I’ve been reading that the gray wolf is dispersing into Colorado from the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Area recently.
I don’t know whether they are going to make it down to our mountain valley outside of Boulder or not.
Will they establish territory decently so, to form new packs, birth new pups? Or will they fall victim to the throes of development, our civilized and more developed and growing-more-so-daily, landscape? Will they be relegated to the untamed fringes of the hinterlands, where their intrinsic howls can be heard by their closest human neighbors from miles away? Or will they retreat to the safety of pristine wilderness in rejection of our modern society?
These, and a myriad of other questions, will only be answered in time. The gray wolf is, as I write, already digging new dens into Colorado soil and hunting moose, elk, and deer at the base of the Continental Divide and nearby environs. They have already been seen in parts of Northern Colorado where healthy prey populations of moose, deer, and elk provide ample food supply.
Coloradans approved their official reintroduction into the state by 2023 in the last voting cycle, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife is already discussing how they will handle the return of this famed apex predator.
It doesn’t feel much of a stretch to say that in our lifetimes, we may begin seeing gray wolves in more familiar territory to us beyond the intangible arena of our imaginations. How will it be for them when they establish in larger numbers?
A typical pack formation consists of five to seven individuals. Young offspring, once of an age inviting exploration, seek new territories. The two-year-old female setting paws on Colorado soil back in 2004 was believed to be establishing new territory.
Tragically, that didn’t happen. After the radio-collared youngster traveled down 500 miles from Yellowstone National Park, her fate collided with that of a vehicle on Interstate 70.
Will others meet the same fate? In the limited context of simply traveling over territory, wildlife crossings are becoming increasingly popular all over the state, providing support for all of our faunal brethren trying to make it across our most dangerous highways. Signage is a weaker notification system, given its reputation for habituation in the minds of a motorist.
Alternatively, cultivating more awareness through education may help elevate minds, teaching that we need to expect nature in all its forms as we travel along our mountain roadways through their habitat, and not be surprised by it.
We’re returning the gray wolf to a completely different land than the one he walked before, a tribal elder once told me during my time studying the 1995 Wolf Reintroduction into the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Area. I’m concerned he won’t survive. Back then, the gray wolf was reentering Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park, which has since been referred to as the Recovery Area. It is, to this day, the part of the country where the greatest numbers of wolves reside.
I think of the words the tribal elder spoke on this drought-stricken, arid December morning as I write of the plight of the gray wolf. I know what he meant. It was similar to my biologist friend at the University of Colorado, who shared that the best wolves—the alphas—are going to be the first killed by ranchers defending cattle:
They’re the best hunters, he took a sip of coffee as he sat across the table from me, and they’ll be the first to take the bullet, destroying the strength of the pack. I’m against the whole wolf reintroduction for the cruelty visited upon the wolves themselves.
Again, I know what he meant. I thought of him recently as I learned of the intentional poisoning deaths of a pack of eight wolves this December in Eastern Oregon. Clearly, beyond trying to live in a now-developed environment, maintain pack order, find food for a living, and locate new territories, wolves are also faced with active threats against their majestic and beautiful lives.
Occurrences as these aren’t rare or a thing of the past, as readers of anti-wolf sentiment during the days of European settlement on this continent may want to believe. People living with wolves close by covet the right to kill them through whatever means available, be it cruel or not, unscientifically sound or not. Anti-wolf sentiment is also embraced as yet another aspect of extremism, birthed in the Tea Party Movement and now moving into the ultra-Rightwing, near-terrorist level of hatred and violence.
People see wolves as agents of government/federal intrusion, a biologist with the State of Idaho Fish and Game once told me. They don’t like the feds intruding upon state’s rights. That argument, made to me a few years ago, persists to this day.
As of this writing, the passage of Senate Bill 1211 was signed into law by the Governor of Idaho last spring. Such new law is nothing less than a wolf extermination plan for residents of Idaho to be permitted to run over, snare, trap, shoot, and take the lives of up to 1,300 wolves, beginning this past summer. While the subject of a new lawsuit by conservationist groups, these animals stand in harm’s way at the behest of fearmongering, lies, and exaggeration about wolf efficacy on taking cattle and claims over state’s rights.
Is it any wonder that gray wolves are trotting down into Colorado, with such liberal, take-no-prisoners death sentences on their wild canine heads?
Even federal plans, under the auspices of the inaptly-named Wildlife Services, have served to destroy wolves in the name of curbing populations, so that ranchers may freely graze cattle on government-subsidized federal lands. As recently as this autumn, Wildlife Services stalked and killed eight wolf pups in response to baseless complaints from ranchers nearby. Logic and reason all point to the fact that such a government-funded, vicious, and biologically offensive act of pulling puppies from protective dens and ending their lives out of fear for what might-could happen in the future was an injustice at the least and a heartbreakingly violent act at worst.
I’ve spent days upon weeks upon months in an effort to understand the heart of the wolf hater and the logic of the hunter. I understand the controversy at the core, that of wanting to replace the wolf as top predator in the ecosystem, or the primal fear as ancient as man’s history on this continent. Logic and reason tend to fail in the face of such primal fear and indigenous rights arguments, and yet, criticisms abound by scientists worldwide, for the cruelty and baseless practices in the taking of these top predators.
All of this is offered in an effort to provide a context for just how vilified, victimized, and brutalized this apex predator is, that we may well see in our own home state in the not-too-distant future.
The gray wolf carries in its protective spirit the energy of centuries of being at the edge of the wild, written about in Jack London folklore and being the starring character in childhood fairy tales as Little Red Riding Hood. Our culture narrative on the gray wolf has led to healthy doses of fear well beyond the reality of wolves, and it is only in the physical reappearance of them that we may learn they are not the monsters in our midst, but simply one of nature’s top predators.
It was hoped in the 1995 Reintroduction, wolves would be more welcome back in the lands from which they were extirpated. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined with the Nez Perce Tribe and a host of biologists and wolf advocates to pull wolves from Canada and reintroduce them into the Recovery Area, they had hoped it would be all the wolves needed to reestablish a once-endangered species.
With 30 breeding pairs in each of the recovery states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, hopes were high. After the shouts and arguments by ranchers and fearful citizens in protest of the 1995 Reintroduction fell silent, the doors closed on public hearings. Gavels pounded by judges in courtrooms ruling on lawsuits filed by the American Farm Bureau on behalf of ranchers in the to-be-affected area could be heard well outside the courthouse walls.
Wolves set paws and dug deep into the same Yellowstone dens from which their ancestors were fatally removed by government-funded hunters for the first time in nearly 70 years. For a while, their reproductive success was touted by biologists. Wolf enthusiasts packed up camping chairs and telephoto lenses, climbed into their SUVs, and drove to the now-famed Lamar Valley in Yellowstone in the hopes of a seeing a glimpse of a gray wolf in action. Howls replaced the silence on a newly wild landscape.
Mission accomplished, or was it?
No sooner had wolf numbers rebounded for the prolific behavior thereof, than the recovery states began creating laws allowing its citizens to control—as in kill them—by any means necessary. Shooting, trapping, and snaring them, as long as citizens could control their numbers, would keep populations down to the agreed-upon number of 1,500 individuals, as promised under the 1995 Reintroduction.
Arguments were again raised similar to those heard in Alaska by hunters touting the wolves as reason for decline of the caribou populations. Idahoans, Montanans, and Wyoming hunters were heard making the same objections in favor of being able to hunt elk or deer populations, instead of those wildly uncontrollable wolves taking food from their mouths.
And the gray wolf, still under state management in the Recovery Area, is finding itself in the crosshairs of every wolf-hating, gun-toting hunter, extremist, or rancher.
No matter the remedial efforts by the states to economically compensate a rancher for any cattle loss due to an alleged wolf taking, no matter that a mere one percent of actual loss of cattle can be directly attributable to wolves. No matter the laudable economic benefit from wolf-related tourism in Yellowstone, remedial efforts by pro-wolf nonprofits as Defenders of Wildlife, sending volunteers out on horseback for six-week stretches of time, to ride and camp between wolves and cattle, or erection of flapping flags (fladry) upon fencing to deter wolves. No matter efforts to teach ranchers improved animal husbandry practices and bring their cattle close-in at night to remove temptation from would-be depredating wolves. And no matter the success by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide livestock protection dogs to sheep ranchers to deter any would-be depredating wolf—there are still wolf-haters and would-be criminals poaching and poisoning wolves in contravention of laws or public policy advocating for their existence.
Wolf hatred, for all the love on the other side of the aisle, is as strongly alive and impactful on any one lone individual Canis lupus as it once was. It is, quite honestly, pause for concern.
Can all the passion, love, and support in our hearts be enough to usher in the gray wolf into its once-native State of Colorado? Can we do enough in our personal lives to support the notion of life-affirming coexistence? Can we acknowledge our own genetically-derived fear of wolves, respect them for their intrinsic nature, and keep a safe distance no matter where we encounter them?
Can we refrain from romanticizing or idealizing about them, and appreciate the authentic nature of the wolf for its intrinsic value, separate and distinct from any projections we are tempted to make? Can we be bothered to leash up our dogs on public lands, to prevent attracting them in where they may be roaming wild, and adding to the statistics?
Can we keep from adding to the number of wildlife-human conflicts that give rise to new Colorado Parks and Wildlife “management” policies allowing people to kill wolves, the same as the aforementioned agency may euthanize a black bear that is perceived as a safety threat?
In time, we may get our answers. Let’s hope it’s before the next gray wolf arrives in our mountain valley.
The Nez Perce Tribe and the Central Idaho Gray Wolf Recovery Program (Senior Honors Thesis, April 2, 2004, Denise J.E. Grimm (former name), University of Colorado at Boulder).