2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Anthology
This critical edition explores the past and future of wolves in Colorado.
Originally published in 1929, “The Last Stand of the Pack” is a historical account of the extermination of what were then believed to be the last wolves in Colorado.
In this new edition, Carhart and Young’s original text is accompanied by an extensive introduction with biographical details on Arthur Carhart and an overview of the history of wolf eradication in the west; chapters by prominent wildlife biologists, environmentalists, wolf reintroduction activists, and ranchers Tom Compton, Bonnie Brown, Mike Phillips, Norman Bishop, and Cheney Gardner; and an epilogue considering reintroduction of wolves in Colorado.
The following is the epilogue:
In Colorado we have twelve streams named Wolf Creek. In Mineral County on the Continental Divide, Wolf Creek Pass crosses the San Juan Mountains at 10,850 feet. Three miles above the pass is Lobo Outlook, yet we have no wolves in our state. Arthur Carhart’s book “The Last Stand of the Pack” describes in grim detail the struggle to pursue and kill the last Colorado wolves still ranging in the wild in the 1920s. Across America the same predator mania continued. The frontier had officially ended in 1890 and the last vestiges of wilderness had to be cleansed of their large predators, especially the feared, gray timber wolves, which once have numbered in the thousands in Colorado.
“In the span of less than fifty years man had systematically, consciously, intentionally killed every wolf in the West . . . Hundreds of thousands of wolves were killed—some in the name of protecting livestock, some for their pelts, some because we believed it was our inalienable right, and some just out of cold, hard vengeance and cruelty, a cruelty we so often attribute to the wolf,” writes Renee Askins.
The Denver Post states that the Bureau of Biological Survey, the BBS, claimed to have killed Colorado’s last wolf in 1935. Scholar Michael Robinson believed the date was 1945 in Conejos County southwest of Alamosa. Either way it has been decades since Colorado’s mountains have heard the full-throated howls of a wolf pack on a moonlit night, but that may be changing. Single wolves are returning to their former habitat and a breeding pair may meet in the next decade if wolves in Wyoming remain on the Endangered Species List.
Across Colorado in the early 20th century, wolf killing continued as expertly detailed by Arthur Carhart in his thoughtful book, “The Last Stand of the Pack.” He wrote it ten years after he’d been at Trappers Lake. Ranchers wanted wolves banished and they sought the help of a new federal bureau.
By the 1900s at the head of Parachute Creek, wolves chased yearling calves, chewing and damaging the legs of those they caught. Ivo Lindauer, from a long standing Parachute ranch family, claims, “until the first of July, local ranchers would have as many as 25 yearlings in for doctoring with carbolic acid and tar until they healed up. Ranchers used every method they could think of in an attempt to eliminate the wolves,” and that included contacting the Bureau of Biological Survey.
With raw words, sparing no blood, Arthur Carhart describes the last wolves killed in Colorado. This is nature writing at its best without anthropomorphizing. Carhart makes clear the economic losses suffered by ranchers and their visceral animosity towards wolves. Always on the run, harassing livestock because of the depletion in game, the last wolves had names like Old Lefty from Eagle County, the Phantom Wolf near Fruita, the Greenhorn Wolf south of Pueblo, the Unaweep Wolf from Unaweep Canyon, Big Foot at DeBeque, Old Whitey near Trinidad, and Rags the Digger at Cathedral Bluffs in Rio Blanco County.
Wolves harassed livestock because wild game populations had dramatically dropped. Most of Colorado’s elk had been shot and killed by market hunters who were paid ten cents a pound for elk, deer, and antelope. Today’s elk herds evolved from elk transplanted from Montana and Wyoming. The state’s elk herds are doing fine, but there are rising fears of chronic wasting disease. How to combat the disease? Introduce gray wolves to cull the weak, the young, and the sick. Wolves can help restore our Colorado ecosystems.
No one knows how wolves will fit into the Colorado landscape, but many of us are waiting to find out. A survey conducted by Colorado State University found that 73% of Coloradans, most living on the Front Range, support wolves in Colorado and 20% do not. Obviously, that 20% includes ranchers who have a different perspective, but that’s all the more reason to begin a dialogue on wolves.
So if wolves are coming back to Colorado, coming down from Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming only to be killed along Interstate 70, why not help them out?
Why not re-introduce wolves?
Three times the state’s Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission has passed resolutions opposing reintroduction of wolves to the state. They did it in 1982, 1989 and early in 2016. Perhaps it’s time to revisit that important decision. If wolves arrive on their own, we’ll have to live with where they appear. If wolves are introduced, there can be more flexibility on where they live and certainly more planning.
Wolf reintroduction would first require a positive vote from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission. A second affirmative vote must come from the Colorado State Legislature because the legislature voted itself authority over the introduction of any threatened or endangered species. Legislators have approved re-introducing black-footed ferrets and a few endangered fish. Prior to the legislation, CPW brought back lynx.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife reintroduced the 45-pound Canadian Lynx into the Weminuche Wilderness of both the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests despite fears from ranchers and hunting outfitters. After a rocky start because of a “hard release” in which the furry cats were not acclimated to the area, the lynx seems to be settling in though there have been a few years with no litters of kittens at all. A slow start to wolf recovery in Colorado could be managed in a similar fashion. What are the reasons not to?
They are both practical and philosophical.
Wolf reintroduction into Colorado, just like wolves being welcomed into Yellowstone National Park, will take time and patience. Folks who would never normally speak to each other, because they wear different hats, different footwear, drive different vehicles, support different causes, will have to sit at the same table and share their values, their thoughts, their hopes for their families, as well as their future.
With 5 1⁄2 million people, Colorado is essentially an urban state with suburban sprawl on the Front Range and less than 1⁄4 million people on the Western Slope where wolves would be introduced. Askin knows the pitfalls and the opportunities. She believes correctly, “We also need to listen—listen to the stories, come to understand the rhythm and reason of these lives we think of as antithetical to our own.”
She adds, “We need to come to understand their arguments and their fears, and be able to articulate these fears and threats as well as or better than they can. Help them hear their own voices. It is a very powerful thing for people who view you as an outsider to hear you name their concerns.”
A 25-year veteran of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Gary Skiba succinctly states that wolf reintroduction is not yet feasible. He feels, “In our current environment, it’s not going to happen. There are extremes on both sides. Wolves have this mythical status as a symbol of wilderness, but they’re just an animal.” He explains, “Currently we have an incomplete ecosystem without wolves, but many people are satisfied with that. There are people who view them as the devil and there are others who view them as the heart of an ecosystem.”
The Wildlife Commission should re-visit the idea of introducing wolves to Colorado. They’re coming anyway. Why not restore our full complement of wildlife sooner rather than later? We’ll probably never have grizzly bears back in Colorado. They take too much territory and live at elevations that we do, but wolves . . . I think we could adjust. I think we could learn to accommodate ourselves to another top tier predator besides ourselves. But I admit, as a Colorado wildlife biologist told me, “More hearts have to be won.”
Lewis and Clark wrote about wolves 200 years ago as the explorers journeyed up the Missouri River. As the Corps of Discovery entered the heart of the West and began to traverse the Great Plains along the Missouri River, they repeatedly saw wolves among the vast bison herds blanketing the prairies. Objective in their writing and journal entries, the Captains reported what they saw without emotion.
Among great quantities of buffalo on Sept. 15, 1804, Capt. William Clark saw “their companions the wolves.” Excellent observers, Lewis & Clark came to realize what modern science knows. They wrote, “Wolves follow their [prey’s] movements and feed upon those which die by accident or which are too poor to keep pace with the herd.”
Wolves were the “usual attendants” of the big game that flourished across the American West before livestock and barbed wire fences. The captains explained, “Whatever is left out at night falls to the share of the wolves who are the constant and numerous attendants of the buffalo.”
On April 29th, 1805 the Expedition found itself “surrounded with deer, elk, buffalo, antelopes and their companions the wolves, which have become more numerous and make great ranges among them.” Lewis & Clark intuitively knew the value of wolves among large game herds and though the men of the expedition routinely shot grizzly bears, they rarely shot wolves, unlike the next several generations of Westerners who persecuted American wolves almost to extinction.
Forest ranger, game management specialist, and prescient ecologist Aldo Leopold did shoot a wolf. He lived to regret it. In his pivotal essay in “A Sand County Almanac” Leopold wrote:
I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.
Leopold wrote in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl which swept the plains states and decimated southeastern Colorado. He knew we had erred with our dryland farming techniques and he sought a metaphor for ecological balance and land health. He found it in the throat of a wolf. He concludes his powerful essay with these haunting words:
We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. A measure of success in this is well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.
Wolves are part of our Western heritage. Learning to live again with them in the Rocky Mountains may be one of our most important 21st century lessons in ecology and humility. We killed wolves with poisons, traps and guns. Arthur Carhart came to realize the pervasive power of industrialized death. A year after publishing “The Last Stand of the Pack,” Carhart questioned co-author Stanley P. Young whether exterminating wolves “to please squawking stockmen” could be justified. “Isn’t it a just consideration that the cats and wolves and coyotes have a damn sight better basic right to live in the hills and have use of that part of the world as their own than the domestic livestock of the stockmen?” he asserted. Carhart, father of the wilderness idea, wanted wild creatures in wild places.
Decades later the author of “The Last Stand of the Pack” wrote, “Poisons—The Creeping Killer” in a November 1959 issue of Sports Afield. The Bureau of Biological Survey had become the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife and was still disseminating poisons. At the beginning of the environmental movement, conservationist Carhart raised the alarm about poisons just as Rachel Carson would become famous for pesticides in her 1962 book “Silent Spring.”
In “The Last Stand of the Pack” Arthur Carhart wrote in great detail about experienced trappers in the 1920s using a variety of methods to trap and poison Colorado’s last wolves. Those methods are now illegal for the public, but the USDA Wildlife Services, death-dealing descendant of the Bureau of Biological Survey, continues to use leg traps.
In 1996 voters approved Colorado Revised Statute (CRS) 33-6-203, also known as Amendment 14, prohibiting poisons, snares or leghold traps, though special traps may be used for “bona fide scientific research.” How ironic to think that such research, performed under the federal Animal Welfare Act, might include a better understanding of wolf habits and patterns if wolves must be trapped in order to be radio collared or relocated.
What would Carhart think of wolves returning to Colorado? As a wilderness advocate, a “wilderness prophet” in the words of Tom Wolf, Carhart surely would have seen the connection between wild landscapes and canis lupus. As a hunter and a sportsman interested in healthy big game populations he probably could have come to learn what Lewis & Clark understood and what Aldo Leopold tried to teach—that wolves have their place.
Until wolves are delisted from the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has management authority. Once wolves become delisted then Colorado Parks & Wildlife will utilize the Wolf Working Group Management Guidelines. Because wolves are also state listed as a special species there is no legal shooting or “take” of them. The wolves that we get will probably arrive on their own from Wyoming or Utah.
I tell my Fort Lewis College students that wolves are coming home to Colorado. Hopefully in my lifetime, certainly in theirs. We need them back. We need to hear their howls on moonlit nights deep in the Weminuche Wilderness or high on the Flattops on Colorado’s Western Slope. Gray shadows should leave paw prints in snow beneath dark trees. Maybe wolves will even return to their old haunts where Carhart wrote about them in Unaweep Canyon, on the Book Cliffs, along Huerfano Creek, beside the Purgatoire.
Wolf recovery in Colorado will be a grand experiment. I wish Arthur Carhart were alive to write about it. He’d love to record the cycle of ecological change and humans foregoing hubris for humility. “The Last Stand of the Pack” is a valuable historical account of Colorado conservation at the beginning of the 20th century. Now in the 21st century, we should turn a new page and allow a top tier predator to bring balance back to our ecosystems.
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