The wolves are coming to Colorado, and so far I haven’t seen anyone preparing for their arrival. Letters appear in local newspapers suggesting ranchers will be the victims once the wolves return. Hunters won’t find elk. Outfitters will go bankrupt. The myth of wolves is at the root of this concern, but the reality of wolves is not.
Wolf advocates have downplayed the negative impact of wolves. The adoption of Proposition 114 is a feather in the hat for those whose goal was to establish connectivity between wolves from Canada to Mexico. Now comes the hardest part. If Colorado is to be different from the Northern Rockies, where wolves are hunted, or southern New Mexico/Arizona, where reintroduction has failed miserably in a hostile human environment, reintroduction has to be done differently.
The key lies in understanding wolves. There is no doubt that breeders, hunters and outfitters will be affected. Rural residents will be too. People will have to adapt. Wolves will set elk herds in motion, so hunters will have to “hunt” to find them. Livestock predation will occur. Domestic animals will be killed. These are facts.
Yet none of these people will suffer as much as they fear. A single rancher, as in the case of North Park, could find himself isolated because a pack of wolves has established a territory that includes his ranch. Pure chance caused this pack to chase a herd of elk through their cattle and put them to flight.
Wolves have been extinct in Colorado for at least 80 years. Thus, people’s opinion of wolves is rooted in hearsay. Wolves and humans coexist in relative peace in places in Europe, like Spain, where wolves have never been eliminated.
It would be very helpful if Colorado Parks and Wildlife had a full-time outreach person providing factual information about wolves. Conflicts can be reduced if the public has a better understanding of wolf behavior.
Most wolf packs never disturb livestock. Ranching has always been a tough way to make a living, but ranchers live off the land in a way city dwellers never will. As people familiar with our wild lands, some may perhaps come to see wolves as a fascinating new neighbor. A difficult neighbor for sure. Can we be curious? Can we be fascinated?
It’s time to prepare. Farmers would be well served by studying both non-lethal methods and husbandry practices that minimize losses. Unsupervised cattle ranching in the mountains where wolves are present will have to change. The Colorado Cattleman’s Association can play a lead role in providing training in herding practices that reduce livestock losses. Similarly, wool farmers in Colorado might seek sheepdog breeds in Europe that successfully protect against wolves.
Ranching is an integral part of Colorado. Ranches offer open spaces, wildlife habitat and awe-inspiring vistas that make Colorado an incredible state. Only if ranching remains profitable will ranches continue to provide a shield against a landscape filled with subdivisions.
The myth of wolves is very present in the minds of the inhabitants of West Slope. The reality of wolves is less frightening. If opponents and advocates of wolves remain stuck in their opinions, reintroduction will lead to fear and conflict. It is the people of Colorado, breeders, hunters, providers and wolf advocates who will make the reintroduction a success or a dismal failure.
I don’t see us on this path. I see stubbornness on both sides. Unless we all start preparing, the current trajectory is toward dead sheep, dead cows, and dead wolves.
James P. McMahon holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Ecology and Animal Behavior from the University of Illinois and has extensive experience in community organizing. He lives in Durango.