Wolves at the door: November ballot proposal of high interest to Colorado hunters

A pack of wolves appears to be active in northwest Colorado after officials verified it last January with eyewitness sightings, a ravaged elk carcass and, yes, scat analysis, said Randy Hampton, Public Information Officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“We know for a fact that wolves poop in the woods,” Hampton said, pausing before adding the punchline. “They are like bears that way.”

It’s possibly the only time wolves have inspired any kind of joke in Colorado. But it’s probably an issue that could benefit from some levity.

Prairie dogs may be the only other animal that raises as much dust as wolves between advocates and those who don’t want to see them around. And the news that a wolf pack is living in Colorado for the first since the 1930s made battle lines that were already drawn because of a November ballot proposal to reintroduce the canine predators all the more fierce.

The pro-wolf side, for lack of a better description, raises the point that wolves were part of the Colorado landscape long before settlers arrived, and calls them an integral part of the food chain that Colorado sorely misses. Some areas of the state are so crowded with elk that wildlife officers have to shoot them, and chronic wasting disease remains a problem for big game herds.

The anti-wolf side includes some ranchers who don’t want to see their livestock meet the same fate as that ravaged bull elk, pet owners worried about losing their animals to wolves and some big game hunters who would rather not share Colorado’s elk and deer with these apex predators.

In a nutshell, it’s complicated.

Late last December, a group hunting Game Management Units 201-202 in Irish Canyon found a bull elk carcass “ripped to pieces.” The tracks found around the dead elk were consistent with wolves, as well as the condition of the tattered carcass. In October 2019, hunters also observed and recorded video of a pack of six wolves in GMUs 201-202, not far from where the other hunters found the carcass. Wildlife officials are confident that the wolves remain in northwest Colorado.

With both prime elk hunting and a long agricultural heritage, Moffatt County last summer became the first in the state to adopt a resolution in opposition to the reintroduction of wolves to Colorado. Commissioners said they were worried about wolves damaging both stalwarts of Moffat’s economy.

“They’re going to kill whatever they can,” District 1 Commissioner Don Cook stated bluntly. “That’s probably going to have an impact on the hunting and recreation in that area sooner rather than later.”

Regardless, a proposal to reintroduce the gray wolf to Colorado is on the 2020 ballot this November. The measure would require CPW to design and carry out a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves by 2023. The last gray wolves in Colorado were killed in 1940.

“Since the 1940s, when Colorado’s last wolf was killed, our ecosystem has suffered,” writes The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, which is leading the ballot measure. “A lack of natural balance means that too many elk and deer eat away the vegetation that holds streams and rivers back, leading to erosion and the disruption of even more habitats, like those for native beavers and songbirds. Wolves also naturally limit the spread of disease, such as chronic wasting disease, by taking vulnerable animals out of the population.”

CPW has no position on the ballot measure, although agency staff says the idea that wolves could help with chronic wasting disease hasn’t been studied enough to make that determination. Still, advocates believe that wolves make animal populations healthier because of the pack’s preference for weaker animals, whether due to disease or older age. According to the Sierra Club’s Colorado wildlife chair, Delia Malone, wolves actually improve the health of elk herds.

“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.

The question of whether or not wolves are able to re-establish a viable population without human assistance in Colorado further muddies the issue. In addition to the recently identified pack, a lone, radio-collared wolf has been tracked to Jackson County’s North Park. That wolf and the six-pack are believed to be the only wolves in Colorado.

“The important thing to know is they are a federally endangered species, and that means we don’t have any authority over them,” Hampton said.

The state helps the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gather data on wolves in Colorado, and CPW has had contact with landowners on the issue. The wolves didn’t take CPW by surprise.

“Even in 2015, we knew they would disperse into Colorado,” Hampton said.

Hampton did say that wolves could have a harder time here than in other states, despite the fact that reintroductions have done well in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington as of 2016. Reintroduction efforts have led to the restoration of some 6,000 wolves among those states.

“When it comes to Colorado, it’s much more challenging,” Hampton said. “The whole dynamic is different than those big, wide-open places.”

Colorado has a population of 6 million people, along with millions of visitors who come to recreate. A confrontation may be inevitable at some point, although wolves don’t pose a dire threat to humans.

“Aggressive behavior from wild wolves towards humans is rare,” according to Eric Odell, species conservation program manager, in a report he wrote on wolves. “However, as with any wild animal, encounters do happen. Most without incident.”

Wolves have affected ungulate populations in areas where they’ve been reintroduced, although it’s hard to measure exactly how many big game were killed by wolves. Wolves consume 7 to 10 pounds of meat per day, and elk and deer are primary prey species for wolves, although they will take many opportunities to eat and can live anywhere there’s food.

While a few states have introduced wolf hunts as a means to manage growing populations, the animals remain protected under the Endangered Species Act and illegally killing a wolf is punishable by up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Because of that protection, opponents say wolves don’t need to be reintroduced. Hunting advocacy group Safari Club International recently announced that it raised $140,000 to fight Colorado’s wolf ballot initiative, standing alongside other hunting groups in strong opposition to the proposed re-introduction. While it’s true that elk are thriving here, SCI expressed concerns about Colorado’s struggling deer herds and a reestablished moose population that has managed to buck the trend of declining populations elsewhere in the nation.

The pro-wolf community argues that one pack won’t establish a viable population, although they could live on their own here for years. According to CPW, a pack is not likely to leave its territory as a group. Even the single wolf could live on its own, although the animals prefer to be with packs.

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

Time may tell if Axton’s prediction holds true. For now the only certainty about wolves in Colorado is that, come November, the people will have spoken.