Return of the Wolf!

Posted: Dec 17, 2017

In 1995, packs of wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho under the special, more relaxed rules that apply to “experimental, non-essential” populations under Endangered Species Act (ESA). The wolves have thrived and are now firmly established in both regions.

Last week, owners of the High Lonesome Ranch near De Beque, Colorado called the Colorado Division of Wildlife to confirm the presence of a wolf pack that they believe has taken up residence at the ranch. Workers have reported wolf sightings, scat, and howls on this hunting and fishing preserve in western Colorado. Biologists sent animal droppings to the University of California – Los Angeles for DNA testing and the results are not yet known. Federal officials claim they haven’t yet seen sufficient evidence. But if the presence of wolves in Colorado is confirmed, they will, ironically receive a much higher level of protection than currently exists for Wyoming and Idaho wolves, courtesy of the Endangered Species Act.

Before our society began to truly appreciate the importance of biodiversity, the federal government funded bounty hunters who eradicated all wolves in Colorado by the 1940’s. Similar efforts throughout the country pushed the gray wolf species dangerously close to extinction.

While ranchers and wolves have had a tumultuous history, Paul Vahldiek, owner of the High Lonesome Ranch, says he welcomes the return of the wolf. “It seemed logical to me, based on what happened in Yellowstone National Park, that keystone species like wolves might have a positive effect on biodiversity and restoring the health of aspens on this property,” Vahldiek said.

Others, including rural residents from surrounding states where wolves have been reintroduced, do not share Vahldiek’s enthusiasm, claiming that wolves have devastated livestock herds and threatened human lives. In Idaho, State Representative Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries introduced a bill on Monday encouraging the governor to declare a state of emergency and require the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to use “any means” to reduce wolf numbers.

Wolves and other predators play a very important role in biodiversity. By helping to keep ungulates such as elk and deer on the move wolves may be the answer to the widespread aspen die-off occurring throughout the Rocky Mountains.

Biologically speaking, wolves can live just about anywhere people allow them. As a legal matter, wolf recovery in Colorado will depend on the ESA and the success of the state and federal governments in adhering to the sometimes inflexible requirements in that law. But ultimately, wolf recovery in Colorado depends on the good stewardship of property owners like Paul Vahldiek and on all Coloradoans, whose informed opinion can give the wolf a fighting chance on social and political fronts.
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Judson Brehmer
Project Manager, Red Lodge Clearinghouse

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