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Gray wolves to return to the Rockies

Gray wolves are often regarded as a popular predator in Colorado but have since become endangered. In the November 2020 general election, voters have decided to give gray wolves the opportunity to reclaim territory in Colorado. The narrowly passed proposition (#114) gives Colorado Parks and Wildlife a mandate to introduce and establish a population of gray wolves to the western part of the state by 2023. The margin was narrow: 51% of voters voted in favor of the initiative and 49% voted against it. The majority of the support for the initiative was concentrated in the urban areas to the east of the Rocky Mountains, including the Denver metro area. 

The urban support for the proposition was in stark contrast to overwhelming opposition by rural residents west of the continental divide that will actually interface with the wolves. Ranchers opposed the reintroduction due to concerns that the wolves will harm their livestock populations, despite the state government offering to reimburse any losses. Colorado hunters also opposed the measure, citing concerns of the wolves potentially harming wildlife primarily sought after for hunting (e.g. elks). 

Proponents of the proposition expect to see the wolves restore ecological balance in the state. A similar reintroduction was carried out in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and since has led to increased resilience and stability in resident elk populations, caused a rebound in beaver populations, and even increased the health of willow trees.

For skeptics of the newly approved measure, it’s worth recognizing the ecological context behind it. Gray wolves are apex predators, meaning they occupy the top of the food web and do not have any natural predators themselves. Apex predators help to maintain ecological balance in a food web by keeping smaller predator and prey populations in check. For example, the Yellowstone wolves increased the resilience of local elk populations by hunting sick and elderly elk, resulting in decreased competition among healthy elk for food resources and greater overall population fitness. 

Joel Berger, a wildlife ecologist featured in National Geographic, hopes that the reintroduction of gray wolves to Colorado will ultimately create a continuous population of gray wolves from Mexico to Canada, which would be a genetic boon to the heavily inbred and isolated Mexican gray wolf populations in the southwest. It remains to be seen how successful the reintroduction program will be and whether we can expect such a continuous population; a major difference between the Yellowstone reintroduction program and proposition 114 is that the planned introduction region in Colorado is more densely populated by humans than that of Yellowstone. 

The Knight News spoke to Queens College (QC) biology professor and ecology expert Professor John Waldman, who explained that he does not see proximity of wolves to humans as an inherent problem, but notes that anti-wolf individuals engaging in “poisoning or trapping or shooting” is a possibility to be aware of.

Anti-wolfers aside, the complicating factor in the rollout of proposition 114 is the delisting of gray wolves as an endangered species by the federal government. The United States Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, released a statement on Oct. 29 stating that, “The gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery”. There are currently over 6,000 wolves in the lower 48 states, but many environmental groups oppose the removal of endangered species protections and some, including the Sierra Club, intend to sue the federal government over the decision. The outcome of the decision will affect whether the gray wolf introduction program needs the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If the species is relisted, the program will require a federal permit. If it is not, the program can proceed under state supervision alone. 

Delisting gray wolves as an endangered species may also affect the grants that the program is eligible for. Administrative complexities aside, the voters have spoken: they welcome the gray wolves home.

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