By: Isabel Lisle
Date: January 23, 2023
Wolf Pup and Mom in Den in Yellowstone National Park
(Image Credit: Outside Magazine)
Interested in getting involved?
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A dramatic change in Yellowstone National Park has occurred over the last 25 years. Elk and deer populations have decreased, allowing willow and aspen trees to return to the landscape. Less overgrazing stabilized river banks and allowed rivers to flow in new directions. Beavers, eagles, foxes, and badgers returned to the park because of the healthy rivers.
What caused this transformation that revitalized Yellowstone’s fragile ecosystems? What can Colorado residents learn from this transformation?
The introduction of the gray wolf to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1995 created an astonishing ripple of direct and indirect consequences throughout the ecosystem.
When wolves began to hunt elk, they changed the elk's behavior patterns. Elk began to avoid valleys, gorges, and riverbanks where they could be hunted by predators. As a result, the vegetation in these areas regenerated and birds, beavers, mice, and bears returned. Plant life increased and erosion along the riverbanks decreased significantly. The stabilization of the riverbanks changed the course of the streams and rivers (Outside, 2021).
The introduction of wolves drastically helped other animal species in the park thrive. Wolves are known as a keystone species. A keystone species is a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change dramatically. Before 1995, there was only one beaver colony in the park. Today, the park is home to nine beaver colonies, with the promise of more to come (Farquhar, 2021). In addition, National Geographic found that “by reducing populations and thinning out weak and sick animals, wolves have a role in creating resilient elk herds” (Nat Geo, 2020).
Video: History of Yellowstone Wolves with Doug Smith
Colorado Wolf Reintroduction Plan
Colorado has the opportunity to learn from Yellowstone National Parks reintroduction efforts as Colorado Parks and Wildlife begins a similar project across the state. The last wild wolf in Colorado was shot in 1945. In 2020, voters passed Proposition 114, to require Colorado to reintroduce wolves back into Colorado. The vote passed narrowly (50.9% to 49.1%) (Frank, 2022). Huge support came from Denver voters while widespread opposition occurred in rural counties, where the impact will be felt.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife launched its 293-page draft plan for wolf reintroduction on December 9th, 2022 to help bring wolves back into the state. Creating the comprehensive plan involved public in-person and virtual meetings involving residents, stakeholders, wildlife experts and local community leaders. The plan involves “impact- based management” of the wolves which means that conflicts between wolves and domestic livestock or wild deer, elk and moose will be addressed on a case-by-case basis. According to Colorado Sun, the agency will “first use education to minimize impacts, the nonlethal strategies followed by lethal responses and compensation for ranchers who lose livestock to the predators”(Colorado Sun, 2022).
The draft plan proposes to bring in 10-15 wolves a year on the Western Slope starting in 2024. Over the course of 3 to 5 years 30-50 wolves will be reintroduced. Wildlife officials will release wolves into the northern part of the western slope (Vail, Aspen, Glenwood Springs) as well as the southern part of the western slope (Monterose to Gunnison). The wolves will be released in the region in the winter months, and they will likely come from states in the northern Rockies (Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) as well as Oregon and Washington.
Areas where wolves will be reintroduced in Colorado with the best wolf habitat and a higher level of social acceptance from nearby communities to reduce potential conflict.
Why is there such widespread opposition to wolf reintroduction in Colorado?
There are many myths and misconceptions rooted in American mythology, literature, and storytelling. Wolves in American media are glorified as evil and scary, and are often the ‘bad guy’ in children's storybooks. They are influencing how children view nature. In children's books such as Little Red Riding Hood, Peter and the Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, and the Boy Who Cried Wolf, wolves are the ‘bad guy’. Even recent children’s movies such as Frozen and The Secret life of Pets 2 perpetuate the stereotype of the big bad wolf (Outside Magazine, 2021). According to Krista Langlois, the “stories we tell our children influence how they perceive and interact with the world”. We must work to rewrite these wolf stories to portray wolves as heroes that play a critical role in healthy ecosystems and educate our children against these common stereotypes.
One common misconception about wolves, perpetuated by these stories, is that wolves will wipe out livestock. This is a myth. In fact, wolves are responsible for less than two tenths of a percent (.2%) of cattle deaths. 94% of losses are due to disease, digestive problems, weather, calving problems, etc. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports that in 2014, wolves killed 1 cow out of every 44,853. For sheep, wolves killed 1 in every 7,193 (Living with Wolves, 2022). Even so, Colorado Parks and Wildlife outlines that ranchers will get up to $8,000 for every animal killed by a wolf.
Another misconception, also perpetuated by American stories, is that wolves kill for sport. Unlike people, wolves do not kill for sport. Wolves and all other predators kill for sustenance and survival. Wolves are generally afraid of humans and avoid them. Incidents involving wolves and humans are rare. Over the past 100 years in North America, there have only been two cases in which wild wolves reportedly killed a person. “To put this statistic in context, also in North America, bears have killed at least 55 people since 2000, and, since 1990, cougars have killed 12. In the United States, domestic dogs kill approximately 30 people every year” (Living with Wolves, 2022).
In fact, the gray wolf’s long term survival is at stake. They have barely begun to recover from being endangered, and are still absent from significant portions of their former range, where suitable habitat remains (Predator Defense, 2020). A host of scientific research proves that wolves play a critical role in maintaining a diversity of other wildlife species.
Wolf Pups in Yellowstone National Park
(Defenders of Wildlife Image Credit)
How will wolves impact Colorado ecosystems?
Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains program director for Defenders of Wildlife, says “returning wolves to Colorado will help restore a predator-prey balance that the ecosystems of the southern Rocky Mountains have not known in a century. By changing elk behavior, wolves can reduce overgrazing on river banks, which in turn can make areas more suitable for songbirds and beavers. Beavers, in turn, improve habitat for native fish and amphibians. By reducing coyote populations, wolves have the potential to increase the numbers of foxes and ground squirrels, which increase available food for birds of prey” (Sierra, 2020).
The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council supports wolf reintroduction in Colorado because of the numerous benefits wolves provide to restoring ecosystems and wildlife, while having little impact on farmers and residents. It's critical to look at Yellowstone National Park’s success story of a trophic cascade as an example. SLVEC urges the public to support the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Wolf reintroduction program. It’s also important to continue the conversation around wolf mythology in American media and perpetuate a new stereotype of wolves as heroes rather than ‘bad guys’. Perhaps there could be new programs launched for the public to sponsor wolves or set up puppy camps in wolf dens to garner more excitement and knowledge about wolves.
Let us know if you have any other ideas, thought, comments, questions or concerns. Isabel@slvec.org.
Interested in getting involved?
After a public comment period in 2021 and an extensive stakeholder process, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has released its draft Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan. Coloradans now have the opportunity to provide input and feedback on the draft plan: 1) by testifying at one of four in- person public meetings; 2) by testifying during a virtual public meeting; and 3) by submitting written comments via an online comment form. Between now and February 22, 2023, you can deliver a message thanking CPW for creating this first draft, urge them to maintain the language in the plan that you do like, and share recommendations to improve the plan.
Details for the in-person public meetings:
Thursday, January 19 – Colorado Springs
Wednesday, January 25 – Gunnison
Tuesday, February 7 – Rifle
Wednesday, February 22 – Denver
Register for the virtual public meeting
Thursday, February 16 from 5:30pm-8:30pm
Submit a written comment via the online form
Comment deadline is Wednesday, February 22
• Personalize the talking points suggested by Defenders to reflect your voice, values, and perspective. We encourage you to use your own words and share your personal input and feedback.
• Please be respectful and professional in all your communications and interactions. Written or verbal comments that are aggressive or threatening can be disregarded by CPW officials.
• Practice delivering your comments at home to ensure you are within the time limit. Staff will likely stop you once you’ve reached 3 minutes, even if you haven’t finished delivering your testimony.
What to expect at the in-person meeting:
• Read through CPW’s public comment guidelines
• Registration to deliver in-person comments will begin 30 minutes before each meeting starts and will be on a walk-in basis.
• Commenters must sign themselves up for their spot.
• It is possible that not all who request time to speak will be able to as the total amount of time for public comment will be limited to the time set on the agenda. Each meeting will allow for up to 40 people to comment.
• Elected officials will be limited to five minutes and will speak first. Colorado residents will speak next and will be allotted three minutes per speaker. Nonresidents will speak last and will be limited to three minutes per speaker.
• There will be people who oppose wolf restoration at these public meetings. CPW has made it clear that these meetings are designed to gather feedback from the public on the draft wolf restoration and management plan. These meetings are NOT an opportunity to relitigate Proposition 114.
• Please be respectful in your comments and discussions to CPW staff and attendees alike. Disruptive observers, protestors, or commenters may be removed at the discretion of CPW staff.
What to expect at the virtual meeting:
• To provide comments, you must register by 12:00pmMT on Thursday, February 9th using this form.
• Each member of the public will be limited to no more than 3 minutes for oral public comment.
Members of the public may be restricted to 2 minutes for oral public comment when time is limited. It
is possible that not all who request time to speak will be able to as the total amount of time for public
testimony will be limited.
• After you sign-up to testify, you will receive an email from CPW staff by February 14th with instructions
for how to log into the virtual meeting.
General Talking Points
You are welcome to use the talking points provided by Defenders to help you get started on your testimony or letter, but remember, it’s critical to personalize and use your own voice. CPW wants to hear your feedback!
Support impact based management - Impact based management allows wolves to thrive in Colorado without arbitrary upper population limits or arbitrary geographic boundaries of where they may live. Allowing wolves to utilize habitat across Colorado’s Rocky Mountains will help re-establish connectivity from the northern Rockies to the Southwest, which is vital to the long-term success of the species. Management should focus on preventing and resolving conflicts when they occur in socially acceptable ways.
Emphasize coexistence measures - Proactive and reactive non-lethal coexistence measures should be the priority. CPW should assist livestock owners with conflict prevention information and implementation rather than resort to lethal control
Remove language of a possible phase 4 game status or wolf trophy hunt - There is no good reason to begin discussion of a future trophy hunt. It violates the intent of Proposition 114 and the Stakeholder Advisory Group consensus recommendation, distracts from reintroduction and coexistence programs, and creates needless conflict.
Increase the delisting threshold for wolves - Removing state protected status with only 150/200 wolves is inadequate and unnecessary. Any other species with so few individuals would cause serious alarm.
Any gray wolf should be permitted to live in Colorado - Colorado should be a genetic mixing ground for gray wolves as it was historically, and any gray wolf, regardless of subspecies or means of arrival, should be permitted to live in the state. Colorado’s plan should focus on restoring a self-sustaining, geographically distributed population of gray wolves, allowing for the migration and/or reintroduction of different gray wolf subspecies. Gray wolf subspecies should be allowed to reproduce, and their progeny should be permitted to
live where they find suitable habitat within Colorado.
Questions? We’re here to help! Contact Caitlin at email@example.com.