By Elizabeth Heerwagen
Telluride Daily Planet
While the first efforts to reintroduce wolves to the lower 48 began 10 years ago in Yellowstone National Park, the steady success of the newly added carnivores, still thriving and reproducing in their Northern Wyoming habitat, has sparked further efforts to reintroduce wolves to other parts of the Rocky Mountains, especially the mountain regions surrounding Telluride.
Leading the charge, Sinapu, a Colorado-based grassroots wildlife organization dedicated to the restoration and protection of native carnivores in their wild habitat in the Southern Rockies, held a power point presentation, catered dinner and fundraiser at the Telluride Conference Center on Wednesday, June 22. In an effort to raise public awareness and gain support, Sinapu stressed the essential importance of reintroducing wolves to an appropriate habitat, much like the existing habitat of the San Juan Mountains.
While Sinapu began its campaign in the early 90s, local resident Mark O’Dell joined the effort and became a board member a few months ago. According to O’Dell, “I’m the guy trying to get things started in Telluride. I think Telluride is the perfect place with the perfect people for this project. We sell this place as a wild place, and what’s more wild than wolves?”
Not only are wolves a majestic and wild species, but “they are so necessary around here,” according to O’Dell. “If you look at the trees in Aldasoro, they are all black because there are too many elk and deer plopping down for too long by the streams and eating up all the vegetation. In the winter months, when food is sparse, the elks eat the bark and shoots of aspen trees, which not only hurts the trees, but does little for the elk’s diet.”
A misrepresented species, wrongfully persecuted in the 1920s due to a supposed threat to livestock and humans alike, there has never been a documented report of a [healthy, wild] wolf [killing] a human [in North America]. Largely responsible for the extinction of wolves in the lower 48, the government launched a program to terminate the species in 1914. Laying out rings of poison for every 10 miles, it took them 25 years to finish off the wolves as well as poison several other species in the process. The last report of a wolf in Rockies was in 1947.
Now, with an over-abundance of elk and deer leading to the destruction of the shoots of aspen trees and the surge of chronic wasting disease, a close relative to mad cow disease, the reintroduction of wolves is more important than ever before.
According to O’Dell, “wolves not only keep herds of deer moving in natural progression and help control mule deer population, but wolves help round out the whole habitat.”
From their obvious role as carnivores to their indirect role of helping the progression of other species like aspen trees and songbirds, wolves are now welcome in Colorado. “As one of the few states to allow wolves with a whole set of operating rules to get them through the front door, the next step is the actual plans for reintroduction,” said O’Dell.
Proving their resilience and ability to thrive in the Rocky Mountain habitat, the Yellowstone wolves have sparked several studies related to finding other potential sites for wolf reintroduction. From a survey of the best possible wolf habitats in the lower 48, the San Juan Mountains ranked as one of the best two pods.
“The bottom line is that we spent the last 10 years building the scientific underpinnings for the reintroduction of wolves, which concluded that the [Southern] Rockies is the best possible place for wolves in the lower north America,” said Rob Edward, Carnivore Restoration Program Director for Sinapu.
Unlike lynx, an environmentally temperamental species, wolves are quite hearty, adapting well to sudden changes in habitat. Eating almost anything from elk to rodents, wolves learn to thrive in the most adverse situation. “What we really need to do now is to get the wolves on the ground, all they need is a ride and they will do well,” said Edward.
While the actual placing of wolves back in the environment is a fairly simple process, the challenge comes in getting the government’s approval to do so.
According to Edward, “the public has been squarely behind the program, but we now must mobilize that soft support and translate it into political action … the bottom line is that if we had the approval we could have wolves there tomorrow, but with the current federal administration who is not particularly environmentally-supportive, the likelihood of success is pretty low.”
Biding time and waiting for a more environmentally-friendly administration, Sinapu continues to draw public support and advocacy in hopes that the government will eventually be forced to respond to the popular uprising of wolf huggers.
According to a local wolf hugger helping to propagate the necessity of reintroducing wolves to the region, O’Dell said that “we are sitting right in the middle of something that could be very important, it’s time to bring [wolves] back here and listen to them howling at night … God put the wolf here and the government took it away, whose side are you on?”