Writers on the Range: Wolves and lots of people don’t mix
Writers on the Range
I am a third-generation Colorado rancher, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s a terrible idea to vote Nov. 3 to bring back wolves to western Colorado.
It threatens ranchers like me as well as people’s quality of life in this half of the state. The small iconic ranches of western Colorado are endangered themselves and Colorado risks losing them with the reintroduction of wolves.
Wolves once lived all over Colorado, not to mention New York City, and everywhere in between. But the 1800s are long gone. Colorado is riddled with highways and trails, and our private and public lands intermingle like spaghetti. Wolf proponents see western Colorado as an empty wilderness, not acknowledging the combustion engine, Interstate-70, or that our population is 10 times greater than Wyoming’s.
My family has been ranching south of Carbondale in western Colorado for 96 years. I grew up on the Mount Sopris Hereford Ranch in the 1950s. The ranch has evolved from a potato farm to a registered cattle operation raising breeding stock, to a naturally raised herd marketed to Whole Foods.
Wolves and the rapid urbanization and exploding population of Colorado could test all of us to our limits. Ranchers already deal with a more crowded world on a daily basis, moving cattle on public roads and sharing trails with bikers and hikers. Nothing will hold back the tide of people moving to the Western Slope or the recreationalists escaping the Front Range.
Adding wolves to this crowded landscape could harm elk and deer populations. Mule deer have been declining since the 1970s. There have been serious declines in the elk cow/calf ratio in Southwestern Colorado, concerning Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Wolves prey on elk. As such, wolf reintroduction should not take place until studies, specific to western Colorado, can assess if deer and elk can survive the combined threats of wolves and humans, prior to a vote on reintroduction.
We have learned to coexist with bears, mountain lions, and coyotes, but even with coexistence strategies, wolves will be more challenging. Over time, wolves may colonize the entire state affecting many ranchers. Wolves could push us to the breaking point. As ranchers sell out, songbirds, raptors, and small mammals lose their homes. There is less local agriculture and important wildlife corridors are lost, further stressing elk and deer.
Fortunately, our local community has supported the conservation of ranch lands because people see that these lands provide local food, food security, and wildlife habitat. Increasing development pressure in our valley led us to place a conservation easement on our ranch to ensure it remains undeveloped forever.
Development, though, seems inexorable. Houses have replaced winter elk habitat, and Colorado’s intense recreation industry may be affecting elks’ ability to thrive. Maroon Bells had about 320,000 visitors in 2018. There are another 23 trailheads providing access. Yet the National Park Service reports backpackers in Yellowstone see only 2.3 groups a day on the trail. This is unimaginable in Maroon Bells with an often endless stream of hikers. The surrounding BLM and national forests are also heavily used. It’s difficult to call this beautiful place wild.
Colorado is now facing a $3.3 billion shortfall and reintroduction of wolves will require tax dollars. In his 2017 article in the Spokane Spokesman Review, reporter Rich Landers reported that Washington State budgeted $2.9 million for management in 2017. Idaho budgeted $800,000 for 2016 and Montana $600,000. And that excludes funds budgeted for livestock depredation.
Compensation gets tricky when cattle graze large forest permits. Washington’s Wallowa County Chieftain reports only some kills are found and fewer are confirmed and paid for because most of the remains had been eaten by scavengers, making a positive determination impossible. Wolves, like all wildlife, require management to maintain an ecological balance. Tools include hunting seasons and lethal management for problem wolves.
Because Yellowstone is more than 80% Lodgepole pine, elk have limited areas to forage. Over-grazing was a problem prior to wolves. Western Colorado has millions of acres of aspen and scrub oak hillsides and overgrazing by elk is not an issue. Wolf proponents tout “restoring the balance,” but there is not a description of what this will look like.
The outcome of wolf reintroduction may be very different than the happy vision promoted by advocates of wolves. Wolves are intelligent; they hunt in packs, and seek to dominate the landscape. The problem is that people already inhabit that role, and there is no sign of Colorado’s 5.8 million people leaving.
Marj Perry is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She ranches in western Colorado.