STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo.—In January, the Colorado Wildlife Commission rejected a proposal to deliberately re-establish wolves in Colorado. That decision was met with a sigh of relief by most ranchers, who fear wolf predation to livestock.
“Every dog has its day, and hopefully ours will last just a little longer,” said one rancher from Carbondale, located down-valley from Aspen.
Jay Fetcher, who ranches north of Steamboat Springs in the Elk River Valley, disagrees. There are, he tells Steamboat Today, too darned many elk for his liking.
“I can’t wait for the wolves to come back,” he told Steamboat Today.
“Too many elk,” he added. “That’s the short answer. I just think that the elk need harassed where we are, and the problem is, when hunting season comes, the elk are gone. They know when that opening season is, and they know to go to private lands. In June, they’re all in my hay meadow.”
Fetcher isn’t alone in that view. In 1997, Mel Coleman spoke at a book conference in Denver. A third-generation rancher in Colorado’s San Luis Valley who has since died, Coleman related that he thought there were too many elk for the range. He said he’d welcome wolves.
But those seem to be the exceptions. The more common view was expressed by Steamboat-area rancher Marsha Daughenbaugh. “They’re predators, and they can do a lot of damage,” she told Steamboat Today.
Others are willing to accept wolves that recolonize Colorado on their own. Many think that will most likely occur in the southern portion of the state as a result of the deliberate effort to restore Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico.
But will the gray wolf, a different species, trot down from the Yellowstone area? The U.S. government transplanted three packs from Canada into Wyoming and Idaho in 1995 and 1996. Yellowstone National Park as of December had 99 wolves living in 10 packs. That’s a stable population, says Douglas W. Smith, who heads the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project.
Soon after they got comfortable in Yellowstone, though, some began drifting south to Colorado. The first known migrant arrived in 2004. The evidence was his body, smacked dead on I-70 about 30 miles west of Denver. Others have followed, but none have found a happy home. The latest was a wolf, mistaken for a coyote, that was shot and killed in April near Kremmling, in northwest Colorado.
Smith told the Steamboat newspaper that he does not expect that a population will be re-established without deliberate efforts, as was necessary for Yellowstone. Packs need the resiliency of larger numbers, he explained, and there also need to be enough to have genetic diversity. In the case of Yellowstone, that turned out to be 41 wolves.
In other words, having an Adam and Eve pairing of wolves in Colorado isn’t enough to produce Cain and Abel. They need company—from the start.
Will wolves ever be re-established in Colorado? Tom and Roz Turnbull would prefer not. They’ve been ranching near Carbondale since the early 1960s, and she grew up there. While they understand that wolves could benefit the ecosystem by reducing elk herds, they’re not sure the value surpasses the harm to ranching and outfitting.
“We will have conflict and unknown results from this controversy, but public opinion and desire may make wolf reintroduction a reality,” they said in an email to Mountain Town News. “What would be important from the ranching viewpoint would be a way to control wolf numbers and problem wolves without the harsh punishments often attached to the federal reintroduction legislation.”
In Steamboat, Fetcher—whose father was a co-founder of the Steamboat ski area—also is foreseeing ranching with wolves.
“When they come—not if, but when—we need two things,” he told Steamboat Today. “We need to be able to scare the hell out of them—shoot over their heads and put the fear of man in them. The other thing is a very quick compensation when we have loss, with a fairly easy proof of that loss.”
In 2004, a panel of wildlife biologists was assembled for a program at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Included were state and federal biologists, including Ed Bangs, who then headed the Yellowstone reintroduction. The question was put to them: Did they see wolves being restored to Colorado?
All four said no, they did not—not that wolves couldn’t make a living. Previous studies had identified the Flat Tops, between Steamboat and Glenwood Springs, as prime habitat for wolves. But, they said, people would not accept wolves.
Of course, 30 years ago, the same thing was said about wolves in Yellowstone.