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Op- Ed: Wolves belong back home in Colorado

The Denver Post – February 27, 2016 – Letter Needed

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By Andrew Gulliford
Writers on the Range

In January, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission voted not to allow the reintroduction of wolves back into the state.

That's too bad, because wolves are coming. They may already be here. You don't think so? Then why is there a wolf-sighting form on the wildlife commission's website, and why do so many Coloradans claim to have seen Canis lupus in the high country?

Theories on how top-tier predators are crucial in ordering and stabilizing landscapes have now been proven. To understand the potential for wolves in Colorado, we can study lessons learned from two decades of wolf recovery in Yellowstone National Park.

I teach my college students that wolves brought butterflies back to Yellowstone. I explain that wolves cut the coyote population in half. With fewer coyotes there are more small rodents and mammals aerating the soil and providing better grasses and flowers. But the largest and most dramatic effect has been culling the Yellowstone elk herd.

By 1995, the ungulates had done severe damage to the park. Wolves changed that. As wolf packs began to hunt elk, the wapiti were slowed and caught in downed timber along rivers and streams. So elk learned safety meant higher sagebrush benches where they could see and smell better. With fewer elk, plants recovered. Aspen thrived. And in this new, thicker forest of riverine vegetation, beaver colonies established small pools, attracting other animals, insects and, yes, butterflies. The human dynamic changed, too. Thousands of wolf watchers at Yellowstone National Park add $35 million annually to the area's economy.

So who's afraid of the big, bad wolf? Hunters who see fewer elk, ranchers worried about their cattle, and sheep men forced to adopt new herding techniques. I'm a big-game hunter. Why would I promote more competition for the cow elk I like to shoot? Because I believe in intact ecosystems. I believe hard science trumps superstition and false facts.

It's been more than a decade since the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission convened its Wolf Working Group. It's time for a new working group to convene and for wolf-education sessions to start as well. The latter were a goal in the group's original report but they have never taken place.

Would wolves change Colorado ecosystems? Yes, but first, they have to get here, and that's anything but easy. Wolves would have to cross the Red Desert of Wyoming and Rio Blanco and Moffat counties where many ranchers carry rifles in their pickups. A biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said wolves are coming, but "there's all those guns between us and the Wyoming wolf packs."

That's why official reintroduction is important. In the Mount Zirkel, Maroon Bells, Raggeds, or South San Juan wildernesses, we only need a breeding pair. Just two wolves. A young male and female with amorous intent.

In June 2004, a wolf died along Interstate 70 after being hit by a car. Five years later, in 2009, a GPS-collared wolf traveled 3,000 miles before dying from a banned poison in Rio Blanco County. In April 2015, a coyote hunter accidentally killed a gray wolf near Kremmling, 100 miles west of Denver.

Wolves are coming, slowly. Colorado Parks and Wildlife even has a 10-year-old plan, "Findings and Recommendations for Managing Wolves that Migrate into Colorado." Strategies involve adaptive management and damage payments for livestock killed. What's more, "Migrating wolves should be allowed to live with no boundaries where they find habitat," and "Wolf distribution in Colorado will ultimately be defined by the interplay between ecological needs and social tolerance." Once here, state wildlife staff "will implement programs to make sure that wolves are included as a part of wildlife heritage."

If wolves are returning, why not also reintroduce them and boost genetic diversity? Yet in 1982, 1989, and again last month, the state's Wildlife Commission voted to oppose "the intentional release of any wolves into Colorado." That decision is regrettable.

If wolves arrive on their own, we'll have to live with where they appear. If wolves are introduced, there can be more flexibility on where they live and more planned ecological impacts. Wolf reintroduction first requires a positive vote from the Colorado State Wildlife Commission. A second affirmative vote must come from the Colorado State Legislature. When I tell my college students that wolves are coming home to Colorado, I always add that I hope I'll be around to see them take hold. We need them back.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

This Op-Ed was published in The Denver Post.

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Letter to the Editor Talking Points
  • The commission’s anti-wolf stance is also an anti-citizen stance.  Coloradoans overwhelmingly support wolf reintroductions.
  • Coloradans value healthy landscapes and healthy wildlife populations, and that includes the important but now-absent role of wolves in the environment.
  • Recent polling shows that 70% of Coloradans support the state restoring wolves in Colorado wilderness areas.
  • The author doesn’t mention Mexican gray wolves, but scientists have determined both that the lobo used to range into southern Colorado, and that our state is absolutely necessary for the recovery of these rare wolves.
  • Mexican gray wolves need Colorado, and Colorado needs wolves.
  • Our Parks and Wildlife Commission is a major impediment to wolf recovery in Colorado, which has some of the best remaining suitable habitat for wolves in the Lower-48.
  • The Parks and Wildlife Commission needs to represent all of us who respect Colorado’s wild lands and wildlife, not just hunters and oil and gas interests.
  • Ranchers throughout the West are learning how to live with wolves. Non-lethal tools -- guard dogs, strobe lights, electric fencing – can be more effective and sustainable than lethal tools – aerial gunning, hunting and trapping – in preventing wolf and livestock conflicts.
  • There are plenty of programs – federal, state and private, to help ranchers reduce conflicts with wolves and other predators.
  • It’s good to hear from a hunter who values intact ecosystems and the predators as well as the prey.
  • Wolf restoration is far more likely to boost the economy and enhance the ecological diversity of Colorado rather than upend it.
  • Wolves are important predators that contribute to the health of the ecosystems they inhabit. Predators like wolves tend to hunt and cull old, sick and injured deer, elk and other grazers. This keeps these prey populations healthy and enhances the health and diversity of the plants other wildlife need to thrive.

Letter Writing Tips
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  • Thank the paper for publishing this article and make sure to reference it in your letter.
  • Submit your letter as soon as possible. The chance of your letter being published declines after a day or two since the article was published.
  • Do not repeat any negative messages, such as “so and so said that wolves kill too many cows, but…”  Remember that those reading your letter will not be looking at the article it responds to, so this is an opportunity to get out positive messages about wolf recovery rather than to argue with the original article.
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