to ranchers and outfitters.

“We will have conflict and unknown results from this controversy, but public opinion and desire may make wolf reintroduction a reality,” they said in a January e-mail to Mountain Town News. “What would be important from the ranching viewpoint would be a way to control wolf numbers and problem wolves without the harsh punishments often attached to the federal reintroduction legislation.”

In Steamboat, Fetcher—whose father, John Fetcher, was a co-founder of the Steamboat ski area—also is foreseeing ranching with wolves.

“When they come—not if, but when—we need two things,” he told Steamboat Today. “We need to be able to scare the hell out of them—shoot over their heads and put the fear of man in them. The other thing is a very quick compensation when we have loss with a fairly easy proof of that loss.”



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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