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Guest Column: Natural recolonization of wolves in Colorado is a red herring

Aspen Daily News Online, Mike Phillips – July 22, 2016

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I have been actively involved with wolf recovery and research since 1980. By leading the effort to restore red wolves to the southeastern U.S. and gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, conducting wolf research in Minnesota, Michigan and Alaska, and helping to recover the Mexican wolf in the southwestern United States, I have come to understand the guts of wolf conservation.

From my experience I know the importance of congratulating Colorado Parks and Wildlife for recently making it clear that it is patently unacceptable for anyone to shoot the rare gray wolf that wanders into the state thinking it is a wild dog or a coyote. A central tenet of our country’s recreational hunting ethic is that you must be absolutely certain of the identity of an animal before you shoot it. Anything less is poaching, and poaching is illegal, unethical and immoral.

But, I am equally certain of the importance of pointing out the fallacy of Parks and Wildlife’s recent claim in a story in this newspaper that the wolf’s natural recolonization of Colorado is likely. The best available science, based on decades of reliable research, makes clear that it is reintroductions that actually best guarantee the wolf’s return to Colorado. It is simply too far and there are too many mortality hazards along the way for a sufficient number of wolves from the northern Rockies to wander to Colorado, find one another, and survive long enough to give rise to a viable population. And the rare wolf on a great walkabout that includes Colorado does not constitute a viable population.

The limits of natural recolonization are apparent elsewhere. A viable population of wolves does not exist in western Minnesota and the Dakotas despite over 2,000 wolves in the northeastern quarter of Minnesota. It is quite likely that without reintroductions a viable population of wolves would not exist in Yellowstone Park and surrounding national forests despite about 1,000 wolves nearby in Idaho and Montana.

Notwithstanding the wolf’s limited colonization abilities, it is important to note that any naturally occurring wolves in Colorado are fully protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, significantly restricting the state’s management options. In contrast, reintroduced wolves could be liberally managed, thus ensuring satisfaction of the needs and concerns of Coloradans.

Claiming that it is likely that wolves will naturally recolonize Colorado is a red herring and detracts from a central fact: Carefully planned and implemented reintroductions are the most certain way of restoring the gray wolf to the snow-capped peaks, rimrock canyons and primeval forests of the Rocky Mountains of western Colorado, and in a manner that fits the needs and concerns of Coloradans.

It is important to note the success of such work in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding national forests. While the area is certainly suitable for wolves, western Colorado is even more so, with millions of acres of public land supporting hundreds of thousands of elk and deer, the wolf’s preferred prey. What was done safely, cost-effectively, and certainly in the park and surrounding forests can more easily be done in the Rocky Mountains of western Colorado. Given that the wolf was purposefully, but needlessly, exterminated from the area during the first half of the 1900s, supporting such reintroductions is the most responsible, honorable and practical way of restoring Colorado’s natural balance.

In contrast, counting on wolves to naturally recolonize Colorado is nothing more that an exercise in futility and one that has scant chance of restoring the wolf’s howl, the great voice of the Colorado wilderness.
Mike Phillips is the executive director of the Montana-based Turner Endangered Species Fund.

This Guest Column was published to Aspen Daily News Online.

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Letters Needed!

Please write a letter to the editor in support of bringing wolves back to Colorado.

The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by decision-makers. Tips and talking points for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience. Your letter will be most effective if you focus on a few of the talking points below rather than trying to include them all.

Letter to the Editor Talking Points

  • For over 10,000 years, grey wolves lived throughout Utah and Colorado and played an important role in shaping the landscape and maintaining balance in nature.  Under state management, most subspecies of wolves were hunted and trapped to extinction.  The highly endangered Mexican grey wolf is the most appropriate surviving subspecies for recovery in Utah and Colorado, and they cannot recover without help from all four states.
  • Research out of UCLA demonstrates that Mexican gray wolves historically ranged into southern Colorado and southern Utah.
  • Wolves are needed, be they Mexican gray wolves or northern wolves, to help repair western wildlands.  Taking a lesson from Yellowstone and the important role of top predators in ecosystems, many of us would welcome lobos throughout the Southwest.
  • We can’t count on natural dispersal to create a viable wolf population in Colorado.  There are too few wolves dispersing and too many mortality hazards exist to create a viable population.  The odds of individuals crossing state lines and safely finding each other and successfully mating are low.  Reintroductions are needed to ensure the return of the wolf to Colorado.
  • Coloradans value healthy landscapes and healthy wildlife populations, and that includes the important but now-absent role of wolves in the environment.  Colorado has some of the best remaining suitable habitat for wolves in the Lower-48.
  • 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.
  • States have failed to manage wildlife as a public trust for current and future citizens.  State wildlife policies, which kill off predators to supposedly support game populations, are rooted in the 1800s. Fortunately, our national policy is to restore and preserve all forms of wildlife, including predators.  Until the states get serious about balancing conservation vs. consumption, they should recuse themselves from decisions about endangered species.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Make sure you:

  • Thank the paper for publishing the article.
  • 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 from the article, 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.
  • Keep your letter brief, between 150-350 words.
  • Include something about who you are and why you care: E.g. “I am a mother, outdoors person, teacher, business owner, scientific, religious, etc.”
  • Provide your name, address, phone number and address.  The paper won’t publish these, but they want to know you are who you say you are.