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Gray wolf paws its way back into Colorado

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Reintroducing the gray wolf to Colorado has produced conflict among humans. On March 15, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies hosted an educational event called “Living with Wolves: Coexistence in Colorado” at the Wheeler Opera House. The presentation aimed to bring collaboration and awareness to the divided packs of scientists, conservationists, ranchers, journalists and communities. The event engaged the audience with a multimedia presentation of short films, a panel discussion and a performance by Lost Walks music and dance troupe.

The northern hemisphere once had a prolific wolf population, but in the 1940s, the last gray wolf in Colorado was slaughtered. Wolves were among the first animals added to the Endangered Species Act in 1973. According to a recent United Nations report, we are experiencing an accelerated extinction event, with 1 million of some 8 million terrestrial species identified by science as on the brink of extinction.

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In a continuation of Manifest Destiny, development and recreation have humans encroaching on wilderness territories, increasing encounters between wildlife, pets and people.

Carnivores beware — as the apex predator, humans have a long history of plucking the competition from ecological webs. Consequently, without predators, a biodiversity crisis exists, with prey species running rampant across the plains and suburbs. Colorado currently has some of the largest deer and elk herds in the United States. Overpopulated ungulates lead to overgrazing, disease, starvation and the destruction of river beds, crops and gardens.

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In December of this year, as required by voters’ approval of Proposition 114, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) will release 10 to 15 gray wolves, followed by annual releases of similar numbers for the next two to four years. The Colorado wilderness provides ample roaming opportunities for the gray wolf, which can roam 40 miles in a day. As packs develop, they will range from two to 30 wolves. Initially, wolves will be monitored by radio collars with the goal of maintaining two collars per pack.

As rewilding campaigns gain traction in Colorado, there is heightened fear of the unknown. Panelist Dr. Joanna Lambert, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said, “We have lost what it means to live in landscapes with other species in this predator guild.”

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As the gray wolf repopulates in Colorado, the prevalence of different species will change. Dr. Lambert said, “Chances are that coyote numbers are going to go down in areas where wolf numbers are going up … in areas where coyote numbers go down, you tend to find more red fox around.” She continued, “There are interesting intraguild interactions among the canids. There may very well be some competition at kill sites. We might see wolves chasing a lion off the kill and sometimes vice versa, depending on how many wolves are in the pack.”

Ranchers are apprehensive about livestock loss with the reintroduction of the gray wolf. CPW is responding by reimbursing livestock owners for losses due to wolf depredation. Panelist and rancher Lenny Klinglesmith expressed unease about wolves pushing ungulates in search of safety onto private land. He said, “We have orchards in the Grand Valley. What are elk going to do with 12 months of predation?”

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Hunters express concern over competition from wolves. Wolves are expert prey pruners according to panelist Gary Skiba, wildlife program manager at the San Juan Citizens Alliance and a former CPW employee. He said, “One of the reasons they [wolves] take weak, injured and in some way impaired animals is because it is safer for them. Getting kicked in the head by an elk is not a good thing.” With an overabundance of ungulates in the state, wolves should leave the healthy prize bucks to the hunters.

Communities contemplate safety. The most significant potential for conflict is off-leash domestic dogs. It is illegal to have dogs off-leash in many areas because they chase wildlife. Panelist Karin Vardaman is director and co-founder of Working Circle, an organization dedicated to ensuring wolves, livestock and people can coexist and thrive long-term on shared lands. She advises responsible pet ownership by keeping dogs close. “In terms of a livestock guarding dog that can stand up to a wolf, the wolf is going to win,” she said.

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Addressing community safety concerns, panelist Matt Yamashita, CPW’s Area 8 wildlife manager, said, if encountering a wolf in the wild, “People should back away slowly, make noises and give the animal an escape route.”

For more information about the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Colorado, go to cpw.state.co.us

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Tags: #Aspen Center for Environmental Studies #Colorado Parks and Wildlife #gray wolf #Wheeler Opera House #wolves
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