Valuable predator or hungry pest?
ASPEN – The Western Slope, which has some 250,000 elk, could sustain more than 1,000 wolves, conservationist Rob Edward says.And that, said longtime Carbondale rancher Bill Fales, “scares the hell out of me.” Because of the successful Yellowstone National Park reintroduction program, wolves are already coming back to Colorado. A wolf from the national park was killed on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs in June 2004.Colorado is said to have four prime spots for wolf reintroduction, including one that stretches from Grand Mesa near Grand Junction to the West Elks near Crested Butte. And that is just over a couple of mountain passes from the Crystal River Valley and the Mount Sopris Hereford Ranch, which Fales and his wife help run.
Considering elk spend a majority of the winter on private land on the Western Slope, Fales wonders whether private land owners will be protected from wolves because , he said, it is not a matter of if, but when they arrive. Bob Perry, Fales’ 88-year-old father-in-law, has owned and run the Hereford Ranch for 65 years and said western Colorado would be better off without wolves. He remembers wolves doing “so much damage” when his father ranched., he said.”They were really considered a pest,” Perry said. “I have no problem with them if they’re out there where there’s no people, but this idea that every state’s got to have some wolves back, I think is silly.”
Wildfire wolvesEdward said such concerns “may not be grounded entirely in reality.” Where wolves have been reintroduced, they kill less than one in 10,000 livestock animals annually, he said.”More are killed by lightning,” said Edward, who is director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu, a nonprofit that works on restoring carnivores to their native lands. “We need wolves physically reintroduced,” he said. “Reintroduction is the way we’re going to get to recovery.”
Wolves’ impact on Yellowstone has been remarkable since their reintroduction in 1995, Edward said. In one valley where 60 wolves were freed, the coyote population dropped by half, he said. They are also changing the behavior of bison and elk, because far of wolves keeps the herds on the move, which allows grasses and trees to grow back, Edward said. Fledgling trees draw back migrating birds, provide wood for beavers and shade streams, which keeps the water cooler and fish healthier, Edward said. “They have habitat they didn’t have from 1900 on,” Edward said. Wolves “are as important to the landscape as wildfire.”
Wolves also could potentially eliminate chronic wasting disease because of their tendency to pick off the sick and weak in elk herds, he said. But that’s a theory Fales hasn’t bought into. He said the predator-prey relationship would actually concentrate herds and make chronic wasting disease worse.Counting the killsThe belief that livestock and wolves cannot coexist led to a concentrated effort in the western United States to exterminate wolves at the turn of the 20th century, Edward said.
Scratching out a life in the West in the early 1900s was difficult enough without wolves, and he said the campaign to eradicate the animals to protect livestock is easily understood. But Edward noted that wolves had little choice but to go after cows, chickens and sheep because man had killed almost all the bison and a lot of the elk.The anti-wolf campaign lasted for 70 years and was all too successful. The state’s last wild wolf was killed in 1945 in the San Juan Mountains.If wolves do return to Colorado, Edward said, there are plans to reimburse ranchers for any livestock lost to the predators. But Fales said animals can be killed and their carcasses eaten before ranchers can document the loss.”Economics is a big part of it,” he said. “We raise these animals to feed people, not wolves.”
The wolves, if anything, are resilient, as Perry acknowledged. Growing up as a kid, he remembered being fascinated by a book called “The Last of the Pack.””It listed about eight or nine of the [last] renegade wolves that lived in western Colorado and how hard they were to capture,” Perry said. “They were clever, I’m telling you.”Vail, Colorado