San Juans ready for arrival of wolves

Local area central to current wolf discussion

by Shawna Bethell

In 1949, four years after the last wolf was eradicated from the southern San Juan Mountains, Aldo Leopold wrote, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.” In 2005, little has changed in this regard. However, with the knowledge that wolves reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountain states and New Mexico and Arizona will make their way to Colorado, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) appointed a 14-member Wolf Management Working Group to address the issue of managing wolves. This group, comprised of four livestock producers, four wildlife advocates, two wildlife biologists, two sportsmen, and two local government officials, was asked to put aside personal emotion and work together to create a recommended plan for wolf management in Colorado. To their credit, the members of this group agreed they would utilize consensus in finalizing their recommendations to the state.

Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance in Durango, is a member of the working group. “The issue of wolves in the San Juan Mountains is a social one, not a biological one,” he said. “Biologically speaking, if they are not persecuted, wolves will thrive in the San Juans. We have the best habitat and abundant populations of elk and other ungulates.”

Pearson also explained that the San Juans have the largest roadless areas and the largest wilderness areas in the state which will act to keep wolves and people separate. There may be a negative economic impact on a handful of livestock operators who have grazing permits on public lands, and there is a recommendation that proven wolf predations are financially compensated for. But Pearson also pointed out that wolves draw tourist dollars as exemplified in Yellowstone National Park, where tourists come by the thousands just to hear the call of a wolf.

Pearson’s comments somewhat exemplify what has happened and what is happening in the dialogue over this predator’s very existence: a constant tallying of costs and benefits, passions and fears, that has literally been in debate for the greater part of this century. No other predator has been as hated, tortured, mythologized or romanticized as the wolf, and that passion and fury, which was eradicated from this state in the ’40s, is resurging. It is only through a great deal of effort and communication on all parts that the state is being proactive on how to best handle the return of canis lupus.

At this time, the numbers of wolves migrating into the state is thought to be small; in fact the female killed on I-70 in June of 2004 is the only documented wolf sighting in Colorado since the reintroduction. Still, the working group, taking into consideration that over time wolves may naturally recolonize, has recommended that migrating wolves be allowed to “live with no boundaries where they find habitat,” and that “wolf distribution in Colorado will ultimately be defined by the interplay between ecological needs and social tolerance.”

To that end, if problems occur, they will be addressed on a case-by-case basis, utilizing a combination of “management tools” and “damage payments.” The extensive document created by the working group assesses ecological benefits, economic benefits and losses, social and cultural challenges, law enforcement, management tools, and an abundance of other issues. But the politics of wolves is a bit more of a quagmire. The federal government has expressed interest in delisting the wolf from endangered status and hand over wolf management to state jurisdictions. To do that, numbers must increase.

Currently, there is no definite plan to reintroduce wolves to Colorado, but a second team of individuals set up by the Federal Fish and Wildlife Division, with member interests similar to those of the working group, has been convened to look at multi-state regions and consider where wolves could be introduced safely and successfully. According to Michael Robinson, of the Center for Biological Diversity in New Mexico who is also a member of the Recovery Team, the San Juan Mountains are on a short list of possibilities.

“Top-level carnivores are essential to the ecological system,” stated Rob Edward, director of the Carnivore Restoration Program of Sinapu. “What wolves reestablish is the ‘ecology of fear.'” Currently, high density ungulate populations hang out for extended periods of time grazing near waterways, impacting willow and aspen growth. If wolves are part of the ecological system, the ungulates are on the move allowing the flora to regenerate, which in turn allows more forage for beavers, more over story for songbirds, improved water quality and improved fish populations. Wolves are also known to cull ungulate herds of sickly and weak individuals keeping the populations healthy.

“We are lucky,” said Edward. “We have watched other places where this debate has raged, and we can learn from their programs, from their mistakes.”

Duke Phillips, of Chico Basin Ranch located in the San Luis Valley, is also part of the working group, and his dedication to healthy ecosystems is exemplified by his ranch’s implementing such practices as duplicating natural bison grazing patterns. He feels that being part of the group was an opportunity to make contact with people and put an end to bad blood.

“Ranchers already live on the land, and they can play an important role in improving the health of the natural world,” he said. But he also has questions when it comes to the possibility of a full-out reintroduction and how wolves would impact an ecosystem that has evolved without them and how they would live in a system now heavily populated with humans.

Though there has been no official statement from the Southern Ute Tribe on the issue of wolves being allowed to reintegrate or be recovered in the region, Steve Whiteman, director of wildlife management for the Southern Ute tribe, says that as a biologist he doesn’t think attitudes have changed much since wolves were extirpated from the region in the ’40s. “I see the potential if not likelihood of wolves migrating to the area, but I think it will be a challenge for wildlife agencies to see that this succeeds in the Four Corners region,” he said. “They will need to utilize a lot of education and be willing to financially compensate for any livestock killed by wolves.”

As for tribal members, he sees that they may respond similarly to any other group in the region. Some members may, because of cultural beliefs, be gratified to see the wolf return, others with livestock responsibilities may not.

Overall, the population of Colorado does support the idea of wolf populations in the state. In a 1994 statewide survey, 71 percent of respondents said they wished to catch a glimpse of a wolf loping through the mountains. But the Division of Wildlife is not relying solely on those percentages. They are now seeking public comment on the recommendations of the Wolf Management Working Group and tapping the public pulse throughout the state to that end.

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