A city-country conservation divide
Science | The reintroduction of gray wolves highlights Colorado’s split personality
by John Dawson
Posted 11/25/20, 03:40 pm
Gray wolves disappeared from Colorado more than 70 years ago, but some packs are returning. On Monday, officers with the state’s Parks and Wildlife Office reported they had spotted tracks, heard howling, and seen some gray wolves on game cameras in the far northwestern corner of the state.
Earlier in the month, voters in Colorado narrowly passed Proposition 114 to make a concerted effort to bring back gray wolves to the state. The initiative passed 50.91 percent to 49.09 percent. It was the first time a state’s voters, rather than biologists and state wildlife officials, approved the reintroduction of a species. The nearly 57,000-vote margin among 3.3 million ballots highlighted the divide between conservationists in urban areas eager for the wolf’s return and hunters and ranchers in Colorado’s frontier who see the animal as a threat to their livelihoods.
Under the measure, the state’s wildlife agency must draw up plans to reintroduce the species west of the Continental Divide, which runs through the Rocky Mountains, by 2023. In a nod to ranchers, the proposition prohibits placing restrictions on private landowners as part of the effort. It also requires the state government to compensate for the loss of livestock caused by wolves.
Colorado’s wolf population went into decline last century after deer, moose, and elk hunting reduced the predator’s source of food. The state’s famished wolf population turned to domesticated animals for survival, and ranchers took out the rest by the mid-1940s.
But wolves have been making a comeback in the Mountain West: On Oct. 25, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the federal government had removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list. Since their reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1995, many believed it would only be a matter of time before the apex predators returned to the Rocky Mountain State. In the last decade, Colorado authorities have acknowledged reports of lone wolves in far northwestern Moffat County. In October 2019, Colorado Parks and Wildlife used eyewitness reports and a scavenged elk carcass to identify the first pack of wild gray wolves in the state in more than 70 years.
“We have no doubt that they are here,” the agency’s northwest regional manager, J.T. Romatzke, told Newsweek in January. “The most recent sighting of what appears to be wolves traveling together in what can be best described as a pack is further evidence of the presence of wolves in Colorado.”
Proposition 114 won support primarily from urbanites for whom the state’s vast wilderness represents recreation. More than 66 percent of Denver County residents voted for reintroduction, along with nearly 68 percent of voters in Boulder County just to the north. In Pitkin County, which boasts the seventh-highest per capita income in the country and is home to tony resort towns like Aspen, nearly 62 percent of voters were in favor of bringing back the wolves. Proponents of the measure argued that restoring wolves would stop the overgrazing of riverbanks by deer and make the ecosystem more hospitable for numerous species of plants and animals.
In contrast, voters in rural counties overwhelmingly voted against the proposition. In Moffat County, where sheep outnumber people about 55,000–13,000, voters rejected the measure 83 percent to 17 percent. Of Colorado’s 64 counties, 52 voted no.
“Prop 114 exacerbates a rural-urban divide in Colorado that is already deep and raw,” Colorado bison rancher and former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez wrote before the vote. “Too often, folks who call rural Colorado home feel forgotten, abused, misunderstood, and ignored. While the vast majority of the money behind 114 has come from out-of-state radicals, the petitions were circulated in the dense urban centers.”