Hunting groups enlist to fight wolf re-introduction

Colorado is becoming a battleground for wolf reintroduction.

Wolf reintroduction is on the ballot in Colorado this November, and a prominent hunting group is joining agricultural interests in opposing the measure.

Hunting and outdoor advocacy group Safari Club International recently announced that it raised $140,000 to fight the wolf proposal.

“Wolves are here, they are going to naturally reproduce. They are federally protected, so we just don’t need to add more to the mix,” said Brett Axton, president of the Colorado chapter of the Safari Club.

The funds will be used for advertising and education as part of the Rethink Wolves campaign, Axton said.

The opposition’s fundraising so far is dwarfed by the $1.3 million Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund spent in 2019 getting the wolf reintroduction proposal on the ballot.

The bulk of the wolf action fund’s money went to Landslide Political to collect the needed signatures for the ballot initiative. The group ended the year $91,000 in the red, according to a Jan. 15 state campaign finance disclosure.

The Safari Club will be working with Coloradans Protecting Wildlife, which raised just over $10,000 in 2019, with the biggest donations coming from the Colorado Wool Growers Association and the Colorado Farm Bureau.

The major contributors to the wolf action fund in 2019 were the Tides Center ($333,649), Defenders of Wildlife ($230,600), entrepreneur and author Timothy Ferriss ($122,500), and Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which gathered donations from zoos across the country to match $50,000 from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs.

“As we’re working to be better stewards of our land, we’re recognizing the need for that natural apex predator on the landscape with us,” said John Murtaugh, a representative of Defenders of Wildlife.

Murtaugh discounted the idea that wolves are already coming to the state.

“It takes more than just a single pack to establish a population,” Murtaugh said, adding that since reintroduction efforts began in Yellowstone and elsewhere in 1995, wolves have gone as far west as Washington and Oregon.

“But they haven’t made it the couple hundred miles south to Colorado,” he said.

Murtaugh and Axton disagree about whether wolves lead to elk population decline. Even when elk populations declined 50 percent in Yellowstone between 2000 and 2004, park biologists were hesitant to place all the blame on wolves.

Beyond Yellowstone and southern Idaho, “I’m not aware of anywhere wolves had led to a decline in elk population,” Murtaugh said.

Elk populations in the Roaring Fork and Eagle River valleys are already in decline, and herds have decreased 50 percent since 2000. Wildlife activists attribute the decline to human population increases and encroachment into winter and summer elk ranges.

But for Axton, the risk that wolves will deplete elk — and even moose and wild horses — is too high.

“(Wolves) are going to wipe out the moose population in Colorado, something we’ve worked hard, spending million of dollars to establish. Now, you’re going to potentially bring in a predator that will indiscriminately kill moose,” he said.

Fewer hunting tags could also mean lower revenues for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Axton pointed out.

Wolves actually improve the health of elk herds, according to Sierra Club’s Colorado wildlife chair Delia Malone.

“In my mind, if I were a hunter, wolves would be my best friends because they are improving the health of the elk herds,” Malone said.

Wolves hunt weaker, older or diseased elk, while humans hunt adult cows and bulls that are still of reproductive age, Malone said.

Plus, wolves disperse elk and deer herds, which helps reduce the spread of chronic wasting disease, Malone added.

Along with the Safari Club, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation strongly opposes wolf reintroduction, and a resolution proposed in the Utah state house Thursday states that wolf introduction could “have a significant negative economic impact to the state” and disrupt wildlife management.

It’s also unwise to use the voting process to force management decisions on wildlife officials, Axton said.

“Let’s make sure that we’re not managing wildlife by the ballot box, and let’s focus on educating people about the wolves, and what the economic and ecological impact that these animals are going to have on wildlife and livestock,” he said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated Mr. Axton’s name. Brett Axton is the president of the Colorado chapter of Safari Club International.

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