Part three of our series on the upcoming wolf reintroduction to Colorado.
Each year, hunters from across the country flock to Colorado’s sage meadows, thick aspen forests and moody valleys of the Rocky Mountains to hunt down and hopefully harvest the plentiful elk, deer, pronghorn and moose. of State. But for the next year and a half, hunters won’t be alone as they pursue their prey in the breathtaking Colorado wilderness. Wolves, North America’s historic top predators, are set to make a comeback in the Centennial State. Because of this, some hunters are beginning to speculate – and worry – about how the presence of wolves will affect their ability to harvest big game.
Who will be the top dog in Colorado’s prolific hunting grounds?
In fall 2020, voters passed Proposition 114, which required Colorado Parks and Wildlife to develop and implement a plan to reintroduce wolves to Colorado. The ballot measure passed, but by a very slim margin – with just 50.4% of the vote in favor of reintroduction. Now Parks and Wildlife is expected to begin the process of reintroducing wolves to the state, with the first pack of wolves expected to arrive by December 30, 2023.
The decision to reintroduce the wolves was greeted with enthusiasm by one half of the state and apprehension by the other. Ranching communities in the western and northern parts of the state fear that the reintroduction of wolves will lead to wolves killing their livestock, causing them to lose money and preventing meat from reaching grocery store shelves. .
Proponents of Proposition 114 herald the return of the wolf as a success and something that can restore balance to Colorado’s ecosystems – lost when Colorado’s last wolf was killed in the 1940s.
But one group has been conspicuously absent from the discourse on reintroducing the wolf to Colorado: hunters.
The balance between hunters, wolves and game
Colorado’s populations of elk, deer and moose are among the most thriving and largest in the country. In 2021, Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimated there were 308,901 elk, 416,426 deer, and 3,505 moose living in the state. Those numbers partly explain why proponents of reintroducing wolves think they should return — an abundance of natural prey, coupled with Colorado’s 8.3 million acres of public land, could lead to a thriving population.
But the same reasons Colorado is said to be prime wolf habitat also explain why the state is so popular among hunters. Therefore, the question arises: How will hunters and wolves coexist?
Steve Znamenacek, owner of One80 Outfitters in Steamboat Springs, has more than two decades of experience managing wildlife in Colorado. As an avid hunter, Znamenacek also has valuable insight into how Colorado hunters and their prey may be impacted by the reintroduction of wolves.
Znamenacek says when wolves are reintroduced, the number of ungulates in the state will likely change, depending on the size of Colorado’s wolf packs. He also points out that wolves impact the distribution and movement patterns of elk and deer in a given environment. Due to these changes, hunters will face new circumstances when out in the field.
“These impacts on population numbers could affect available permits and reduce their success — fewer hunters in the field who can actually harvest an animal,” Znamenacek says.
As a result, Parks and Wildlife may have less funding to effectively manage the state’s open spaces and animals.
In 2021, the agency estimated that hunters harvested 35,230 elk, 40,561 deer and 411 moose. Because Colorado big game tags cost between $42.01 and $2,343.10, depending on the hunter’s residency status and the animal they are applying to hunt, the state collects a significant amount of money through selling hunting licenses.
Colorado generates a huge amount of funding through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. This money helps fund the state’s wildlife management and resource conservation programs, while boosting the state’s economy. According to the Colorado Wildlife Council, the hunting and fishing industry brings in up to $3.25 billion a year to the state and supports more than 25,000 full-time jobs.
Colorado also manages wildlife through the participation of hunters. The state models wildlife populations, sets targets for the size of a population of species it wants, and sets quotas on the number of permits that can be issued in a given hunting season . This way, hunters can harvest big game in a way that maximizes the number of people who return home with an animal while ensuring that the state’s big game populations remain sustainable.
Hunting in Colorado is a win-win situation when it comes to managing game populations. Hunters win because they have the opportunity to fill their freezers with wild game. Parks and wildlife, along with animals, win because a healthy, sustainable population is maintained to help balance the ecosystem.
The state is not concerned about a noticeable decline in ungulate populations after the reintroduction, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Travis Duncan.
“We do not anticipate statewide impacts on ungulate populations from the presence of wolves on the landscape,” Duncan says, “CPW initiated intensive monitoring of some ungulate populations prior to the reintroductions so that we have data to make informed statements.”
Duncan also states that the reintroduction of wolves will give wildlife biologists and other researchers “an opportunity for a wealth of research into how wolves can navigate more populated areas, how the species adapts to effects of climate change and potential roles in disease control”. or impacts on vegetation in the Colorado landscape.
Wolves are also not the indiscriminate, bloodthirsty killers they are supposed to be, according to Rob Edward, co-founder and strategic adviser of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project.
“Unlike mountain lions, for example, which hunt from ambush, wolves hunt by coming out in family groups and facing their prey, literally testing them and trying to scare them away,” Edward said.
Once their prey moves on, they try to separate weaker members of a herd, such as a sick elk, aged mule deer or moose calf, Edward said.
“They are very good at identifying infirmities that make prey vulnerable,” he added.
So, due to the way wolves hunt in the wild, it’s probably not realistic to assume these controversial dogs will go out of their way to kill an entire population of elk. It wouldn’t make sense to do so when tackling an elk with chronic wasting disease is far more effective than trying to take down an adult elk.
It is therefore currently assumed that the amount of healthy individuals a hunter would actually want to kill and eat would not be directly affected by wolf predation, as primarily sick or old individuals would be eliminated by wolves.
A divisive issue
Either way, wolves are always a touchy subject in Colorado.
Prop. 114 was passed by mostly non-rural counties in Colorado (think Boulder, Denver, and Larimer), while more rural counties, home to many Colorado ranching communities, tended to vote against the ballot measure. Since the vote was so close, the wolf debate in Colorado can often get heated.
“Biology of ballot boxes is a big deal,” says Znamenacek. “Less than 1% difference between those who want it and those who don’t is a pill to swallow, especially since those who want reintroduction are outside the reintroduction zone.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has designated the area to which the wolves will be reintroduced as “those lands west of the Colorado Continental Divide that the commission determines are consistent with its Gray Wolf Restoration and Management Plan.”
“These lands” are largely opposite the Front Range state, where many of the votes to reintroduce wolves came from. Because of this, many people who live on Colorado’s West Slope or in the northern part of the state, where wolves will be reintroduced, have grown bitter against urban voters.
“Politics has become such an important part of wildlife management,” Znamenacek said. “Our wildlife professionals, of which I was one of the former, are hired by the state to manage this wildlife resource for the people of Colorado. They have not been allowed to impose their professional decision on the reintroduction of the wolf during this process – it was a political decision.
One place where this problem arises is in the way wolves are managed. Shooting a wolf in Colorado is illegal, due to the canines’ endangered species designation. Parks and Wildlife states that wolves “cannot be killed for any reason other than human self-defense” and that “depredation is not a legal reason to kill a wolf”.
Znamenaceck points out that since hunters currently play an important role in managing wildlife populations in Colorado, they could play a role in the future management of wolves. Predator control through hunting has already been done in Colorado – the state manages black bear populations in the state by selling a fluctuating number of hunting licenses each season, depending on current bear populations. Znamenaceck says wolves could be handled the same way.
“We need to start wolf management as soon as possible,” says Znamenacek.
Colorado seems unlikely to remove the wolf from the endangered species list and allow hunting anytime soon, unlike Wyoming, Idaho or Montana, whose wolf policies are more hostile than the Centennial State. .
A changing reality
Wolves will be reintroduced to public lands, which include areas used by hunters, ranchers, skiers, hikers and others. As animals arrive, being for or against reintroduction will likely matter less over time.
“The people of Colorado, through the wonder of democracy, have spoken and they’ve said, ‘we want the wolves back,'” says Edward.
Even Znamenacek, who voted against Proposition 114, admits there is room for wolves in Colorado, provided they are effectively managed.
It remains to be seen to what extent this will include hunters.