Wolf worries

Predators' pending return has ranchers nervous

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Rancher Lucy Meyring reads from the Dec. 13, 1901, edition of the North Park News. It was more than a century ago, and North Park was buzzing about wolves. Ranchers had concerns. One article said the wolves had to kill one head of stock -- a calf, colt or cow -- every other night to survive.

The ensuing decades brought a war on wolves, in which famous trappers were called in, and ranchers banded together to kill the wolves before the wolves killed their livestock, Meyring said. By the 1930s, the wolves were gone.

Seventy years later, the wolves are coming back.

Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, and have since grown to number about 700, inhabiting Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. And with wolf sightings within 40 miles of Colorado, officials say wolves could enter the state any day.

Some argue that when the wolves cross the Wyoming-Colorado border, they will help restore the state's natural ecosystem. Many others argue the wolves' return means nothing more than lost livestock, lost business and another headache for already struggling ranchers.

"It's just a matter of time (before) a pack re-establishes itself here in Northwest Colorado," Meyring said. "There's a genuine concern about what's going to happen to our livestock when wolves start showing back up."

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has held public meetings across the state to discuss the reappearance of wolves.

"What we're really trying to get out of these meetings is: What things do we need to address in the management plan?" said Gary Skiba, DOW wildlife biologist heading up the wolf-management efforts. "We're not asking them whether they want wolves or not."

The division will set up a working group with livestock representatives, environmentalists, sportsmen, government officials and biologists to develop a Gray Wolf Management Plan by early fall, Skiba said

The plan will be useful when wolves in the Northern Rockies recover and are de-listed from protection under the Endangered Species Act, Skiba said.

While wolves are not considered "recovered," state officials will have to follow federal guidelines for managing wolves north of Interstate 70.

In Southern Colorado, which falls within a different management area, wolves likely will stay on the endangered species list longer, so it's less likely the state will have management control of the area in the next few years, Skiba said.

When wolves will re-enter the

state is impossible to predict, Skiba said.

Scientists disagree on the timeline, with some saying wolves could enter today, and others saying that it will take years.

But wolves can travel 60 miles in one day, and because they have been seen just outside of Baggs, Wyo., some Coloradans feel it's a given that they will be crossing state lines soon.

Keeping wolves away

Steve Raftopolous, a sheep rancher with headquarters in Craig, said he thinks wolves coming back into the state would be "devastating, not just to agriculture but to Western Colorado."

He has heard stories from friends in Wyoming of wolves killing livestock and of troubles getting compensation for those kills. "Wolves impact agriculture tremendously, but they're going to impact (all of) Colorado, period," Raftopolous said.

"They're part of nature and the ecosystem, but you know, do we really have true ecosystems anywhere?"

Even if wolves stick to hunting elk and deer during the summer, they likely will hang out closer to ranches when winter comes, said Patsy Wilhelm, who has a few cattle and horses at her ranch near Elk River estates.

"I think it would be cool to listen to a wolf howl, but I'm not sure that in the wintertime, when he's in my back yard, that I would think it's great," Wilhelm said. "It's not that simple. It's not just saying, 'Okay, let's turn some wolves loose and won't that be beautiful?' There are going to be some consequences."

Guide, outfitter and sheep rancher Andy Peroulis worries that in addition to livestock, wolves will harm the elk and deer populations that hunting guides rely on for their businesses, he said.

"They should round up a bunch of them and take them right up to the city limits of Denver and turn them loose and see how they would appreciate that," Peroulis said. "You know (wolves) are going to create a lot of hard feelings, and damn right it makes you feel bad, because this is your livelihood."

Dean Rossi, a third generation South Routt rancher thinks the government should compensate ranchers for each animal taken, for its potential to add to a genetic line, and for the time it takes to identify livestock killed by a wolf.

That was the general consensus at the Division of Wildlife meeting in Craig 1 1/2 weeks ago, he said.

A different approach

Other ranchers are more open to the idea of wolves, including Jay Fetcher, who ranches and calves cattle in the Clark and Steamboat Lake area. An established pack of wolves likely would be years down the road, he said, but a few wolves could help control high numbers of elk and deer in the area now.

"Obviously, it would affect our livelihood if we had large predation going on, but the other side of it is the wolves tend to add a balance," Fetcher said. "I'm open-minded about the wolves until they really damage our business."

Dennis Slunaker, representative for the Colorado Bowhunters Association, has hunted in the area for more than 30 years. He thinks wolves would not be detrimental to hunting as they would kill sick or injured animals.

And, they would be exciting to see.

"I just love seeing wildlife that was here and is no longer here," Slunaker said. "It's something that gives me a thrill.

"They were a natural species in this area at one time, and I feel that we are encroaching on their terrain, so they deserve to be here. Even though we're going to have to learn to deal with them, they deserve to be here."

The likelihood of wolves recolonizing Colorado on their own is slim, said Rob Edward, carnivore restoration director of Sinapu, a Boulder-based group dedicated to the restoration and protection of native predators.

But if they do recolonize, there could be immediate benefits, he said. Recent studies show that wolves do not control the number of elk in an area but that they do make elk, deer and moose more vigilant, which means they move from place to place constantly.

That means aspen and willow tree shoots aren't grazed to the ground, which means more trees, and in turn more beavers and wetlands and songbirds and other positive changes, Edward said.

Wolves will kill livestock, he said, but those kills happen only in small numbers, and ranchers can be paid back for those animals, he said.

Edward advocates reintroducing wolves to the area and letting them re-establish in areas, such as the Flat Tops Wilderness, that are considered good wolf habitat. The Western Slope alone, he said, could handle more than 1,000 wolves.

"We want to see wolves restored to fill their ecological role," Edward said. "It's a critical role that is not being filled by anything else, and we owe it to our grandchildren to see that dream realized, to restore the balance of nature."

Yellowstone's example

Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s. Since then, the park has received numerous complaints, said Doug Smith, leader for the Yellowstone wolf project.

Smith has fielded calls from ranchers upset about killed animals and lagging reimbursements. There have been calls from hunters complaining of fewer elk.

Smith argues wolves kill livestock infrequently and that research shows lower elk populations are more a factor of drought and hunting than wolves.

Wolves help ecosystems by increasing biodiversity and filling an important predator role, he said. Plus, they bring in nature-lovers who can't wait to see a wolf in its natural habitat, he said.

"They are a cherished and loved animal for people to come view," Smith said.

Smith said Coloradans should remember that the state is far from any crisis point, as wolves would take years to establish in large numbers in the state. Still, having a management plan in place before the wolves show up is ideal.

"People think that a few wolves coming back is going to be the end of life as we know it," Smith said. "When wolves do reach greater numbers, they're an animal we know a lot about, and (they) can be managed -- successfully managed.

"It's not the end of the world."

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