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Opinion Columns

Opinion: If we’re going to reintroduce wolves, we better figure out how

This fall voters in Colorado will tell us whether or not we are going to introduce non-native Canadian timber wolves to the Western Slope of Colorado.

While this is often framed as a scientific argument, it really is a classic democratic exercise in majority rule. Do the majority of Colorado voters want for social, science or any reason to introduce wolves?

What is largely absent in the debate is “how.” Let’s assume that the vote is for introduction.

John Howard, former Chairman of the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission

There are an enormous number of steps and decisions necessary to make introduction successful. The federal government controls endangered species introduction and will have to consent.

The legislature will have to appropriate permanent funding for livestock depredation, scientific study, additional personnel for Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW), and a very large amount for mediation and community outreach over at least a decade. 

Wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park has been a success. While the science around trophic cascade is hotly disputed, particularly in more recent science publications, within the park wolves have proved a huge draw for visitors.

READ: Proposition 114 explained: What’s at stake with the effort to reintroduce gray wolves in Colorado

The problems are almost solely outside the park, where actual or perceived conflict with state residents has led to large-scale people problems.  Washington state spent over $1.5 million on mediation to develop a plan for wolves, only to have to cancel public meetings to move forward due to threats of violence. 

We know that without careful planning and robust appropriations the same types of disputes will erupt in Colorado. There are myriad issues to consider:

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

  1. The federal government, Arizona and tribes have spent tens of millions of dollars to support the native Mexican gray wolf. While more work remains to be done, the science presented to the CPW Commission was uniform that the Canadian timber wolf would dominate and at best hybridize the smaller Mexican gray wolf subspecies should they meet. Robust funding for scientific study of this issue is critical. The introduction of a non-native wolf should not lead to the extinction of a native one on its natural range.
  2. Colorado has the most generous livestock compensation program in the country. While the issue of how much livestock depredation is hotly contested, there will be depredation. How is that to be permanently funded and rapidly disbursed? If no additional funding is appropriated, CPW will have to drain funds from already underfunded endangered species and wildlife programs.
  3. Colorado is fortunate CPW has a robust scientific program for the study of wildlife in the state. Many states do not have the scientists, research centers and other tools to directly study wildlife. This scientific arm will need more funding to expand and study the introduction of a subspecies of the wolf never present in the state.
  4. We know from Washington and other states that CPW will have to lead a massive continuous public outreach effort over at least a decade to manage conflict, particularly cultural conflicts between the Front Range and rural Colorado.
  5. In all of the states where wolves are present, individual wolves or packs occasionally become habituated to killing livestock and as a last resort have to be killed. The only real method for doing this scientifically is through trapping. Hunting does not appear to be enough as we see in Idaho. But CPW is prohibited by the state constitution from using the types of traps effective in managing wolves. If legally sanctioned killing cannot be effectively conducted, the human conflict will escalate beyond control. How is the constitution to be modified?

These are just a sampling of the complex management issues that a positive vote on introduction will require.

Undoubtedly, unintended consequences unique to Colorado, particularly from the patchwork of private and public land ownership on the Western Slope, will arise. These are problems all of us should want to resolve patiently and logically. 

While Chairman of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, I attended numerous meetings of the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife agencies. Commissioners from other western states, particularly Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington from progressive to conservative bemoaned the effect of wolves on their budget and time.

The way to avoid those challenges is to face the funding and people challenges of introduction immediately, not after conflict.

As I saw first hand in many commission meetings, there is no magic balance that creates harmony among people about wolf introduction. Quite the opposite, and there is no use pretending otherwise.

This state has a long history of leading the nation on conservation. If voters exercising their democratic will instruct the state government to introduce wolves, we need to face the much harder task of making that introduction successful.


John Howard is former Chairman of the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission and Managing Director of Bounds Green Crisis Management and Mediation.


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