Writers on the Range: We need wolves
Colorado voters will soon have a historic opportunity to overcome a monumental injustice. If voters choose to say “yes” to a citizens’ initiative on Nov. 3, wolves will again mingle on a continental scale, from the Arctic to Mexico. Harnessing direct democracy to instigate endangered species restoration is unprecedented, but it will revive the dynamic and healthy balance of wolves with their prey — to the benefit of future generations.
Winning this vote won’t be easy. The prejudice that drove America’s extirpation of wolves during the last century remains alive today. To counter the myths perpetuated by the oppressors of wolves, we must turn to science.
To help us separate fact from fiction, the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence compiled data and scientific papers on wolves from around the world, showing that ranching and big-game hunting face minimal risk from wolves. Let’s explore some of the science and data underpinning their work.
First, no wolf advocate worth their salt would tell you that wolves don’t occasionally take livestock. As the abstract from a 2009 study in Ecological Economics shows, wolf depredation on cattle and sheep in the Northwest accounts for less than 1% of the annual gross income from livestock operations. As the research team makes clear, though wolf depredation is a small economic cost to the industry, it may be a significant cost to affected producers. With that in mind, Colorado’s ballot proposal mandates that ranchers will be paid fair market value for their losses. That is reasonable recompense.
Many Colorado ranchers are already compensated, annually and in advance, for potential depredation by wild carnivores. A quick glance at a map of land ownership in Western Colorado makes clear that the majority of the region is managed by the Federal agencies. On these public allotments, ranchers graze cows and sheep at a considerable discount compared with private land. This discount acknowledges the possibility of losses to wild carnivores. No question, the occasional depredation can sting livestock operations, but Colorado’s ranchers are well placed to learn to co-exist with a rekindled wolf population.
As with livestock, wolves are unlikely to deplete elk numbers. Data from state game management agencies show that elk and deer are currently at or above management objectives in Wyoming and Montana. Further, there are more deer in those states now than when wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s. Moreover, a new report published in the Journal of Animal Ecology indicates that wolves help keep big game herds and their habitat more resilient and robust, likely helping elk herds tolerate a more unstable climate.
Despite the upsides and minimal downsides, some folks claim that wolf reintroduction is too costly and might deplete the Colorado Parks and Wildlife department’s limited budget. In reality, Colorado’s wolf restoration program is unlikely to significantly impact the state’s budget or hunting license-derived funding. According to Dan Ashe, former director of the USFWS, the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Grant program could cover approximately 75% of the reintroduction expense, because wolves are an endangered species (Dan Ashe, personal communication). Grants from Great Outdoors Colorado, funded by lottery proceeds, could further offset costs, according to Gary Skiba, a former Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist (Gary Skiba, personal communication).
Finally, although opponents argue that the appearance of one pack of six wolves in far northwestern Colorado means reintroduction is not needed, there is no certainty that such a small number would result in a sustainable population. It took the reintroduction of 31 wolves for Yellowstone to jumpstart recovery there, according to the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
Colorado’s upcoming vote on wolf restoration is much more than a struggle between an outmoded way of thinking about nature and a more enlightened one. Voting to restore wolves is an audacious act of hope.
We can’t put a quick end to coronavirus. We can’t snap our fingers and resolve climate change. But we can efficiently and affordably undo our ancestors’ shortsighted decision to erase wolves from America’s wild places.
Of course, Colorado’s decision will affect the future of America’s shared public lands. How resilient will those wild places be to climate change? Over millennia, wolves helped shape these wild places, and that is why Colorado needs wolves roaming her wide open spaces once again.
Rob Edward is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to lively debate about the West. He is the president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund and has been an advocate for wolf restoration in Colorado for over 25 years.
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