The margin was only 1%, but the outcome was dramatic. Voters, mostly from the Front Range, endorsed Proposition 114 to reintroduce wolves in Colorado beginning in 2023.
The campaigns on both sides were heated. Then, once the votes were tallied and the measure squeaked by, most city folk moved on to think about other things, like protesting school board meetings or picketing health departments.
Western Slope ranchers were left to deal with the fallout.
Now, I’m just guessing here, but despite the concerns expressed by ranchers back in 2020, I don’t think many voters were prepared for the gory photos that accompanied Jennifer Brown’s recent story about wolf predation in Walden.
I mean, that’s a lot of blood in the snow. Most voters weren’t picturing that when they voted for wolf reintroduction.
They were envisioning something more like the poetic videos of the lush scenes in Yellowstone National Park, where wolves brought from Canada in the 1990s helped bring the ecosystem into balance by reducing the over-population of elk and allowing forests, streams, fish and birds to thrive again.
That was clearly their objective.
And even if the sight of dismembered cattle in Jennifer’s story was pretty upsetting, not everybody is convinced that wolves are really that big a deal.
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture support their case.
The research from 2015 found that while wolves killed 10,165 head of cattle across the country, that was far less than the 13,384 killed by mountain lions, the 143,731 by coyotes and 34,656 killed by, um, birds.
Dogs killed a whopping 20,477 head of cattle that year, for what it’s worth.
Still, the Gittlesons in Walden and other ranchers on the Western Slope, who already struggle with the effects on their livelihoods of birds, dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, climate change and their most savage predator, the ruthless consolidation in the meat industry, need a hand in dealing with wolves.
Since we voted for Proposition 114, that seems like the least we can do.
But it won’t come cheap.
Installing electric fences around huge swaths of land and hiring range-riders to chase wolves away from livestock, especially during calving season, are two ideas under consideration by wildlife officials. Both measures are more expensive than an average rancher can afford and well beyond the meager wildlife management budgets outlined in the ballot measure.
The deterrents only work if all the ranchers employ them. Otherwise, the wolves will just move on to the next stand of grazing cattle over the hill and belly up to the unprotected beef buffet.
And even if these tactics work for a while, wolves are known to be extraordinarily clever and adaptable, so such nonlethal measures may just be temporary Band-aids.
Compensating ranchers for cattle lost to protected wolves would add even more to the cost of the program.
Clearly, the wolves that slaughtered cattle and dogs on the Gittleson ranch were not part of the Colorado reintroduction program, which is still only in the planning phase. These wolves walked into the state from Wyoming, likely the offspring of the Canadian transplants.
And many ranchers who opposed Proposition 114 argued at the time that wolves already were arriving here on their own and would gradually increase in numbers to begin to restore the ecological balance without the blunt instrument of a reintroduction program.
The ranchers expressed — not necessarily confidence — but at least a hope that a small, slow-growing population of wolves could develop a pattern of filling their bellies on the plentiful elk and deer and leaving the cattle for human carnivores to devour.
But wildlife managers worry that few in Colorado understand how different the situation is compared to that of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Here, public lands are more fragmented and there’s more development than in other Western states. Ranches are often right next to state and federal public lands and as a result herds of elk, deer and antelope graze alongside cattle. Highways keep wildlife from moving freely, encouraging them to cluster near livestock.
In addition, every weekend millions of people travel to the Western Slope for recreation, disrupting the wild habitat and the natural patterns of wildlife.
Given those factors, you can hardly blame a self-respecting wolf for deciding, what the heck, forget the elk. Tonight, it’s beef that’s what’s for dinner.
While it’s unlikely that a measure to cancel Prop 114 will find its way to the ballot, we can expect wolf reintroduction to be bloodier, more complicated — and a whole lot more expensive — than anybody anticipated back in 2020.
Restoring the ecosystem comes at a cost.
The Gittlesons are among first of many to pay the price.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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