Monthly Archives: March 2004

Wolf worries

Predators’ pending return has ranchers nervous
By Susan Cunningham, Pilot & Today Staff

Rancher Lucy Meyring reads from the Dec. 13, 1901, edition of the North Park News. It was more than a century ago, and North Park was buzzing about wolves. Ranchers had concerns. One article said the wolves had to kill one head of stock — a calf, colt or cow — every other night to survive.

The ensuing decades brought a war on wolves, in which famous trappers were called in, and ranchers banded together to kill the wolves before the wolves killed their livestock, Meyring said. By the 1930s, the wolves were gone.

Seventy years later, the wolves are coming back.

Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, and have since grown to number about 700, inhabiting Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. And with wolf sightings within 40 miles of Colorado, officials say wolves could enter the state any day.

Some argue that when the wolves cross the Wyoming-Colorado border, they will help restore the state’s natural ecosystem. Many others argue the wolves’ return means nothing more than lost livestock, lost business and another headache for already struggling ranchers.

“It’s just a matter of time (before) a pack re-establishes itself here in Northwest Colorado,” Meyring said. “There’s a genuine concern about what’s going to happen to our livestock when wolves start showing back up.”

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has held public meetings across the state to discuss the reappearance of wolves.

“What we’re really trying to get out of these meetings is: What things do we need to address in the management plan?” said Gary Skiba, DOW wildlife biologist heading up the wolf-management efforts. “We’re not asking them whether they want wolves or not.”

The division will set up a working group with livestock representatives, environmentalists, sportsmen, government officials and biologists to develop a Gray Wolf Management Plan by early fall, Skiba said

The plan will be useful when wolves in the Northern Rockies recover and are de-listed from protection under the Endangered Species Act, Skiba said.

While wolves are not considered “recovered,” state officials will have to follow federal guidelines for managing wolves north of Interstate 70.

In Southern Colorado, which falls within a different management area, wolves likely will stay on the endangered species list longer, so it’s less likely the state will have management control of the area in the next few years, Skiba said.

When wolves will re-enter the

state is impossible to predict, Skiba said.

Scientists disagree on the timeline, with some saying wolves could enter today, and others saying that it will take years.

But wolves can travel 60 miles in one day, and because they have been seen just outside of Baggs, Wyo., some Coloradans feel it’s a given that they will be crossing state lines soon.

Keeping wolves away

Steve Raftopolous, a sheep rancher with headquarters in Craig, said he thinks wolves coming back into the state would be “devastating, not just to agriculture but to Western Colorado.”

He has heard stories from friends in Wyoming of wolves killing livestock and of troubles getting compensation for those kills. “Wolves impact agriculture tremendously, but they’re going to impact (all of) Colorado, period,” Raftopolous said.

“They’re part of nature and the ecosystem, but you know, do we really have true ecosystems anywhere?”

Even if wolves stick to hunting elk and deer during the summer, they likely will hang out closer to ranches when winter comes, said Patsy Wilhelm, who has a few cattle and horses at her ranch near Elk River estates.

“I think it would be cool to listen to a wolf howl, but I’m not sure that in the wintertime, when he’s in my back yard, that I would think it’s great,” Wilhelm said. “It’s not that simple. It’s not just saying, ‘Okay, let’s turn some wolves loose and won’t that be beautiful?’ There are going to be some consequences.”

Guide, outfitter and sheep rancher Andy Peroulis worries that in addition to livestock, wolves will harm the elk and deer populations that hunting guides rely on for their businesses, he said.

“They should round up a bunch of them and take them right up to the city limits of Denver and turn them loose and see how they would appreciate that,” Peroulis said. “You know (wolves) are going to create a lot of hard feelings, and damn right it makes you feel bad, because this is your livelihood.”

Dean Rossi, a third generation South Routt rancher thinks the government should compensate ranchers for each animal taken, for its potential to add to a genetic line, and for the time it takes to identify livestock killed by a wolf.

That was the general consensus at the Division of Wildlife meeting in Craig 1 1/2 weeks ago, he said.

A different approach

Other ranchers are more open to the idea of wolves, including Jay Fetcher, who ranches and calves cattle in the Clark and Steamboat Lake area. An established pack of wolves likely would be years down the road, he said, but a few wolves could help control high numbers of elk and deer in the area now.

“Obviously, it would affect our livelihood if we had large predation going on, but the other side of it is the wolves tend to add a balance,” Fetcher said. “I’m open-minded about the wolves until they really damage our business.”

Dennis Slunaker, representative for the Colorado Bowhunters Association, has hunted in the area for more than 30 years. He thinks wolves would not be detrimental to hunting as they would kill sick or injured animals.

And, they would be exciting to see.

“I just love seeing wildlife that was here and is no longer here,” Slunaker said. “It’s something that gives me a thrill.

“They were a natural species in this area at one time, and I feel that we are encroaching on their terrain, so they deserve to be here. Even though we’re going to have to learn to deal with them, they deserve to be here.”

The likelihood of wolves recolonizing Colorado on their own is slim, said Rob Edward, carnivore restoration director of Sinapu, a Boulder-based group dedicated to the restoration and protection of native predators.

But if they do recolonize, there could be immediate benefits, he said. Recent studies show that wolves do not control the number of elk in an area but that they do make elk, deer and moose more vigilant, which means they move from place to place constantly.

That means aspen and willow tree shoots aren’t grazed to the ground, which means more trees, and in turn more beavers and wetlands and songbirds and other positive changes, Edward said.

Wolves will kill livestock, he said, but those kills happen only in small numbers, and ranchers can be paid back for those animals, he said.

Edward advocates reintroducing wolves to the area and letting them re-establish in areas, such as the Flat Tops Wilderness, that are considered good wolf habitat. The Western Slope alone, he said, could handle more than 1,000 wolves.

“We want to see wolves restored to fill their ecological role,” Edward said. “It’s a critical role that is not being filled by anything else, and we owe it to our grandchildren to see that dream realized, to restore the balance of nature.”

Yellowstone’s example

Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s. Since then, the park has received numerous complaints, said Doug Smith, leader for the Yellowstone wolf project.

Smith has fielded calls from ranchers upset about killed animals and lagging reimbursements. There have been calls from hunters complaining of fewer elk.

Smith argues wolves kill livestock infrequently and that research shows lower elk populations are more a factor of drought and hunting than wolves.

Wolves help ecosystems by increasing biodiversity and filling an important predator role, he said. Plus, they bring in nature-lovers who can’t wait to see a wolf in its natural habitat, he said.

“They are a cherished and loved animal for people to come view,” Smith said.

Smith said Coloradans should remember that the state is far from any crisis point, as wolves would take years to establish in large numbers in the state. Still, having a management plan in place before the wolves show up is ideal.

“People think that a few wolves coming back is going to be the end of life as we know it,” Smith said. “When wolves do reach greater numbers, they’re an animal we know a lot about, and (they) can be managed — successfully managed.

“It’s not the end of the world.”

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Division of Wildlife officials start work on Gray Wolf Management Plan in anticipation of Canis lupus' return

Russell Smyth, Montrose Daily Press

GRAND JUNCTION – Colorado residents may get a chance to see one of North America’s most romanticized, and demonized, species – wolves – lope through the Centennial State again. Residents also may get a chance to manage wolves following decades of protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have reintroduced wolves to Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona during the past decade, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife believes Canis lupus eventually could return to old hunting grounds in the Southern Rockies. In preparation for the possible return of wolves, the DOW will draft a Gray Wolf Management Plan.

Federal Fish and Wildlife Service officials still have priority over Western state wildlife agencies for wolf management, but states will take control over the large canids as populations recover, said Ed Bangs, western wolf recovery coordinator for the FWS. Colorado’s decision to discuss wolf management with state residents and prepare a plan before the species returns is a sound idea, Bangs said.

“Right now we have a viable population in Montana and Idaho and Wyoming, and we have no interest in (managing) wolves in other places,” Bangs said from his office in Helena, Mont. “The bottom line is I think the Division of Wildlife in Colorado is doing everybody a big favor in talking to everybody openly and honestly about all viewpoints. When wolves show up, there is just widespread panic – it’s just as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. _ The best thing to do is talk to people when they are still pretty calm and ask them, ‘Are wolves going to play a future in Colorado?'”

The DOW is giving Colorado residents an opportunity to answer that question during six public meetings held throughout the state. Beginning March 2 in Fort Collins and concluding March 25 in Denver, the meetings mark the initial stages of the division’s Gray Wolf Management Plan. Thursday night, about 70 people filled a conference room at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Grand Junction to tell the DOW just what they think about the idea of wolves in Colorado. Most of the people who commented were opposed to wolves.

“We have enough damn trouble with the bears, the mountain lions and the coyotes,” said Nick Theos, a Meeker area sheep rancher, former president of the Colorado Wool Growers Association and former state legislator. “The sportsmen do. The ranchers do.”

Sheep ranchers in Colorado already suffer 5 percent to 30 percent losses to coyotes, said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association.

“We feel strongly the Fish and Wildlife Service shouldn’t be able to walk away from the financial responsibility of wolves,” Kline said.

Ernie Etchart, a Montrose area sheep rancher, said he might be able to accept wolves back into Colorado if he could be compensated for any sheep he lost to wolves and if he could kill wolves that he catches preying on his livestock.

“Having another predator around – it’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Etchart said after Thursday night’s meeting.

Peter Treasure, a Grand Junction resident, Division of Wildlife volunteer and supporter of Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that compensates ranchers for livestock losses resulting from wolf depredation, said the return of wolves to Colorado would help restore a natural balance between predators and prey.

“If the wolf does come back to Colorado, it can only benefit Colorado,” Treasure said.

Dick Steele, a Delta area veterinarian and president of the Colorado Sportsmens Wildlife Fund, said that deer populations are already in trouble in Colorado and that wolves could upset well-established game management practices.

“If we allow wolf populations into Colorado, how will we manage wolves so they don’t affect hunting?” Steele asked.

In addition to concerns about wolves killing livestock and game animals, some people worry wolves will hurt people. There is no documented case of a wolf killing a human in North America, according to the Division of Wildlife.

The public should have a chance to learn more about wolves, said Grand Junction area resident Michelle Burris.

“If the wolves do come back into Colorado, and I hope they do, there needs to be a lot of public education. _ I’ve got a bumper sticker that says, ‘Little Red Riding Hood lied,'” Burris said.

DOW officials expect to develop a draft Gray Wolf Management Plan by the end of August and finalize the plan by the end of 2004.

The plan will address ways to manage wolves that migrate to Colorado on their own, said Gary Skiba, multispecies coordinator for the DOW’s Species Conservation Section. The plan is not designed to capture wolves and reintroduce them to Colorado.

“We’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you reintroduce wolves?’ but we’re not doing that,” Skiba told attendees at Thursday night’s wolf meeting.

Some wolf experts believe wolves will wander into Colorado before long, and other experts don’t think wolves will return at all, Skiba said.

“We think wolves may be coming to Colorado,” he said. “We don’t know when. There’s been a lot of speculation.”

Gray wolves historically ranged from the northern reaches of Alaska, Canada and Greenland to southern Mexico. Hunters, ranchers and government trappers extirpated the carnivores from Western states by the mid-1930s. Following a gradual change in public attitudes, wolves received protection through the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973. The canids established six packs in northwest Montana in the early 1980s, and in 1995 and 1996, the Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 66 wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Populations continued to increase, and by the end of 2003, the Northwest Montana Recovery Area held 92 wolves, the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Area held 301 wolves and the Central Idaho Recovery Area held 368 wolves, according to the FWS.

FWS officials set population recovery objectives for wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming at 30 or more breeding pairs distributed equitably among the three states for three successive years, and wolves reached that objective by the end of 2002, according to the FWS.

However, recovery goals also include adequate state management plans for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, Bangs said. Montana and Idaho have developed adequate plans, but Wyoming has not, he said. After the FWS approves Wyoming’s plan, the federal agency can propose steps to delist – remove – wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

“We’ve reached our recovery goals,” Bangs said. “We want to delist them. The only reason we don’t is because we don’t have a recovery plan for Wyoming.”

Wolf pros and cons

Fish and Wildlife Service officials tap into some vehement public opinions during wolf management discussions.

Back in 1994, when the FWS was deciding whether or not to include Colorado in the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan, the agency had Colorado State University study residents’ attitudes toward wolves. The study indicated 70.8 percent of Coloradans would support wolf reintroduction. Support from Eastern Slope residents was slightly higher, at 73.8 percent, than support from Western Slope residents, which was 65.1 percent.

Rob Edward, director of conservation restoration for Sinapu, a Boulder-based environmental group dedicated to restoring wolf populations in Colorado, falls in with the majority of Coloradans who supported wolf reintroduction. Edward said the DOW’s desire to create a Gray Wolf Management Plan could give Colorado an opportunity to reverse the historic extirpation of wolves.

“I look forward to the upcoming process,” Edward said from his office in Boulder. “I believe the state of Colorado has a tremendous opportunity ahead of them to right a wrong that our forebears wrought upon us. We owe it to our grandchildren to make that right.”

Sinapu hopes Colorado wildlife officials will move a step beyond just developing a plan to manage any wolves that might eventually migrate here.

“It’s encouraging that the state of Colorado is being proactive in developing a plan for wolves,” Edward said. “We believe the state should do what they have done so well with lynx and actually take steps to restore the species through reintroduction.”

Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, also is glad the DOW is developing the Gray Wolf Management Plan.

“We were one of the groups, along with the wool growers, that strongly requested the Division of Wildlife develop a management plan for wolves,” Fankhauser said from his office in Arvada. “We find wolves _ fairly close to Colorado, and Division of Wildlife personnel need to be able to react. When they get phone calls saying wolves are killing our livestock, they need to be able to know what to do.”

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, however, does not want to see wolves return to the state, Fankhauser said.

“We feel that Colorado most assuredly isn’t suitable for a wolf population,” he said.

The subject of wolf depredation on livestock can string a barbwire fence between ranchers and wildlife advocates. Confirmed livestock depredations from wolves in the Northwest Montana, Greater Yellowstone and Central Idaho recovery areas during 2003 included 64 cattle, 211 sheep and 10 goats, according to the FWS. In response to the depredations, 59 wolves were killed. The northern packs prey mainly on elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose and bison.

Colorado is home to about 2.5 million head of cattle, 370,000 sheep and zero known wild wolves.

A population of zero wolves suits Fankhauser, who said the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association would like to see any wolves that migrate into Colorado captured and returned to areas such as Yellowstone where the FWS originally reintroduced the wolves.

Legal methods used to address depredations on livestock for wolves in northern recovery areas have included ranchers killing wolves caught in the act of killing livestock, harassing wolves with rubber bullets, moving livestock to different pastures and increasing riders on grazing allotments, according to the FWS.

Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation group based in Washington, D.C., has paid more than $337,000 to 282 ranchers for livestock losses caused by wolves in northern packs since 1987, according to the organization’s Web site.

Sinapu supports Defenders of Wildlife’s compensation plan, Edward said.

“We think that’s a great first step and perhaps at some point the people of Colorado would also consider finding ways to fund (livestock losses) through some either tax or license fee setup to augment that (Defenders of Wildlife) fund,” Edward said. “We do believe it’s important for livestock owners to be justly compensated for losses.”

Defenders of Wildlife’s compensation does help ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, but losing livestock to wolves defeats the purpose of ranching, Fankhauser said.

“Certainly we believe there is a value on what is lost,” he said. “But to get to the point, we don’t raise livestock to get it killed to get a check on a per pound basis. It takes years and years of management and breeding programs to develop the genetic program we have. To have those animals killed in the blink of an eye and have a check for $500 or whatever paid does not get to the crux of management.”

Whether a Coloradan would love, or hate, the sound of a wolf howling in the wild, Canis lupus may well be on its way back to the Centennial State. More than likely, before the first wolf sets a paw in Colorado, the Division of Wildlife will be ready with its Gray Wolf Management Plan.

Gunnison Sage Grouse Headed for Extinction – Conservation Groups Seek Emergency Protection

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 17, 2004

Contacts:

* Mark Salvo, American Lands Alliance (503) 757-4221
* Jacob Smith, Center for Native Ecosystems (303) 546-0214
* Rob Edward, Sinapu (303) 447-8655
* Amy Atwood, Western Environmental Law Center (541) 485-2471 x 105

The Gunnison sage grouse is on the brink of extinction, conservation organizations charged in a lawsuit filed yesterday afternoon in federal court. The coalition filed litigation in Washington, D.C. district court asking the court to order the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to emergency list the Gunnison sage grouse as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Division of Wildlife, and related working groups have failed to recover the species, despite years of collaborative planning and processes,” said Mark Salvo, Grasslands and Deserts Advocate for American Lands Alliance. “Without emergency protection, we might lose this bird.”

“The Gunnison sage grouse is struggling to hang on,” said Jacob Smith, Executive Director of Center for Native Ecosystems. “And now the discovery of West Nile virus in the Gunnison Basin could ravage the largest remaining population.” Many bird species, including sage grouse, are susceptible to West Nile virus, a disease carried by mosquitoes that is spreading across the West. Livestock grazing, drought, motorized recreation, and poor land use planning also threaten the species’ continued existence.

“The Gunnison sage grouse is the proverbial canary in a coal mine,” said Sinapu’s Rob Edward, Carnivore Restoration Director. “In this case, the bird’s potential extinction foreshadows the withering health of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem in Colorado. We owe it to our grandchildren to save this bird by protecting its dwindling habitat.”

Gunnison sage grouse (Centrocercus minimus) (soon to be renamed simply as “Gunnison grouse” by the American Ornithologists’ Union) is a distinct species of sage grouse that occurs in small, isolated populations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. Conservationists petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the grouse in 2000, when the total population comprised approximately 3,500 individuals. However, the species has continued to decline by as much as 30 percent in the past two years, to less than 2,700 birds.

Bureaucratic foot-dragging by the Fish and Wildlife Service persists, even while the Gunnison sage grouse continues its decline toward extinction, the groups point out. “It is time for the Service to finally grant the species the protection it legally deserves,” contends attorney Amy Atwood of Western Environmental Law Center.

Organizations filing the litigation include American Lands Alliance, Center for Native Ecosystems, The Larch Company, and Sinapu. They are represented by the Western Environmental Law Center. For more information, and a downloadable photograph of the Gunnison sage grouse, please visit http://www.sagebrushsea.org.

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Will the wolf arrive? State planning for the day

By Dale Rodebaugh,
Durango Herald

Colorado wildlife managers are developing a program for managing wolves. Although Colorado isn’t home to wolves and probably won’t be for a while, state wildlife officials are working to have a management plan in place for the day the predator arrives.

As a first step, three Colorado Division of Wildlife employees will visit Durango tonight, seeking suggestions on how to manage wolves.

The division isn’t considering reintroducing the wolf to Colorado, as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service did successfully with the Rocky Mountain gray wolf in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and the Mexican wolf in New Mexico and Arizona.

But others would like nothing better than to bring the wolf back to Colorado as quickly as possible. There have been no wolves in Colorado since the 1930s.

The need for a state plan is more urgent north of Interstate 70 because of the wolf’s proximity in states to the north, according to DOW wildlife biologist Gary Skiba.

The federal agency planned that once Montana, Idaho and Wyoming could manage their own wolf populations, the predator’s “threatened species” designation and federation protection would be lifted. Lifting that protection, called “delisting,” would be for all three states or none.

Just as it appeared that the Fish & Wildlife Service was ready to hand off wolf control to the states, a snag occurred, according to Ed Bangs, Western Wolf Recovery coordinator for the agency.

“Delisting is on hold for now because the Wyoming plan is not adequate,” Bangs said. “But Colorado is going in the right direction. The time to discuss wolves is not when there is a dead calf on the ground, but while people can engage in rational discussion.”

That’s what Skiba has in mind. No matter that there are no wolves in Colorado – north or south – the biologist said. Colorado must be prepared in the eventuality wolves find their way to the state.

If Colorado has no federally acceptable wolf-management plan, Fish & Wildlife Service regulations would govern the handling of the species.

Rob Edward, with Sinapu, a Boulder-based organization dedicated to the restoration and protection of large carnivores in the southern Rockies, said the Western Slope is the “last best place for the wolf.”

“A management plan (based on sporadic arrival of wolves) is okay as far as it goes,” Edward said. “But the most effective, expeditious and economically viable method to give the wolf a foothold is active reintroduction.”

Edward’s rationale:

• Sixty-three percent of the Western Slope is relatively unpopulated public land, which would provide an ample range for the predator.

• Ecological benefits have accrued in Wyoming from the presence of wolves. Stream-bank trees, eaten to the nub by unharassed elk, have recovered because wolves keep elk herds on the move. Beavers and birds are taking advantage of the recovering vegetation.

• Wolves help stabilize elk populations and can have beneficial long-term health effects on herds by eliminating the weakest animals.

• Methodic reintroduction of wolves from different areas would avoid the “genetic bottleneck” resulting from the in-breeding of wolves that trickle in from the outside.

“A thriving wolf population in Colorado and to the south, would connect the Arctic to Mexico,” Edward said. “That would be one of the great conservation victories of the last 100 years.”

Wolf reintroduction has been more successful in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho than in Arizona and New Mexico. Thirteen of about 50 wolves believed to be roaming Arizona and New Mexico were killed by vehicles or shot in 2003, Skiba said.

It probably will be years before there are self-sustaining wolf populations in the Southwest, Skiba said. Wolf recovery south of I-70 probably would be deemed successful when there is a minimum number of breeding pairs – the same standard used to declare the wolf recovered in the north.

“A wolf-recovery plan for the area south of I-70 exists, but isn’t very detailed,” Skiba said. “It doesn’t have any specific goals.”

Skiba expects that the six meetings the DOW will convene around the state on wolf management will bring together environmentalists, ranchers, wolf lovers and sportsmen. A working group would be formed to devise a wolf-management plan.

“The three issues that are sure to come up are, Do we allow wolves in northern Colorado and if so, how many and where?'” Skiba said.

Although wildlife officials don’t plan to broach the matter, Skiba said, another topic of conversation could well be reintroduction of the species.

The documentation of at least 30 breeding pairs of wolves in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana led to the decision that the wolf had reached a self-sustaining level. It no longer needed the “threatened species” designation.

But the lack of an acceptable Wyoming management plan has put delisting on the sidelines for the time being. The Idaho and Montana management plans have passed muster.

Disagreement over how much protection to give the wolves outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and wilderness areas is holding up acceptance of the Wyoming wolf-management plan, Skiba said.

Removing the gray wolf from the protection of the Endangered Species Act in the three states also would affect Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah and California, which have few or no wolves.

But with wolves on the prowl in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, they could be showing up elsewhere, Skiba said.

Colorado would do well to decide how it wants to manage wolves before they arrive, Skiba said.