In wild areas to the north and to the south of Colorado, the sound of howling wolves pierces the night air. Wolves haven’t moved into Colorado yet, but they are making plenty of noise here already.
Wolves, gone from the mountains and valleys of Colorado for most of a century, are the subject of intensive studies of wildlife management, court cases and debates among such diverse groups as environmentalists and ranchers. And they are the stars of a symposium that runs through Tuesday at the Antlers Hilton in Colorado Springs.
“Frontiers of Wolf Recovery” is the title of the fourth international wolf conference, sponsored by the International Wolf Center in collaboration with Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
The conference seeks to raise awareness of wolves and their place in the natural environment, said Walter Medwid, executive director of the sponsoring organization that is based in Minnesota.
“This is a great way to raise the subject of wolf recovery,” he said. “And this is a great place to do it. Colorado is at the forefront of wolf recovery right now. This conference is a way to elevate understanding of what it may mean to have wolves back on the Colorado landscape.”
Right now, Colorado is caught in the middle.
Reintroduced wolves are thriving and forming packs to the north, in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, states that have a population of more than 900, and to the southwest, in Arizona and New Mexico, where an estimated 50 Mexican gray wolves live. Most wildlife experts say if those populations continue to grow, wolves will return to Colorado one day. But when? And how will Coloradans respond?
Hunted, harassed and pushed out by settlement, wolves vanished from the Colorado landscape more than 60 years ago. By the time they were protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, they were gone from the lower 48 states, except for a few hundred that remained in a corner of Minnesota.
So Colorado wildlife officials haven’t had to talk about wolves for decades. That changed in 2004. In April of that year, the Colorado Division of Wildlife assembled the Wolf Management Working Group, a diverse mix of wolf advocates, wildlife biologists, sportsmen, scientists and government officials. The group was formed to prepare for any future wolf migrations into Colorado.
Two months later, that possibility became a reality, when a a wolf wandered onto Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs and was struck and killed by a car. She was wearing a collar that linked her to the wolf restoration project in Yellowstone National Park, and had traveled about 500 miles from her pack.
“After she was discovered, we knew there was the potential that we would be managing wolves in Colorado north of I-70,” said group coordinator Gary Skiba, a DOW biologist who works out of Durango.
“We thought that within not too long a time, we would have to figure out what to do with a dispersing (wandering) population of wolves in this state.”
The public often reports wolf sightings to the DOW, Skiba said. Wolf hybrids — dogs bred with wolves — roam the state, along with large coyotes and dogs that look like wolves. “So it’s really difficult to take a sighting and determine that it really was a wolf,” he said. The wolf that was killed was easy to identify because of her collar.
So the group assembled by the DOW began to talk: What are the next steps? How should wolves be classified? Should they be reintroduced formally? Under what guidelines?
Group members knew there were four major areas of concern among Colorado residents, Skiba said. “The largest is the wolf’s impact on livestock. There are concerns about impacts on big-game populations. People are also concerned about human safety and about the safety of their pets.”
Thomas Compton doesn’t see a state overrun by wolves, but he doesn’t see any way to manage wolves here that won’t threaten livestock.
Compton has been a commercial cattle producer for 25 years in southwest Colorado, is past president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and worked on the Mexican Wolf Recovery Team that has restored wolves to eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.
Compton says he surprised some members of the cattlemen’s group when he joined wolf-recovery talks. “I thought if there were discussions going on, it would be good to let other people know our concerns.”
Wolf biologists and advocates of reintroduction point to the benefits of bringing wolves back into ecosystems where they had been banished. Studies of places such as Yellowstone show wolves can bring back an ecological balance.
Wolves prey on overpopulated elk and deer that in some places have been stripping the forests and meadows clean — peeling bark from aspen trees, munching willows and other smaller vegetation down to the ground. When the browser populations are reduced, beavers return to the re-grown willows and build dams. Trees grow around newly formed ponds, cooling the water so it is more attractive to trout. A new, healthy riparian area appears.
That scenario appeals to Mike Bond, who was asked to join the Wolf Working Group to represent hunters.
Bond lives in Roxborough and has been hunting around the world for decades. He admits that when he joined the group, he had decided that wolf reintroduction was “not a good idea. We already had problems with our deer populations and our elk populations in some areas. I thought the wolves would take what was left.”
Bond soon changed his mind. “I like the idea of wolves being back in Colorado. They were here before I was, and I see them as part of the total wildlife package here.”
Bond said there’s another reason he believes wolves would be good for Colorado. “The problem of chronic wasting disease was what made me change my mind,” he said.
The disease (a fatal, transmissible neurological disease found in deer and elk and most recently in a moose) is a significant concern among wildlife biologists.
“I’ve hunted all over the world, and I can see no better way to deal with it than introducing a predator that will cull out the weakest and sickest,” Bond said.
That innate behavior of wolves — choosing the easiest prey — is just what worries rancher Compton. “Wolves will go after the weakest in a herd of cattle. That’s often calves, and that has a serious economic impact on a rancher.”
Several environmental groups have offered to reimburse a rancher if a wolf takes a cow or a calf.
“But that falls way short of the economic loss a rancher experiences,” Compton said. “You aren’t just losing the market value of that animal, but also opportunity costs — the amount of money you’ve invested in a gene pool. You also lose in terms of increased costs of managing your cattle differently. There’s also emotional stress added to a ranch family’s life.”
For some ranchers, sharing the land with wolves might be too much of a burden, Compton believes.
“I can practically guarantee that there will be some, especially older guys like myself who are near retirement . . . they are going to say, that in terms of quality of life, maybe I’ll just give it up and do something different.”
That thought troubles Compton, who says longtime ranchers are tied to the land “in an emotional, even spiritual way.”
“You have to spend some time out there seeing the baby calves drop to the ground to understand. There was a song a few years ago, something about people who had ‘never seen the Northern Lights or the hawk on the wing’. . . most people don’t understand the strong connection we have with the land.”
That connection is also why many Colorado residents would like to share their land with wolves. Several polls have shown that the majority of residents would like to see wolves return.
“People identify wolves with wilderness,” said Rob Edward, restoration program director for Sinapu, a nonprofit group dedicated to the restoration of native carnivores and their habitat.
“Our organization grew out of a sense that we need to have wolves restored to the landscape,” he said. “Because of their charismatic nature, they are kind of a flagship to the movement to protect wildlife and wild places in the West.”
Edward believes wolves could fit relatively seamlessly in the environment of Colorado. “We have places in Colorado, places that are relatively unroaded and remote, where wolves could be placed,” he said.
Reintroduction is among the most contentious subjects being addressed at the wolf conference.
“It’s fair to say that wolves test our tolerance of wild nature,” Medwid said. “We can recover other species — bald eagles and peregrine falcons and so on — but they don’t generally get in one’s face like wolves. Wolves do get in our face. We know what they can do to livestock, to domestic pets.”
But there’s a strong argument for reintroduction, Medwid said. “I think in some sense, it’s about symbolically repairing the damage and heavy-footedness we have had on the landscape.”
While the experts talk, wolves are doing what wolves do, living in highly organized packs that were reintroduced in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona. Biologists and wildlife managers believe they will eventually make their way back to Colorado. It could take years, decades, or even a century.
“I think the potential for a natural colonization from the north is entirely reasonable,” Medwid said. “We know that wolves can travel hundreds of miles, and there is an inherent pressure within the pack society for young ones to be forced out. The more they are forced out, the more potential there is for travel, finding a good habitat, avoiding human contact and finding a mate.
“That’s the biological imperative that’s a part of wolf genetics.”
But the West has changed a lot since wolves roamed the Rocky Mountains. The land between Greater Yellowstone and northern Colorado, for example, is harsh, with little cover and lots of roads and livestock, Medwid said.
“Colorado has potential for wolves, but today’s issues and population challenge us to figure out a way to live with these creatures that is positive.”
WOLVES TO THE NORTH
Northern Rocky Mountain wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, traveled from Canada in the early 1980s and began recolonizing northwest Montana. Formal wolf reintroduction programs began in Montana, central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1995.
Since that time, populations there and in Idaho and Wyoming have increased steadily.
The wolf population in those three states is estimated to be about 900.
WOLVES TO THE SOUTH
Mexican gray wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, have been released in the Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona. The program began in 1998.
The wolves are allowed to disperse in the Apache National Forest and adjacent Gila National Forest in western New Mexico. The wolves are part of a captive-reared and release program that places wolves raised in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries in the wild.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is one of the zoos with a captive-breeding programs for these wolves.
The wolf population in those two states is estimated to be about 50 to 60.