A special thanks to Rocky Mountain Wolf Project advisor, Rob Edward, for helping to inform this article. Rob Edward is a strategic advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, an all-volunteer organization with a vision to help facilitate coexistence between wolves and humans. Rob has been working to foment wolf restoring in Colorado since 1994.
Wolves are keystone species because they play a central role in the health and function of their ecosystems. Without them, there are notable changes in biodiversity, hydrology, and overall ecosystem productivity.
For tens of thousands of years, wolves have occupied North American grasslands, woodlands, deserts, forests, and tundra. “Anywhere there were large ungulates,” reports Rocky Mountain Wolf Project advisor Rob Edward, “there were wolves.” As social apex predators, wolves have played an essential role in maintaining ecological balance across the continent. Their presence has directly influenced the course of waterways, the vitality of vegetation, and the
behaviors and abundance of certain wildlife. Honored by many Indigenous nations as sacred guides, wolves are keepers of ecological equilibrium, a true keystone species for Colorado and the continent at large.
Why are Wolves Keystone Species?
1) They Regulate Overgrazing: Hunting in family units, wolves are unique carnivores because they confront their prey head on, running directly through herds of ungulates in search of the weakest link. While also bringing nourishment to the pack, this hunting strategy encourages elk and deer to move around the landscape more often, protecting areas from overgrazing. This, in turn, allows for vegetation and soil to recover between browsing events. In this way, the hunting behaviors of wolves drives sustainable use of land by herbivores.
2) Balance the Food Chain: Through natural predation, wolves help foment genetic health of ungulate populations. Since wolves target the vulnerable, sick, or weak, the carnivores help to keep a herd’s overall vitality strong. Keeping ungulate populations in check is important as it encourages other species to thrive, such as plants and insects. Additionally, the carcasses from a wolf pack’s kill supports the nutritional needs of scavengers, like eagles, bears, coyotes, and ravens.
3) They Improve Riparian Habitats: Keeping ungulate populations in check is important because, if overpopulated, they can destroy an ecosystem. For example, too many elk in a riparian area can lead to overconsumption of stabilizing trees like willow, cottonwood, and aspens. These trees help to protect against erosion and help to maintain the productivity and course of a waterway.
4) Increase Biodiversity: Improved riparian conditions have a rippling effect on many other species, notably beaver (another important keystone species). A healthy riparian habitat encourages beavers to inhabit the area and build dams from willow and aspen branches, which eventually leads to the slowing and deepening of waterways. These conditions are ideal for many fish species. Songbirds, as well as other wildlife, also depend on healthy riparian habitats for hydration, shelter, and shade. Wolves enrich the vitality of any region that they inhabit. From supporting birds and beavers, to insects and grasses, wolves are intricately linked to the productivity and biodiversity of North American ecology at large.
“A Campaign of Genocide”
Despite the many ways that wolves enrich our landscape, a violent past of excessive and inhumane hunting, trapping, and poisoning throughout the 1900s drastically reduced wolf populations across the continent. When European Americans first settled in the West, they brought with them their livestock. Clearing pasture and removing bison from the great plains were first steps to bringing their ranches to fruition. They also excessively hunted elk and deer to satisfy the growing demands of the meat market in the east coast. Between land conversions and drastic reductions in ungulate populations, wolves quickly lost both their food source, and much of their native prairie habitat. Ranchers complained that wolves were preying on their livestock, causing a dramatic uproar that began what Edward calls “a campaign of genocide” against wolves.
By 1914, the federal government had established a special branch, dubbed the U.S. Biological Survey, committed to eradicating wolves across the US. Millions of dollars went to training young men to track, attract, and kill wolves and their pups. Edward shares that poison, traps, direct shootings, and even beating pups to death were all methods used. These massacres nearly wiped-out wolves from the North American continent. In many states across the US, not a single wolf remained. By 1945, wolves were extinct in Colorado.
A few fragmented populations survived the brutal period in Canada. As big game recovered and the war against wolves waned in the latter half of the 1900s, some packs migrated south into Michigan, and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Today, wolf populations have partially recovered in the Northern Rocky Mountains, with steady populations in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California.
The campaign to kill wolves, however, is not over. Certain groups continue to circulate inaccurate information that wolves are bad for the cattle industry, dangerous to livestock, and that they deplete big game populations. As a result, it is legal and encouraged to hunt wolves in several US states including Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Idaho recently passed a bill to reduce their wolf population by 90%, meaning the slaughter of up to 1,300 wolves. Lawmakers are permitting aggressive hunting techniques such as the use of night vision goggles for late night hunting, as well as tracking and killing them with the assistance of motorized vehicles. This means that hunters can literally chase packs of wolves until they are too exhausted to continue, an unfair fight indeed.
To complicate the matter, last year the Trump administration lifted federal protections for gray wolves nationwide. Having enjoyed protection under the Endangered Species Act since 1978, the gray wolf has just barely regained footing in the Northern Rockies. Populations are still nowhere what they once were, and states like Colorado have had little to no wolf activity in the past 25 years. Support efforts to put the gray wolf back on the endangered species list, sign the petition.
Without wolves Edward notes that there are “widespread negative ecological consequences.” Beavers, willows, aspens, native fish, and many more species all suffer when wolves aren’t keeping the elk and deer on-the-move. Edward shares that reestablishing wolf populations to their native habitats can help to address these negative outcomes.
Reintroducing Wolves to Colorado
Last November, Coloradans passed Proposition 114, which mandates that wolf reintroduction must be in the works by December 2023 on Colorado’s western slope. Edward explains that the western edge of Colorado is specious with roughly 17 million acres of public land, and one of the largest elk populations in North America. Although specific plans remain the purview of the state game management agency, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, it is likely that the reintroduction team will bring family units of wolves from the Northern Rockies to western Colorado’s public lands, beginning in early 2024. If the wolves respond well to the relocation, Edward is optimistic that they may slowly repopulate much of the western half of Colorado, wherever elk numbers are sufficient to support them.
When considering the challenges to this reintroduction, Edward admits that there will always be people out there that dislike wolves. Therefore, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project team will continue to dispel misinformation about wolves and will build a program to support long-term coexistence strategies. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project will be “beating the drum” for coexistence between humans and wolves, helping a variety of stakeholders to understand that it is both possible and beneficial to live alongside wolves.
Areas where agencies have reintroduced wolves, like the Northern Rockies, have already seen increases in elk populations, not declines. Furthermore, livestock kills by wolves are negligible. There is no evidence to show that any rancher has ever gone out of business because of wolves, claims Edward. Furthermore, under Proposition 114, ranchers can rest easy knowing that the state will compensate them for any livestock lost to wolves. Edward laments that the socially perpetuated stigmas about wolves are likely not going anywhere, but over time, as the science continues to get out, a safer world for wolves is possible!
Importance of Wolves to Indigenous Culture
For thousands of years, and still today, wolves have been a revered species by many Indigenous nations, honored as teachers and guides and valuable members of planet Earth. Below is an excerpt from The Wolf: A Treaty of Cultural and Environmental Survival, sourced from the Global Indigenous Council, which speaks to the cultural significance of wolves:
“The wolf taught us to hunt and imparted that “those with hooves and horns” would sustain us physically, but “those with paws and claws” were to provide spiritual sustenance. Wolves gave of themselves to enable us to live the “Dog Days,” offering their progeny to accompany us, to help us travel and traverse vast distances, to protect us, as their descendants – domestic dogs – do today. We commit to perpetuate and continue our spiritual ceremonies, sacred societies, sacred narratives and sacred bundles in which the wolf has a unique place, which in practice is a means to embody the thoughts and beliefs of ecological balance. Realizing that the wolf is a foundation of our traditional ways, we commit to the ideal of preservation and restoration in all aspects of our respective cultures related to the wolf, including customs, practices, naming, beliefs, songs, astronomy and ceremonies.”
To learn more about wolves and Indigenous culture, visit the Global Indigenous Council’s website: https://www.globalindigenouscouncil.com/wolf-treaty
*To attend attend a public open house on the Wolf Restoration plan, Register Here.
*To Submit comments, visit the 2021 Comment Form.
*For a list of other open houses held across Colorado, Visit https://www.wolfengagementco.org/online-open-house-comment-form