As the wolf reintroduction fight howls in Colorado, wildlife officials are fielding more reports from people who suspect they’ve spotted a wolf in the wild.
A release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife last week noted they are tracking a wolf in Jackson County and a pack of six wolves in northwest Colorado. The agency reported a “credible wolf sighting” in the Laramie River Valley of Larimer County and posted photos of a “large wolf-like animal” spotted by campers in Grand County. Wildlife biologists also reported that analysis of scat from the pack in Moffat County revealed the presence of a parasite that can lead to hydatid disease in livestock, deer, elk and moose. Through a rare chain of events that involves people inadvertently eating infected poop, people can contract the disease from dogs.
Wolf reintroduction opponent Denny Behrens — who leads the Stop Wolf Coalition, which includes the support of commissioners from 39 rural Colorado counties — last week warned in a fundraising email that the discovery of disease in wolf scat presents “a major public health and safety threat in Colorado.” His group filed open records requests for reports from state biologists analyzing the pack in Moffat County.
“We can’t let pro-wolf radicals put people at risk for their insane agenda,” wrote Behrens, who last year traveled to Idaho to interview an unidentified woman who suspects she contracted hydatid disease from wolves.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists studied scat from wolves in Northwest Colorado and determined that several members of the pack were infected with a parasitic tapeworm common in wolves in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The Echinococcus tapeworm is transferred through eggs in the scat of wolves, dogs and coyotes to sheep, cattle, goats, moose and elk that eat the feces and contract hydatid cysts. Dogs can catch the disease when they eat an infected animal and people can catch the disease when they accidentally ingest soil, food or water contaminated by dog waste.
“Human cases are rare,” reads the Centers for Disease Control page on the Echinococcus parasite.
George Edwards remembers when Montana was abuzz with the threats of Echinococcus posed by wolves. He’s the executive director of Montana’s Livestock Loss Board, which directs funds to ranchers who lost livestock killed by wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions. (He paid 31 ranchers $76,109 in 2019 for 44 cattle, 19 sheep and two horses killed by wolves.)
In 2009, a few years after wolves were reintroduced in Montana and populations were growing, sportsmen and ranchers were still battling the reintroduction plan. (The board paid 60 ranchers $144,995 for lost livestock in 2009.)
“We were really having a ton of wolf problems back then and people started throwing, how do you say it again, Echinococcus, around left and right, talking about how we needed to get rid of more wolves because they had this disease,” Edwards said. “Nothing really came of it. I haven’t even heard that word in eight, nine years. It was the fad of the moment back in 2009 and 2010. I imagine it will be a fad there in Colorado for a year or two as well.”
This week Colorado State University launched a wolf education website as a resource for voters seeking more information on the reintroduction plan. The resource page’s list of frequently asked questions is long and covers all sorts of issues, from the economic impact of wolves to moral arguments for and against wolf reintroduction.
“We wanted to address some of the topics that we’ve learned from the public that are questions regarding wolves being back in Colorado,” said Ashley Stokes, the associate vice president for engagement and extension at CSU.
In answering a question about why wolves are so contentious, CSU researchers pointed to a wolf management workshop in February in Glenwood Springs.
That two-day workshop gathered state and federal wildlife officials, ranchers, sportsmen and conservation groups who studied the roots of contention around wolves and the possibility of collaboration to reduce conflicts. A summary of the workshop noted that debates over wolf reintroduction went beyond the ballot initiative and included “deeper, more long-standing issues.”
“These include conflicting views over how public lands should be managed, different cultural values of wildlife, and the impacts of changing demographics and values on more traditional ways of life,” the CSU FAQ analysis of the workshop reads.
That workshop expressed hope for legislation that might land before the vote that could give state wildlife officials time to plan for managing wolves instead of a ballot measure.
Colorado Sen. Kerry Donovan’s “Manage Gray Wolves” bill would have circumvented the ballot measure and postponed wolf reintroduction until Colorado Parks & Wildlife crafted a management plan and funding was found to reimburse ranchers who lost livestock to wolves. The Vail Democrat’s bill died in committee in late May as legislators struggled through the pandemic-shortened legislative session.
The CSU workshop also saw stakeholders suggesting that money spent on the campaign battle could be better used to compensate ranchers or assist wildlife officials in reintroduction. Ironically, the coronavirus may slow the drumbeat for the campaign.
Rob Edwards with Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund admits that the pandemic has slowed fundraising.
“I’m sure our opponents are feeling the pinch too,” he said.
Edwards has issues with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife press release from last week, announcing possible sightings and evidence of the canine tapeworm in wolf poop.
“Any other year, they would not have even put out a press release. What was contained in there was not news,” he said. “They didn’t have anything to report. The photo from Grand County, that was not a wolf. Everyone who knows wolves or has worked with wolves and has seen that photo says it’s a wolf hybrid. A dog. But the overall effect of that release is to make it seem as if there are suddenly wolves throughout northern Colorado.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, as a state agency, cannot advocate for or against a ballot proposal or state or federal legislation. The Colorado Wildlife Commission in 2016 rejected a proposal to reestablish wolves in Colorado after a 14-member working group concluded the predators would hurt big game populations and trouble the livestock industry. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March 2019 proposed a nationwide delisting of gray wolves from the endangered species list, which would transfer management and protection of wolf populations to the states. The gray wolf has been delisted in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.)
The opposition to reintroduction by state wildlife officials “is why we are going to the ballot,” Edwards said.
“We think the only way to have a thriving population of wolves in Colorado is through reintroduction,” he said. “We believe the people of Colorado should have a final say on this.”