Wolves are coming to Colorado and, so far, I have not witnessed people preparing for their arrival. Letters appear in local papers, suggesting that ranchers will be the victims once wolves return. Hunters won’t find elk. Outfitters will go broke. The myth of wolves is driving this concern, but the reality of wolves is not.
Wolf advocates have downplayed the negative impact of wolves. The passing of Proposition 114 is a feather in the cap for those whose goal was to establish connectivity between wolves from Canada to Mexico. Now comes the hard part. If Colorado is to be different from the Northern Rockies, where wolves are being hunted, or southern New Mexico/Arizona, where reintroduction is a dismal failure in a hostile human environment, reintroduction must be done differently.
The key lies in understanding wolves. There’s no doubt that ranchers, hunters and outfitters will be affected. Rural residents will be too. People will have to adapt. Wolves will put elk herds on the move so hunters will have to “hunt” to find them. Livestock predation will occur. Pets will be killed. These are facts.
Still, none of these people will suffer nearly as much as they fear. A single rancher, such as the case in North Park, might find himself singled out because a wolf pack established a territory that includes his ranch. Pure chance had that pack chase a herd of elk through his cattle and start them on the run.
Wolves have been missing from Colorado for at least 80 years. So people’s views of wolves are rooted in hearsay. Wolves and humans co-exist in relative peace in places in Europe, like Spain, where wolves were never eliminated.
It would be most helpful if Colorado Parks and Wildlife were to dedicate a full-time person to educational outreach, providing factual information about wolves. Conflict can be reduced if the public has a better understanding of wolf behavior.
Most wolf packs never bother livestock. Ranching has always been a hard way to make a living, but ranchers live on the land in ways that city folk never will. As people who know our wildlands, perhaps some can come to see wolves as a new and fascinating neighbor. A difficult neighbor to be sure. Can we be curious? Can we be fascinated?
It’s time to prepare. Ranchers would be well-served by studying both the nonlethal methods and stockmanship practices that result in minimizing losses. Running untended livestock in the mountains where wolves are present will have to change. The Colorado Cattleman’s Association can take a lead role by providing training in stockmanship practices that reduce livestock losses. Likewise, Colorado wool growers could be researching sheep dog breeds in Europe that successfully protect against wolves.
Ranching is an integral part of Colorado. Ranches provide open space, wildlife habitat, and grand vistas that make Colorado an amazing state. It is only if ranching remains profitable that ranches will continue to provide a shield against a landscape filled with subdivisions.
The myth of wolves lives large in the minds of West Slope residents. The reality of wolves is less daunting. If wolf opponents and advocates remain stuck in their views, reintroduction will result in fear and conflict. It is the people of Colorado, ranchers, hunters, outfitters and wolf advocates alike who will make reintroduction a success or a dismal failure.
I do not see us on that path. I see obstinacy on both sides. Unless we all start to prepare, the current trajectory is toward dead sheep, dead cows and dead wolves.
James P. McMahon has a Bachelor of Science in ecology and animal behavior from the University of Illinois, and extensive experience in community organizing. He lives in Durango.