By Elizabeth Covington
The Telluride Watch
“We are ground zero,” said Sinapu board member Mark O’Dell, a Mountain Village resident who recently held a get-together to discuss the idea of reintroducing wolves to the San Juan mountains. “Several criteria that look at where best to reintroduce wolves make us a critical starting place.”
As to when those wolves might be reintroduced, “we are very early in the timeline,” he said. O’Dell held the meeting partly because he thought residents of the Telluride area would be natural supporters of wolf reintroduction.
“The concept of that element of wildness would be exciting for Telluride,” he said. “If they are around, people will see them and hear them.” Wolves are not reclusive like mountain lions and bear. Moreover, “wolves have been an economic boon for Yellowstone. People go to see them.”
Indeed, wolf reintroduction programs in Yellowstone Park and in areas of Montana and Idaho have been successful on several fronts. Reintroduced wolves have established themselves in packs; programs have been established to compensate ranchers for lost livestock; and the wolves in Yellowstone have even become a key tourist attraction, with visitors stopping at strategic viewpoints to watch packs in the wild.
The program in the northern Rockies has been so successful that many experts believe the wolves are likely to migrate south through Wyoming and into Colorado. In fact, one year ago a female wolf was killed on Interstate-70 near Idaho Springs. Her presence confirmed what Sinapu, a non profit organization dedicated to the restoration and protection of native carnivores in the southern Rockies, and other reintroduction promoters had been saying all along: Wolves are on their way to Colorado.
The wolf killed on I-70 spurred Governor Bill Owens to form the Colorado Wolf Working Group, a committee of 14 people that includes ranchers, environmentalists and others, to discuss what Colorado should do when wolves do arrive in the state. The group’s recommendation that wolves should be welcome in the state was a significant reversal of the long-standing state policy of extermination.
The working group also recommended that any negative impacts that might be caused by the presence of wolves be dealt with as they arise. Another recommendation suggested setting up a fund to reimburse ranchers for animals killed by the animals. While not perfect, programs for compensating ranchers for lost livestock have worked in the northern states.
The migration and establishment of wolf packs in Colorado could take up to 50 years, said Gary Wockner, a wildlife ecologist who is a member of the state board. Thus, the question arises of whether to actively reintroduce the animals.
While there have been no documented cases of a wolf attacking a human being, said O’Dell, the concern for safety is still prominent.
“It is more dangerous to walk past a pit bull tied up on the main street sidewalk,” said O’Dell.
According to Wockner, wolves could, and likely will, migrate to Colorado. In addition to wolves reintroduced in the northern Rockies, a smaller group was reintroduced in the Southern Rockies of Arizona and New Mexico. Those wolves have already migrated to Utah and Oregon, and they are likely to move into Colorado. In fact, it is likely that a few already have.
Wockner listed three reasons in support of reintroducing wolves, one being aesthetic. Many people consider wolves beautiful and want to see them returned to the spectrum of wildlife in the area. Second, wolves have a positive ecological effect on the landscape. Elk and deer, wolves’ primary food source, tend to stay in one place when they have no predators and eat vegetation to the point where grass and willows are denuded. Wolves could help keep them on the move, preventing such damage to vegetation.
In Yellowstone, three years after wolves were reintroduced, scientists noticed that bare riparian areas were coming back to life. Willows, and even aspen trees that had been chewed to the ground, were once again thriving.
Finally, the state and federal governments have acts that protect threatened and endangered species.
“Those regulations write into law that we as humans don’t have the right to exterminate other species,” said Wockner. “Wolves fall into that category.”
While currently there are no plans for reintroducing wolves to Colorado, in the next few years it is foreseeable that one could develop.
“Wolves are an extremely political animal,” said Wockner. “In order for them to be reintroduced you would have to have a realignment of the political world, one that is more in favor of environmental restoration. The other alternative is for the citizens of Colorado to demand that reintroduction happen.”
That last factor may be the straw that tips the balance.
According to O’Dell a recent statewide survey indicated that over 70 percent of Colorado residents supported the concept of reintroducing wolves.
“That is really promising,” he said.