Wolves May Be Coming to Colorado

There are no formal plans to release wolves in Colorado and no specific locations or exact numbers. In the meantime, the rhetoric from both sides will only grow more heated and the battle lines more pronounced.

Wolves May Be Coming to Colorado

In 1995, 14 wolves were transferred to a holding facility in Yellowstone National Park, the first of 31 animals that ultimately would be released in the park. The reintroduction of wolves into the region set off a firestorm of debate; pitting hunters, outfitters and ranchers against environmentalists. 

Since then, the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population has grown to about 1,700 animals. They don’t just live in the park anymore. Wolves are now residents of Oregon and Washington, and also are expanding into northern California.  

Now, Colorado voters will decide in November if wolves should return to their state. Last December, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund submitted more than 200,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. That was enough to put the plan to release wolves in western Colorado to a public vote.  

If history is any indication, hunters will insist adding the predator to the landscape will result in lower elk and deer populations. Proponents of the move say reintroducing wolves to Colorado will bring a more natural balance to the ecosystem, restoring a native predator to a landscape that has been dramatically altered by humans.  

“Bringing back wolves is hopefully going to have the same effect it did in Yellowstone where it actually revived the ecosystem,” said Colorado Wolf and Wildlife center supervisor Erika Moore, in an interview with the Colorado Independent

But did it? There’s little doubt the park had an overabundance of elk. They devoured aspens, cottonwoods and willows growing along stream banks. That resulted in an increase in water temperatures, which led to a decline in native cutthroat trout. Beavers found little to eat, so they left the park, resulting in a decline in wetlands. In fact, there was just one beaver colony in the entire national park, which covers more than 3,400 square miles, when the wolves were released. Today, there are at least nine. 

As it turns out, wolves don’t just eat elk, they also change their foraging habits. The animals are less likely to remain in one spot, which allows browsed trees and shrubs to regenerate. Elk also congregate in smaller groups, which also reduces pressure on those vital plants. 

Since the first wolves were turned loose, scientists have spent years studying the impact of wolves on the ecosystem in and around Yellowstone National Park. They found that in most cases, wolves have indeed benefitted the park’s ecosystem. Drive through the park today and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an elk in places where wolves are most abundant. Elk numbers have declined significantly in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In 1968, there were about 4,000 elk around the northern boundary of the park. In 1988, three years after wolves were released, there were an estimated 20,000. Since then, elk numbers have plummeted. In 2004, their numbers were around 8,000. Are wolves to blame? Despite more than two decades of research, the answer depends on who you ask. Even scientists still can’t reach a consensus. 

Doug Smith, Yellowstone National Park’s chief wolf scientist, says the decline was likely the result of a combination of factors: An extended drought and an overharvest by hunters. He and fellow researchers used computer models to estimate the combined impact of hunting and weather on GYE elk numbers. 

According to the study, “Climate and harvest are justifiable explanations for most of the observed elk decline. To the extent that this is true, we suggest that between 1995 and 2004 wolf predation was primarily compensatory (of no significance).” 

Another YNP scientist thinks wolves have played a role in elk number declines. P.J White says elk numbers will continue declining until wolves and elk reach a sort of equilibrium, which may already be taking place. Wolves are shifting their hunting efforts to bison, particularly in the winter. However, White admits that wolves aren’t the only reason elk numbers have declined. 

“A moderate to liberal harvest policy has played a role, as well as a growing population of grizzly bears,” White told nationalparktrips.com

There is no question that wolves eat elk. A study that examined elk calf mortality found that nearly two-thirds of all elk calves in the study area died before their first birthday. Wolves were responsible for upwards of 17 percent of those mortalities. However, researchers found that grizzly and black bears accounted for a far higher number, 60 percent, of elk calf mortality. 

Similar research in Idaho found that elk were the prey of choice of wolves; 77 percent of wolf kills examined by researchers were elk; 23 percent were deer. In most cases, those animals killed by wolves were the most vulnerable — the young, the very old or the sick and injured. The average age of adult elk taken by wolves was 12.3 years, far older than the average killed by hunters. What’s more, biologists with Idaho Fish and Game said the elk population in the heart of wolf country remained at or near the agency’s population objective more than 10 years after wolves were released in that state. 

According to the IGF’s website, “Data gathered from a new radio collaring study shows 85 percent deer survival and 82 percent elk survival in the (study area.) Biologists consider 80 percent doe survival and 85 percent elk survival normal and sustainable.” 

In other words, predictions of deer and elk populations collapsing and a dramatic impact to the state’s hunting culture appear to be unfounded. The contradictions from the science and the hunting community highlight one thing: That science still does not appear to be settled. However, they do agree that a variety of factors are playing a role in both elk and wolf populations — factors that are constantly changing. Weather patterns, which influence deer and elk numbers, are unpredictable and can vary from one year to the next. Changes in hunting regulations also impact elk numbers. Both Montana and Idaho have reduced cow and doe tags to help keep elk numbers at or near population objectives. 

In one way, the addition of wolves to the GYE has actually benefitted the hunting community. Once they were delisted, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho were allowed to manage the animals as they wanted. For all three states, that meant regulated hunting opportunities, something that wasn’t available prior to the delisting of the wolves. Hunters jumped at the chance to shoot a descendant of the original animals released in the park and in Idaho. 

However, success rates have been low since the first hunts were held in 2009. That hasn’t stopped hunters from buying a tag. In 2017, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks sold 17,212 wolf permits, generating $380,261 in revenue for the agency. Just 254 wolves were taken by hunters and trappers.             

What happens when (if?) wolves are turned loose in parts of Colorado remains to be seen. With at least 280,000 animals, the state has the largest elk herd in the country. Hunters bought more than 228,000 elk tags in 2018 and contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the state economy.  

So far, there are no formal plans to release wolves in Colorado and no specific locations or exact numbers. In the meantime, the rhetoric from both sides will only grow more heated and the battle lines more pronounced.


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