Carbondale audience sinks teeth into wolf issue

By Dennis Webb
Post Independent Staff
January 19, 2006

CARBONDALE — A wolf reintroduction advocate and a Carbondale rancher agreed 100 percent on one thing Wednesday night: The animal would fare well if reintroduced to Colorado.

But Rob Edward, of Sinapu, and Bill Fales, a Carbondale-area rancher, differ on what impacts reintroduction would have on ranching in Colorado.

Edward gave a slide show on wolf reintroduction to a standing-room-only crowd of perhaps 100 people at Dos Gringos in Carbondale Wednesday, in an event put on by the Wilderness Workshop. Most who attended seemed to be fans of wolves, leaving Fales a bit of a lone wolf voicing an opposing view on the animal’s reintroduction.

“As much as it thrills a lot of people, it scares the hell out of me,” Fales told Edward.

Edward welcomed the feedback and said reintroduction advocates need to engage with opponents if wolves are to be returned to the state successfully.

“Even if you don’t want wolves, be involved,” Edward said.
He also voiced confidence that concerns surrounding wolf reintroduction can be adequately addressed.

“I think we can figure this out. I think we can live with wolves,” he said.

Edward is director of restoration for Sinapu, a Boulder-based group whose name comes from the Ute word for wolf. The group advocates on behalf of restoring wolves, lynx, mountain lions and other predators to their historic ranges.

Wolves historically inhabited most of the continental United States, Edward said. Today, of some 4,000 to 4,500 wolves in the lower 48 states, most are concentrated near the Canadian border in the upper Midwest. Some 800 or 900 are in Yellowstone National Park, Idaho and Montana, and fewer than 50 Mexican gray wolves are in New Mexico and Arizona, Edward said.

He said studies show Colorado has room for more than 1,000 wolves. Four areas look to be suitable for wolf habitat. Two are in southwestern Colorado. Two other areas are closer — the Flat Tops, and the area roughly extending from Grand Mesa to the West Elk Mountains.

Edward said that in 2003, U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton tried to get wolves removed from the endangered species list in much of the United States, despite the fact they occupy only 5 percent of their historic range. Opponents of that plan challenged Norton in court and won two favorable rulings last year.

Now, Edward said, reintroduction advocates can work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “to get more wolves in more places.”

In 2003, 14 Coloradans, including ranchers, hunters, biologists and wolf reintroduction advocates, studied the issue as a committee and decided that if wolves come into the state, they should be allowed to wander freely wherever they find habitat, Edward said. A member of the group, he called its conclusion “amazing,” given that five ranchers were on the panel.

At least one wolf already returned to Colorado on its own, before being hit by a car near Idaho Springs. But Edward believes a concerted reintroduction effort will be required if the animals are to be re-established in the state.

Citing research in Yellowstone, he believes wolves can lead to important improvements to ecosystems. There, the arrival of the animals caused a drop in coyote numbers, and enabled willows, aspen and other vegetation to recover because animals that once grazed certain areas heavily were forced to disperse due to hunting by wolves. This has led to improved habitat for other wildlife such as beaver and songbirds, Edward said.

He said wolves can be as instrumental as wildfire in restoring habitats. Fales agreed about the important role wildfire plays, but questioned how much of a place wildfires, or wolves, can have in today’s West.

“People get upset when a fire burns through their house. We get upset when wolves eat our cattle,” he said.

Edward said instances of wolf predation of livestock are rare. Fewer than one in 10,000 livestock are killed by wolves in areas where wolves thrive, he said. More are killed by lightning, he said.

Still, he said, it’s important that ranchers be reimbursed for losses, as groups such as Defenders of Wildlife do.

But Fales questioned how easy it is to document wolf kills for reimbursement purposes. If a rancher finds a suspiciously killed cow in a remote location, by the time someone can be brought in to verify that a wolf was responsible a bear may have finished off the carcass, he said.

Edward said answers to this problem could include paying ranchers for livestock losses that vary from the norm, or paying two or three times the value of livestock for confirmed wolf kills, to make up for other ones that can’t be documented.

Despite his concerns, Fales believes it’s inevitable wolves will return to Colorado. That would probably please most of those at Wednesday’s presentation, including Jamie Gomer, of El Jebel, who came because she was curious about the prospects of the animal returning to Colorado.

“I’m just a big wolf fan,” she said.

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