Wolves may already be back in Flat Tops
A recent move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to change the status of wolves in the western U.S. leaves the door open for a reintroduction effort in Colorado. But federal biologists say they have no plans for a recovery effort anywhere in the Southern Rockies the impetus for that would come from the state level.But a state reintroduction program doesn’t seem likely, especially because state lawmakers around the region have introduced 23 various anti-wolf measures in the past few months, according to High Country News.Still, there’s always the possibility that lawsuits or a ballot initiative could force the bureaucracies to act. And backing that plan is some evidence that wolves are already here, with reported but unconfirmed sightings at Rabbit Ears Pass, Gore Pass and even around the Flat Tops Wilderness Area."It’s something we should look optimistically toward and try to make it happen as part of an effort to restore ecoystems with top predators in place" says Kim Langmaid, director of Vail’s Gore Range Natural Science School. "I think there are a lot of issues that would have to be addressed, but it can be part of a long-term vision that could become reality with a lot of grassroots support." Langmaid said any planning for wolf restoration should include participation by all stakeholders especially ranchers who stand to be affected.The USFWS wants to down-list wolves in the Yellowstone area (including parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming), classifying them as "threatened" rather than "endangered." Federal biologists count 663 wolves in 43 packs in the tri-state area.At the same time, the federal agency wants to redraw the lines it uses to manage wolf populations. The lower 48 states would be divided into three distinct population segments. Wolves in each segment will either maintain their former classification as “endangered” or would be immediately reclassified as "threatened." For the purpose of managing wolves, federal biologists have split Colorado right along I-70. North of the line, any wolves would be managed as part of the same population that exists in the Northern Rockies. The area to the south is included in the Southwest Distinct Population Segment, which includes New Mexico and Arizona.”They’ve moved the goalposts a little bit," said Rob Edward, carnivore restoration director for Sinapu, a Colorado-based nonprofit that advocates for the return of animals like lynx and wolves to their native ecosystems. Edwards says the Endangered Species Act mandates that listed animals be restored across "all or significant portions" of their former range. But the federal government wants to do the minimum possible toward overall recovery and get out of the wolf restoration business altogether, he says.Lines on a mapFederal biologists say the healthy population of wolves around Yellowstone means the species is no longer endangered. That means the agency is obligated to begin the process of de-listing the animals.Wolves were once ubiquitous from the Arctic to Mexico. The Northern Rockies recovery effort, focused in the Yellowstone area, has brought the animals back to less than 2 percent of its former range, according to Edward. He says his group would prefer to work cooperatively with the USFWS and the states toward broader recovery. But conservation groups have already filed a formal notice of intent to sue the agency over its latest moves.”Ultimately, the plan is just so many lines on a map unless the government acknowledges what the world’s top wolf biologists have been saying for many moons now. The Southern Rockies is the mother lode for wolves," Edward says. Studies show that the Western Slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains could support about 1,000 wolves. That’s about the same number of wolves federal officials ultimately expect in the Yellowstone region. Large blocks of potential wolf habitat include various wilderness areas in the state, including the Flat Tops.According to rancher and former Eagle County Commissioner George "Bud" Gates, who runs a few hundred head of cattle on his spread near Burns, some of the wolves from Wyoming may have already made their way into the area.Gates says categorically he’s opposed bringing wolves back, but says he’s had reports from ranchers in the northern part of the state that they’ve already seen the predators near Rabbit Ears Pass and even Gore Pass. And while the Colorado Division of Wildlife says it has no evidence that wolves are here, Gates says that hunters have even spotted them in the Flat Tops."They might already be here, but the people who want them aren’t the ones who feed them and have the expense of managing them," Gates says, explaining that for some ranchers in Colorado, the cost of dealing with wolves could drive them out of business.Ready or not, here they comeTom Compton is another rancher who kept a close watch on wolf and lynx issues as former president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association."There is some question about whether the proposed listing would apply to any wolves that happen to wander into the state, either from the north or the south," Compton says. He adds that he’s heard the Colorado Division of Wildlife is internally discussing what a management plan for the state would look like.While the topic has seemingly been off the radar screen for a while, Compton says it needs to be addressed again, given that wolves may someday appear in Colorado without any help from humans at all and that someday may be sooner rather than later. In addition to the possibility that wolves could wander down from the north, they could easily make their way into the state from Ted Turner’s ranch in northeastern New Mexico, according to Compton."We should be having a discussion about what to do if there are wolves in Colorado," he says. The state’s ranchers oppose reintroduction, but Compton says they want to be at the table if any plans are discussed.Wolves might not put a big ranching operation out of business, Compton says. "But it will be economically significant to the one, two or three guys who lose cattle," he adds.Compton says he doesn’t buy the argument that wolves are needed to balance the ecosystem. "We can manage that balance without adding wolves. The existing suite of predators is sufficient," he says.Bringing in wolves will inevitably lead to conflicts with humans in a state where the population in rural areas is booming, according to Compton. "Wolves may stay up in the remote high country in summer, but they’ll come to where the people and the cattle are in the winter," he says. "Human-wolf conflicts are not something that we need to be adding to all the management issues we already face," he says.Compton says he understands the argument that wolves are important for spiritual and aesthetic reasons, but says people who want to experience that aspect of nature can travel to Yellowstone. "We don’t need to have that experience everywhere in the U.S.," he concludes.Ecosystem restoration?New research in Montana and other places suggests that returning wolves to their former range can help restore ecosystems in a "reverse-domino" effect. For example, some of the qualities humans cherish in elk their strength and majesty exist precisely because they evolved together with wolves over thousands of generations, learning how to defend themselves and escape from the predators. Bringing back wolves could help ensure that those traits remain.In parts of Montana where wildlife biologists have closely been watching wolves, they’ve seen a remarkable change in numbers and composition of mid-size predators in just a short time. In one area, wolves cut the number of coyotes in half in just 18 months. That led to a resurgence by other mid-size predators, including raptors, adding to the overall biodiversity, or species richness, of the area.In the absence of wolves, native ungulates lose the vigilance they developed in co-evolution with wolves, said Sinapu’s Rob Edwards. As a result, herds of elk stay in place longer, browsing aspen and willow stands right down to the ground. Those effects have been documented by the Quaking Aspen Project in Montana, and also by research in Rocky Mountain National Park.Since wolves have been returned to parts of Montana, researchers have noted a remarkable resurgence of aspen and willow stands in areas where wolf packs are hunting elk. That, in turn, has a cascading effect on a much larger slice of the ecosystems. More aspens and willows create more habitat for migratory songbirds, for example. An abundance of such riparian vegetation also provides food and shelter for beavers, whose ponds become habitat for trout and other aquatic life.A 2002 vegetation study in Rocky Mountain National Park reached similar conclusions, and researchers say at least some of those results could be extrapolated to broader parts of Colorado, especially across the West Slope, where huge elk herds roam and aspen stands are in decline."We ripped the heart of Wild America in just 70 years," Edward said, referring to the focused effort to eliminate wolves. "We pulled out the glue that held the system together," he added, making a passionate pitch for predator restoration. "The Southern Rockies represents a tremendous opportunity to bring these animals back and to restore some balance to nature."For more information on the National Wolf Reclassification Proposal, visit: http://www.midwest.fws.gov/wolf/fnl-rule/index.html or http://www.sinapu.org.