With or without Proposition 114, a few gray wolves are now back in a small part of northern Colorado. Whether they will be welcomed for the longer term is the question.

Courtney Vail

Recent predations of livestock in northwestern Colorado by some of these wolves has many producers on edge. But predation by carnivores is nothing new. In fact, predation is a necessary force in the natural world for maintaining healthy ecosystems, playing a role in disease regulation, and maintaining nature’s integrity.

Predation is also a cost of raising prey animals — livestock — on working wildlands.

Media coverage of these predation events erupted with vitriol toward wolves. Such anger would be expected based on the disproportionate coverage focused on primarily negative viewpoints.

While these few wolves have moved into Colorado from the north, and a pair produced Colorado’s first native pups in more than 80 years, formal reintroduction is necessary to establish the self-sustaining population required by Proposition 114. 

Building a culture of coexistence now is imperative if wolves will be afforded the opportunity to play their vital ecological role in our ever-dwindling wild places. After all, it’s their birthright.

What can, and should, be done?

Reimbursing ranchers for their losses is the expected first step. In fact, in response to these recent predation events, many individuals and organizations have mobilized support and financial assistance, including those outside of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and USDA’s Wildlife Services, which are working to prevent more predation events — both for the sake of the rancher, and the wolves.

The statute implementing Proposition 114 not only requires compensation to producers when wolves kill livestock, but also requires Parks and Wildlife to “assist owners of livestock in preventing and resolving conflicts between gray wolves and livestock.” This mirrors language in Parks and Wildlife’s current wolf plan, which has been in place for 17 years. Coloradans expect their state wildlife agency to both protect wild animals and work to minimize conflicts with domestic ones.

While the predation events in North Park could further polarize attitudes, between those who welcome wolves to the landscape and those who believe wolves have outworn their welcome even before official reintroduction, these events on the frontlines of wolf migration into the state have presented an opportunity to work together to prevent future conflict.

Viewing these events as an opportunity means that we can prepare for the long-term presence of wolves in Colorado, build community around the shared goal of keeping livestock and wolves alive, and focus on the establishment of programs to prevent and minimize conflict, now.

In addition to the perspectives of livestock producers, there are other voices that matter. The ecological and economic benefits of wolves may be less obvious, but they far exceed the cost of wolves. The absence of wolves also presents its own conflict — there are those of us who believe we should be compensated for a landscape bereft of wolves.

Nature enthusiasts, wildlife photographers, and yes, even the urban dweller, have rights to the presence of wolves as inherent as the intrinsic value of wolves themselves. Wolves serve a keystone role in a biodiverse landscape that provides us with clean water and clean air, climate regulation, and psychological well-being. 

These other important stakeholder values are reflected in the fact that in 2020, 6 million people visited Colorado’s national parks and spent $392 million in local communities.  Wildlife and other tourism supported 5,560 jobs, $204 million in labor income, $353 million in value added, and $586 million in economic output in the Colorado economy. This means that the non-consumptive use of wildlife is an important value to Coloradans and visitors alike.

Livestock are raised on public and private lands in Colorado, which means wolves and livestock are going to overlap. But ranchers are not powerless bystanders; indeed they have a responsibility to protect livestock from predation and for stewardship of all native wildlife with which they share the landscape.

And there are many of us who seek to help. Living and ranching with wolves and other wild carnivores on a working landscape requires adjustments to some of the ways that we do things, especially when raising livestock. Ensuring that wolves, people, and livestock can thrive will require long-term preventive strategies, and the collaboration between Colorado Parks and Wildlife, nonprofit organizations, and ranching communities.

Because wolves do not recognize state lines, we must do everything to prevent the war being waged on wolves outside of Colorado’s borders from creeping in. Wolves in Colorado are, and will be, as vulnerable to misinformation, demonization, and assassination as they are in neighboring states.

Wolves have been gone from Colorado’s landscape for far too long. Perhaps we all have forgotten that wolves and humans can coexist. Let’s work together to restore the integrity of our wildlands and wildlife. 

Courtney Vail, of Phoenix, is a biologist who is co-owner of a ranch in southwestern Colorado. She serves as an advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project.