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Conflicts over wolves mostly ‘social, governance issues’

The restoration of wolves to Colorado is an historic conservation effort to return and preserve the integrity of wild ecosystems in the Southern Rocky Mountains. This is why I feel compelled to respond to an article recently appearing in The Durango Herald, originating from The Colorado Sun, “How are wildlife officials preparing Coloradans for wolf reintroduction? With a brochure.”

That article fell woefully short of acknowledging the multidimensional effort conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in both wolf restoration and conflict minimization, and served to further tiresome misinformation.

As a longtime advocate for wildlife and wild places, I’ve followed this issue closely for many years. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the country’s most experienced wolf biologists, as well as various agency wildlife management personnel.

Let me assure your readers that CPW has gone to unprecedented lengths to prepare Coloradans for wolf restoration, including a public multiyear planning process, which was followed by months of even more public meetings of the CPW Commission.

CPW has dedicated numerous staff to this effort, hired two wolf biologists, a wolf conflict coordinator, and plans to hire five more full time livestock-carnivore conflict specialists next year.

There have been workshops and other public events held by CPW, Colorado State University Extension, and nongovernmental organizations. I have attended and offered feedback at several of these.

In terms of educational materials, and in addition to the brochure the article focused on, CPW has provided an in-depth Wolf Resource Guide. Colorado State University Extension has published an exhaustive compilation of the science related to wolves in Colorado titled “People and Predators: Colorado Wolves.”

I sympathize with the concerns of ranchers and hunters, but their fears are simply not matched by the experiences of other states where wolves have been restored. Colorado can expect livestock conflicts to be similar to what they are in the Northern Rockies, where wolves are present. Confirmed wolf depredations in those counties amount to less than one out of 1,000 of all livestock, or 0.01%.

Wolf effects on prey populations are likewise almost comically overblown. Far from being “destroyed,” there are more elk today in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming than before wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Idaho Fish & Game goes so far as to call this the “second golden age of elk hunting.”

Still, some hunters have been disappointed that elk are “not where they used to be.” This is because wolves are moving the elk around, fulfilling one of their vital ecological roles by discouraging overbrowsing.

The claim that wolves will “change our lives forever” is also overwrought. Enjoying Colorado’s great outdoors will be no different than it is currently. Common sense recommendations for hiking in wolf country will be the same as they are for hiking in bear country. Contrary to folklore, wolves are the least dangerous large carnivore in North America.

The article featured a rancher’s anecdote, suggesting there are more wolves here than have been verified. Such reports emerge every year. One rancher at the County Fair told me he believes there are wolves – as well as grizzly bears – in the La Plata Mountains. To be clear, CPW biologists know of only two wolves in Colorado, both living in North Park.

Where I think CPW can be faulted is in not making a concerted effort to factually counter these baseless mythologies.

Conflicts over wolves, like many wildlife issues, are not so much about the animals themselves as underlying social and governance issues. Despite that, before this month is over, the first wolves should be on the ground in Colorado. Thanks to the visionary efforts of wolf advocates, the voters of Colorado and our state wildlife agency, we are well-prepared for these long-missing natives to retake their rightful place as essential members of our wildlife heritage.

Clint McKnight is a former National Park Ranger, and longtime advocate for wildlife and wild places.