While a deeply divided and highly partisan country focuses much of its political fervor elsewhere, in Colorado, the 2020 election cycle is going to the dogs … err, wolves, that is.
Weeks before Colorado voters take on Initiative 107 — which would pursue the re-introduction of gray wolves in the state — nature may already be taking its course. Recent news indicates an active pack of gray wolves may already be living and breeding in the northwestern corner of the state.
According to a news release from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a recent open-records request by Colorado Public Radio gives details about the sighting of an adult wolf and pup from a state biologist. When CPR reached out to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the agency indicated there was no reason to doubt the sighting.
That wolves have been sighted in the state is not surprising since Colorado Parks and Wildlife notes that the species was historically found on the state’s rugged landscape for generations.
But when market hunting pressure put such a dent in big-game animal herd numbers that wolves turned their attention to domestic livestock, the resulting shooting, trapping and poisoning of wolves by farmers and others caused the predators to be extirpated from the state by 1940.
In recent years, as contentious wolf politics has competed with water rights for one of the Intermountain West’s most divisive issues, wolves have been making a steady comeback in states to the north and northwest of Colorado. That includes the Yellowstone National Park region in Wyoming, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Rocky Mountain wolf (Canis lupus) as endangered in 1973, along with designating the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as one of three recovery areas for the species.
'Now more than ever, it’s fiscally irresponsible. Proponents continue to push for millions in new public spending for a forced and totally unnecessary wolf introduction even though wolves are already confirmed on the ground and taxpayer money to fund it simply is not available.'— Kyle Weaver, RMEF president and CEO
The restoration efforts have certainly caused fiery opposition in the region, from livestock owners concerned about their herds to elk and mule-deer hunters not wanting to see the hard work of conserving vital habitat be for naught as herd population numbers decline. Proponents of the reintroduction efforts believe increasing wolf numbers in the wild is a necessary action, and that biodiversity issues override the concerns of critics.
Over the years, wolves have been reintroduced in northern Rocky Mountain states like Idaho and Montana. In Idaho alone, RMEF officials note that 35 wolves were reintroduced by the federal government in the mid-1990s, with those wolves increasing in number and eventually pushing into Washington and Oregon.
A Look at Gray Wolf Numbers
How has that reintroduction effort fared? RMEF says that Oregon now has an estimated minimum population of 158 wolves, a 15-percent increase since 2018. Washington shows its largest wolf number in recent times according to RMEF, now sitting at 108 wolves, an 11-percent increase since 2018. And in Idaho, where some of the reintroductions occurred, RMEF notes that Idaho Fish and Game reports a minimum wolf population of at least 1,500 wolves as of last summer.
How about Montana after reintroduction efforts there? The RMEF notes that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks estimated back in 2013 that the state’s minimum wolf count was 627, although in reality, the actual count was likely 25-to 35-percent higher.
RMEF, the well-known Missoula, Mont.-based conservation organization, also pointed out in 2017 that such actual figures would be between 783 and 846 wolves, some 500- to 600-percent larger than federal recovery goals set more than 20 years ago.
Wyoming has also seen its wolf numbers go up considerably after the National Park Service reports that from 1995 through 1997, a total of 41 wild wolves from Canada and northwest Montana were released in Yellowstone.
With Yellowstone’s wolves serving as a likely source for the wolves now being seen in northwestern Colorado, how have those reintroduction efforts fared?
The National Park Service reports there were an estimated 528 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (which includes private lands as well as Yellowstone NPS) as of 2015. In January this year, there were at least 94 wolves distributed in eight packs across the park itself. In general, NPS notes there typically have been between 83 and 108 wolves in Yellowstone over the last decade or so.
As elk hunters predicted years ago, herd population numbers of Rocky Mountain elk have declined significantly in several places as wolf numbers grow and predation increases. According to RMEF, the population of the Northern Yellowstone elk herd has fallen from nearly 20,000 in the mid-1990s to less than 4,000 today, the first time such a low figure has ever been recorded.
While RMEF acknowledges there are other factors in play, it also notes it’s no coincidence the precipitous drop in elk numbers around Yellowstone has taken place since the wolf reintroduction efforts a generation ago. It also points out that in central Idaho, a similar story has unfolded with elk numbers down 43 percent since 2002. And those are only two examples since similar tales can be told in a variety of other places where there are now higher wolf numbers.
Is Wolf Reintroduction Needed?
Now the battle has shifted into Colorado, where a wolf sighting in 2007 has expanded to an apparent active wolf pack breeding and roaming the ground in northwest Colorado.
As many savvy elk hunters know, that area is incredibly important to Centennial State wapiti, a spot filled with wild elk and one of Colorado’s most important hunting hotspots. As noted by Roger Wheaton a couple of years ago in his Rocky Mountain Elk Hunting Forecast 2018 article for Game and Fish Magazine, the "Rabbit Ear and White River herds in northwest Colorado are the largest (in the state), ranging from Interstate 70 to the Wyoming border. Grand Mesa and Middle Park elk are plentiful, as well."
With wolves already on the ground, RMEF officials are questioning why Colorado voters would vote to approve a ballot issue to forcibly reintroduce even more wolves into the state when they are already on the landscape and reproducing. With that idea in mind, RMEF strongly opposes a forced reintroduction of wolves into Colorado.
As elk hunters predicted years ago, herd population numbers of Rocky Mountain elk have declined significantly in several places as wolf numbers grow and predation increases. The population of the Northern Yellowstone elk herd has fallen from nearly 20,000 in the mid-1990s to less than 4,000 today, the lowest figure ever recorded.
"We have said this from the beginning and nothing has changed," said Kyle Weaver, RMEF president and CEO, in a news release. "Using the ballot box to circumvent professional wildlife managers and create wildlife management policy is reckless.
"On top of that, now more than ever, it's fiscally irresponsible. Proponents continue to push for millions in new public spending for a forced and totally unnecessary wolf introduction even though wolves are already confirmed on the ground and taxpayer money to fund it simply is not available.”
In addition to the elk numbers that will be in peril with even more wolves introduced into Colorado, the wolves already in place will be at risk themselves. The RMEF notes the species is highly territorial and wolves attacking and preying on other wolves is a leading cause of wolf deaths.
Also, there’s a huge financial part of the equation noted above since Colorado is already dealing with big spending cuts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. RMEF says the Colorado legislature has made some big cuts as the state deals with a $3-billion shortfall due to the coronavirus outbreak, and the 2021 financial outlook appears equally bleak.
Why do the monetary aspects of Initiative 107 matter? Because the reintroduction and management efforts of wolves takes money, and lots of it.
According to CPR, Initiative 107—which reached the ballot earlier this year after enough signatures were acquired on a petition—would force the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to come up with a plan to reintroduce and manage wolves, beginning such work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the end of 2023.
What would the price tag of that effort be? According to a fiscal impact document referred to in the CPR story noted above, it would be some $5.69 million spread out over eight years.
With controversy and outcry building from various corners about wolf-reintroduction efforts in Colorado, along with the impact on the state’s elk herd numbers and bank account, expect the rhetoric to get turned up a few notches over the next couple of months prior to the November election.