STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — While other Colorado residents spent their stay-at-home days binge-watching Netflix shows or trying to bake Instagram-worthy loaves of bread amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry Desjardin developed an obsession with wolves.
More specifically, Desjardin, a conservationist in Routt County, wanted to know how bringing wolves back to Colorado would impact the environment and what would be required to ensure a balance in the ecosystem.
Those are among the top questions posed by Proposition 114, a ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves, specifically the gray wolf, to Western Colorado. It marks the first time voters get to decide whether or not to bring back an endangered species, a decision that usually falls to wildlife managers. This has become a major point of contention for naysayers to the proposition, who claim it turns what should be a science-based approach into a political campaign.
The debate over wolf reintroduction has become one of the most controversial issues facing Coloradans, on par with polarizing opinions over climate change or gun laws.
“Even among the conservation community, people are split,” Desjardin said.
Proponents say wolves could improve the environment by restoring natural order and help to bring back an endangered species that once roamed freely across the West.
Opponents, particularly ranchers and hunters, worry about the threats to livestock and wildlife. Some also point to the natural migration of wolves into Colorado, contending that human intervention is unnecessary. Earlier this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed the presence of a group of wolves in Moffat County near the Wyoming border.
People’s perception of wolves, either positive or negative, is often shrouded in some degree of myth. Those in favor of wolf reintroduction tend to see them as symbols of unadulterated wildness and their return to the landscape a way to reclaim a world tarnished by human intervention.
Opponents, on the other hand, believe wolves prey ruthlessly on livestock and pets.
At the same time, both sides claim their arguments are rooted in science and hard facts. All of this makes for a complicated, contentious debate that, ultimately, will be decided at the ballot box.
A brief history of wolves in the West
Before the arrival of Europeans, wolves lived in abundance across North America. As settlers moved across the continent in the 1800s and 1900s, looking to carve out farmland and build communities, they decimated wolf populations.
The wolf emerged as a barrier to creating a civilized society. Even President Theodore Roosevelt, a man heralded for his conservationism, called the wolf a “beast of waste and desolation.”
By the 1940s, with the help of government-subsidized wolf extermination programs, the animals were almost extinct, disappearing entirely in Colorado.
With the birth of the modern conservation movement, public perception of the animals warmed. Wolves were one of the first species protected with the passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. At the time, most packs lived in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
When U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials started reintroducing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, it marked the first deliberate effort to return a top-level carnivore to such a large habitat. It has been largely successful, with wolf populations thriving and once again spreading across the West.
Understanding Proposition 114
This year, Coloradans garnered enough support for wolves to put the matter to a public vote in November. Proposition 114, if approved, would task the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, a governor-appointed citizen board that sets regulations and policies for state parks and wildlife programs, with devising a plan to reintroduce gray wolves on land west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023.
The plan must include a system to pay fair compensation to livestock owners for any losses due to wolves, according to the proposal.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission opposes intentional wolf reintroduction to the state. In a 2016 resolution, the commission said it recommends allowing the animals to return naturally.
Parks and Wildlife, the agency that carries out the commission’s regulations, has decided to restrict its role in the matter to providing scientific information about wolves without expressing an opinion on the ballot initiative.
Many questions remain about how the program will look or operate, which will not be answered until, and if, the proposition passes.
State wildlife officials estimate the reintroduction and compensation programs would cost about $5.7 million during the next eight years, but it is not clear where Colorado would get the money. It also is not clear exactly where in Colorado the wolves would be introduced.
For now, wolf management is under the jurisdiction of Fish and Wildlife. This will continue to be the case until the species is delisted from the Endangered Species Act.
In the Northern Rockies, reintroduction programs have fostered sustainable populations to the point that wolves already have been delisted as an endangered species. Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have since allowed wolf hunting to keep the predators in check.
President Donald Trump has announced plans to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species List by the end of the year and return authority to the states, but the move has faced strong opposition. It is uncertain how long the process could take, and implementation of any final decisions could face lengthy lawsuits.
Nonetheless, Coloradans have a choice before them, so it is important to understand the potential effects of Proposition 114.
Effects on wildlife and hunting
How wolves could impact Colorado ecosystems is top of mind for both proponents and adversaries of wolf reintroduction.
During his days of pandemic-caused isolation, Desjardin devised a mathematical-based simulation to measure some of these effects.
“Newton invented calculus while he was in lockdown for the plague. I only built this wolf simulator,” joked Desjardin, who also serves as president of Keep Routt Wild.
In a presentation recently to the Routt Board of County Commissioners, he claimed it is the only quantitative evaluation on the impact of wolves in Colorado.
Dr. Matt Holloran, a biologist who grew up in Routt County and now works on the Front Range, worked with Desjardin to develop the simulator. Both said they are taking a neutral position on Proposition 114.
What their simulator essentially shows is that Colorado could accommodate wolves, but it would require a reduction in hunting for the animal’s primary prey, namely elk, deer and moose. If 100 wolves were introduced, the state would need to decrease the number of hunting licenses for elk by about 5% to offset the number killed by wolves, according to their data. Bringing more wolves would require a proportional decrease in hunting, Desjardin said.
Less hunting would mean less revenue from hunters. Using data on the value of the hunting industry in Colorado, Desjardin estimated wolf introduction could cost $24 million in lost economic output.
This data is speculative, but Desjardin said his simulation was able to predict elk population and hunting rates in Montana. From 1995 to 2018, elk populations in the state increased by about 50%, while the number of elk killed by hunters rose just 20%.
It is important to note that, when it comes to economics, states that allow wolf hunting generate additional revenue through those licenses. In the 2016-17 hunting season alone, Montana raised $393,000 from wolf licenses, according to an annual report.
There also could be money generated from wolf-centric tourism. One study from 2008 estimated that wolf-watching activities in Yellowstone National Park generated a combined $35 million annually for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
In a report, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks said wolf impacts on big game are variable from year to year and from one habitat to another. In some areas, elk herds have decreased since wolf reintroduction, while in others they have grown or stayed about the same.
“Wolf predation by itself does not initiate declines in prey populations, but it can exacerbate declines or lengthen periods of prey population rebounds,” according to the report.
Eric Washburn, a local hunter and proponent of wolf reintroduction, claims the animals can improve game herds. A couple years ago, he had to dispose of a mule deer buck he shot after it tested positive for chronic wasting disease. The contagious neurological disease has been documented in at least 27 Colorado counties.
Because wolves tend to target sick or dying prey, some experts believe they could help reduce the number of infected big game. Others are more skeptical, arguing that adding more predators would cause further stress to ailing herds.
Wolves’ benefits to the land are far-reaching, Washburn claims. By changing big game herd behavior, other species, from willow trees to songbirds to beavers, have better chances to thrive.
He also attributes a rise in hunting revenue for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming at least in part to the existence of wolves.
“The story is really only good,” Washburn said.
Effects on ranching
The story does not sound so good to rancher Jeff Meyers, a member of the Routt County Cattlemen’s Association. He argues Proposition 114 poses “unacceptable levels of risk” for local ranching families.
As Meyers told the commissioners, losing livestock to wolves is not a likelihood — it is a certainty.
“The question is will the compensation be fair,” he said.
Though Proposition 114 would establish funding to compensate ranchers, Meyers is skeptical it will actually offset the cost of losing his Angus cattle. As he explained, raising the animals in a high-altitude climate is no cheap task, and a statewide compensation program might not offer payments commensurate with all of the work he puts into the meticulous breeding and rearing of his livestock.
Particularly as ranchers already are struggling with rising taxes and water shortages, Meyers worries what an added stressor would do to local agriculture.
Even a reintroduction proponent like Washburn concedes wolves will kill some livestock, but he argues the losses are comparatively small.
In 2015, for example, wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho killed 148 cattle, 208 sheep, three dogs and three horses, according to a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a tiny fraction of the millions of livestock lost each year due to non-predator causes, such as illness or weather.
As some agricultural leaders argue, the number of livestock lost to wolves likely is underreported because it can be difficult to prove.
What bothers Meyers is that, in his view, the majority of people supporting Proposition 114, namely people in urban areas or on the Front Range, would not be directly affected by it.
“It’s not your calves that are going to be killed. It’s not your lambs. It’s not your colts. It’s not your border collie,” Meyers said. “You will be voting to be killing someone else’s lambs, someone else’s calves, someone else’s best friend.”
Only time will tell
In the end, it is impossible to know exactly how Proposition 114 will affect the state.
While Idaho, Montana and Wyoming provide a certain degree of similarity to Colorado, each state manages wolves differently. The success of reintroduction in one state does not guarantee its success in another. Wildlife management does not exist in a vacuum, and a multitude of environmental, social and political forces could sway outcomes.
The public seems to be in wide support of the measure. An online survey last year conducted by Colorado State University showed 84% of residents would vote in favor of wolf reintroduction, while 16% would vote against.
Groups supporting Proposition 114 have deep pockets, with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund raising more than $1.7 million in the past two years, mostly from out-of-state donors.
On the opposing side, two groups, Coloradans Protecting Wildlife and the Stop the Wolf PAC, have raised about $700,000 collectively.
November will show whether the numbers speak for themselves.