The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Even in a culture full of division and differences of opinion, there seems to be a special kind of outrage reserved for wolves—whether one is fighting against the four-legged creatures or for them. “Wolves incite the kind of passions usually reserved for war and infidelity,” writes Washington-based journalist Eli Francovich in the introduction of his new book, The Return of Wolves. “[Those] passions highlight deep political and social divides.”
Any Coloradan who’s followed the drama around wolf reintroduction—which voters narrowly approved by a statewide ballot initiative in 2020—is familiar with the passions Francovich is referring to. And after the state recently finalized its wolf reintroduction plan and we get closer to the moment that paws hit the ground, anticipation, excitement, and fear only seem to be intensifying. It begs the questions: What is driving people’s passions? And is there any middle ground to be found between wolves’ interests and those of their human proponents and opponents?
Francovich’s new book, released last month, not only explores these issues but offers a comprehensive history of wolves in America—including how they were largely eradicated by hunters—and how more recent human-wolf dynamics have played out in Washington over the past decade. And while Colorado has already had a few reported sightings of wolf packs that likely crossed over from neighboring states, intentional reintroduction by state officials will certainly make the carnivores much more common and visible in the Centennial State.
Before that happens, we caught up with Francovich to learn more about his findings—and what Coloradans might learn from experiences in the Pacific Northwest.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Colorado is about to reintroduce wolves. You’re based in Washington, where—relatively speaking—wolves are not so new. When did wolves reestablish in Washington, and how are they doing?
Francovich: The state of Washington first confirmed a reproducing wolf pack in eastern Washington in 2008. Those wolves came from Idaho and populations in Canada, and they weren’t reintroduced in Washington like they will be in Colorado. But since 2008, the population here has grown by between [roughly] 15 and 20 percent each year. In the most recent survey, there were at least 220 wolves in Washington, so they’re doing very well. They’re recovering.
As you write in your book, though, with a growing wolf population come increasing tensions. Some of the most vocal opponents of wolves are cattle ranchers. What are some of the main issues that they have with wolves?
The obvious one is that wolves have occasionally attacked cattle and either killed or injured them. That does have a financial impact. But in Washington, the numbers of attacks have never been that high, and ranchers do get compensated for losses. I think the best arguments in the ranchers’ favor are that wolves have sort of secondary and tertiary impacts on cattle. Some studies have found that, for every confirmed cattle death, there are two or three [presumed dead] animals that you don’t find. Other studies indicate that having wolves around reduces the overall bodyweight of cattle and leads to more miscarriages.
The main character of your book, Daniel Curry, is someone who’s trying to straddle the divide between wolves and ranchers and environmentalists. Tell me about Curry—and how did you find him?
I met Curry in 2019 while I was out on a reporting trip in cattle country in Washington and came across his camp and horses on the side of a Forest Service road. He’s a big guy, and he made an impression right off the bat. He’s very frank and direct, and he’s kind of this amazing character because he really loves wolves. He wears a ring with a wolf embossed on it, and he spent his twenties working at a wolf sanctuary in western Washington. At some point, he felt like he wanted to be where the action was, and he moved into the middle of wolf country in eastern Washington to work with wild wolves and to try to help ranchers and others learn to coexist with these carnivores. He really didn’t know what he was doing at that time, but he slowly figured it out, and now he’s a range rider.
What does a range rider do?
Curry spends most of his nights trying to keep wolves from attacking cattle. In Washington, ranchers will let their cattle out onto public land to graze, but then they can [lose track of them]. And so Curry goes out and finds the cattle, then tries to get between them and wolves to make sure everything runs smoothly. He’s been doing that for the last decade.
That was something I had never heard of before reading your book. I also was unaware that, because wolves are afraid of humans, we can use nonlethal tools like shotguns with nonlethal rounds or streamers attached to trees to scare them away from livestock.
Plus other tools like activated lights. I mean, in its simplest form, range riding is like shepherding. It’s what shepherds did for thousands of years. But now we’re trying to use more modern science—and a greater understanding of biology and ecology. I’m sure that range riding will become common in Colorado if it’s not already happening.
You write a lot about the cultural divides and controversies surrounding wolves. Whether people are pro- or anti-wolf, passions tend to flare. Why do you think people are so passionate about this species in particular?
We have a long cultural and evolutionary history with wolves. We’re both generalist species—the kind of species that survive and thrive by working together. And throughout human history, wolves could be pretty devastating [to us]. Like, if they killed your flock of sheep, that could kill your family through starvation. So I think there’s a lot of historical baggage there.
On the flip side, for people who really love wolves, I think there’s a general feeling of lost connection to the natural world. With the dire ecological news—including climate change—wolves can be a stand-in for a wild animal that has nobility and that we need to protect. I think that triggers some of the strong love and advocacy for the species. Plus, dogs are very similar to wolves, and so that may make it easier for people to feel that connection.
The dynamic you describe in Washington state is similar to that in Colorado: In Washington, most of the power and money is centered in Seattle, which is liberal, and the interests and decisions about wolves that are made there tend to affect rural eastern Washington, which is more conservative. That’s comparable to the dynamic here: Colorado’s Front Range, which is politically left-leaning, voted heavily for wolf reintroduction, and rural Colorado, which leans right, will be the most affected by those policies.
That’s been a part of the wolf debate since the 1995 reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone—which was a federal government thing and happened under the Clinton administration. And now more people are moving to Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, where I think the dynamic you just described could replicate itself in these states where previously it’s been maybe a little [less controversial] because people have generally thought the same way about these issues.
While you were reporting your book, did you hear any opinions from folks in Washington about Colorado’s wolf reintroduction plan?
I talked to biologists who are basically like, “I’m really glad I don’t work in Colorado because it’ going to be hard.” Because here in Washington, when people are upset about wolves, a biologist can say: “I understand, but this is a natural thing, and we just have to live with it.” But in Colorado, it’s a choice that the state made.
What are the potential benefits of wolves for the environment?
In Washington, there’s this longstanding study that looks at how the return of wolves impacts other species. One of the findings is that having wolves back on the landscape has actually controlled the coyote population. There’s also been some research in Montana showing that wolves target and select animals infected with chronic wasting disease. And in Yellowstone, there are some famous studies that showed that wolves have helped restore [river] areas by controlling elk numbers. Some of [those studies] were a little overstated, but it is true that animal populations have boom and bust cycles, and having predators around helps keep them in control. There are definitely positive impacts.
But I do think that a lot of what we know about wolves has come from places like Yellowstone or Alaska where there are just not very many people. So that’s another thing that’s pretty neat about Washington and Colorado and other western states with wolves—that we’re going to be able to see what it looks like to have wolves living next to humans.
It took you a while to actually find a wild wolf. When that finally happened, what was it like, and how did it make you feel?
It was important for writing this book. Before, I felt a bit agnostic about wolves. Like: I didn’t love ’em, didn’t hate ’em. They were just another animal. But then, as I was driving up a Forest Service road early in the morning in northern Idaho, I came around a corner and saw a flash of movement up on the side of the road. I stopped and jumped out of my car, walked to the edge of the road, and looked downhill—there was a wolf about a hundred yards away that had stopped and looked back at me. We made eye contact for probably a second or two, but it felt quite a bit longer, which is how many people describe wolf encounters. You sort of lose track of time. And I think that was a pretty profound and important moment for me.
As humans, it’s really easy to think that we’re the only thing going on because we have such huge control over the natural world. But we’re very buffered from it. Wolves have their own wills and desires, and it’s not about humans or what humans want. And so, for me, that wolf sort of triggered a reminder of all that—as well as helped explain some of the passions, anger, and happiness that all come up around wolves.