Will Colorado’s vote to bring back wolves be a model for conservationists?

Rob Edward spent the past 25 years fighting for the return of gray wolves to western Colorado. On Election Day, he saw his life’s work realized. 

Colorado voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative directing wildlife officials to reintroduce gray wolves west of the Rocky Mountains. It was the first time in U.S. history that voters mandated the reintroduction of a threatened species.

“The ballot initiative was the final Hail Mary approach to get this done, to break the stranglehold that the livestock industry has had over this for decades,” said Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, the organization behind the initiative.

Gray wolves, which once roamed widely across more than two-thirds of the U.S, were hunted nearly to extinction by the 1930s because of the threat they pose to livestock. Wolf conservation groups estimate there were anywhere from 250,000 to 2 million gray wolves in the continental U.S. before colonization. Today there are approximately 6,000 gray wolves across the lower 48 states. A population of about 4,400 lives in the Great Lakes area and some 1,700 live in the northwestern U.S.

But predator reintroduction programs are gaining popularity. In Washington State, for instance, biologists are reintroducing Pacific fishers after fur trappers hunted them to extinction across the state by the mid-1900s. Conservationists returned bald eagles to California’s Channel Islands between 2002 and 2006 after hunting and pesticides wiped them out. After reintroducing the lynx to Colorado in 1999, U.S. wildlife officials declared the species recovered, with populations even increasing past historical levels in parts of the state. And a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears in Washington’s North Cascades mountains, scrapped last summer by the Trump administration at the behest of ranchers, could be revived under the Biden administration. 

Efforts like these are sharpening the long-running clash between environmentalists and ranchers, and deepening urban-rural divides in several states. Election Day gave conservationists a major victory, but those bent on restoring large carnivore populations still face an uphill battle in regions where ranching is influential.

Colorado ranchers like Robbie LeValley are concerned about the impact wolves will have on the region. As steward of the LeValley Ranch, she fears wolf numbers will balloon, as they have in other states, and threaten the family’s 400 head of cattle. And the threat isn’t only that wolves will kill her cows. 

“Having wolves around increases the stress on wildlife and livestock,” LeValley said, which can cause drops in birth and weaning rates.

Tension is already building between ranchers and conservationists in Washington, where wolves migrated from neighboring states and Canada. State officials have killed 34 wolves in the past eight years in response to complaints from ranchers.

“We think it is important to note that wolf attacks on livestock are more the exception than the rule,” said Staci Lehman, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. “In 2019, 85 percent of known wolf packs were not involved in any documented livestock depredation.”

Despite the concerns of ranchers, carnivore restoration programs are on the rise following the successful reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. Yellowstone’s struggling vegetation and waterways rebounded, in part because wolves have kept herbivore browsing in check. The program is considered a model for other regions where predator populations were extirpated. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls it “one of our nation’s great conservation successes.”

Apex predators can play a vital role in regulating smaller carnivores and herbivores, but there is still disagreement about when and where reintroduction makes sense. 

“Proponents talk about needing to restore balance to the ecosystem and yet they rarely identify what problem needs to be fixed,” LeValley said, noting that Colorado doesn’t have the vast riparian areas in need of recovery that Yellowstone had.

“Colorado has 5.3 million people that utilize the western slope as their playground, so it does not make sense that a wolf is going to restore an ecosystem there,” she said. 

Advocates for predator reintroduction say the return of large carnivores can cause what scientists call a “trophic cascade.” By changing the feeding behaviors of their prey, predators allow a range of species lower on the food chain to thrive.

“Wolves are so important because they move the elk and deer and bison around in such a way that it releases growing pressure on the plant and tree species that are the target of those grazing animals,” says Edward. “That, in turn, allows for greater biodiversity, and then those areas are more resilient to long-term climate change.”

As Edward and his team were celebrating their victory in Colorado, the federal government announced the removal of gray wolves from the endangered species list. The new policy would hand management of the wolves over to states and tribes, though lawsuits challenging the move are expected. Several states, including California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, already have laws protecting gray wolves. 

The debate widens an already yawning divide between urban and rural Americans. Urban voters in Colorado overwhelmingly supported the wolf reintroduction initiative, while their rural counterparts, who will have to live with the consequences, largely rejected it. A similar culture clash is playing out in Washington between ranchers and city-dwelling environmentalists. 

“Seattle doesn’t ask us what to do with their homeless, and I don’t think we should have to ask Seattle what to do with our wolves,” rancher Bill McIrvin told the Los Angeles Times last year. Of the 34 wolves that have been killed by Washington officials in recent years, 29 were associated with livestock attacks on McIrvin’s Diamond M. Ranch. McIrvin did not respond to Ag Insider’s interview request.

Before Colorado’s precedent-setting vote, predator reintroduction was typically at the discretion of federal and state wildlife officials. But after decades of lobbying for reintroduction through the usual channels, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund decided to change its strategy. 

The ballot measure’s success could become a blueprint for conservationists in other parts of the country, a scenario that concerns ranchers like LeValley, who believes these decisions should stay in the “wheelhouse of biologists that spend years studying impacts and outcomes.” But environmentalists say the status quo has granted too much power to ranching interests. 

“This was our last best hope, to put it to the people, and the people have spoken,” Edward said.