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Around 9 p.m. on January 4, Joshua Carney, half of the Craig Press’ two-person reporting team, got a news tip. A local woman said that while hunting in northwestern Colorado’s Irish Canyon recently, her brother had come across an elk carcass that had been “ripped to pieces.” In the snow beside it, the predator had left a series of tracks shaped like dog paws, save for one distinguishing feature: They were big. Really big. Big enough for a wolf.
Although Carney, 27, had only been on the job a few months, he’d already looked into several similar leads. When he’d called Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), his inquiries were usually met with a chuckle. Yes, CPW had checked it out, and, no, it wasn’t a wolf. “The calls have happened forever,” Carney says. “People can’t tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote.”
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Nevertheless, when he got to work on January 5, Carney called CPW again, and this time, they suggested he file a records request. The next morning, CPW delivered the goods. Another hunter had spotted six large canids back in October, just a couple of miles from where the elk carcass had been found, and he’d caught two on video. The new carcass and tracks, plus that video evidence, had led CPW officers to an extraordinary conclusion: After forceful extermination 75 years earlier, wolves appeared to again be making a home in Colorado.
Carney banged out a story, getting a big scoop for a little paper and a crash course in the emotionally wrought politics of wolves. The calls, emails, and social media comments came in a flood. Denver TV stations asked Carney for interviews. The paper’s Facebook followers expressed dismay and predicted the demise of deer and elk, with at least one man writing that he’d use his gun in self-defense. Wolf lovers, meanwhile, dominated Carney’s inbox, and some accused him of sensationalism for his description of the carcass. One even came to the office to berate him in person. “It was a weird time,” Carney recalls. “I was relatively new to the job and that was the first one where I was like, ‘Wow—what happened?’ ”
Wittingly or not, Carney had waded into the wolf wars, and he had done so with uncanny timing. The day before his story broke, Initiative 107 was certified for the 2020 ballot. If it passes, the citizen-backed measure will direct CPW to develop a plan for actively reintroducing wolves to the state’s mountain landscapes and to put paws on the ground by 2023. It’s the first time voters in any state will have a direct say in reintroducing North America’s most controversial carnivore.
Trucking packs of wolves into remote reaches of the San Juans or West Elks and setting them loose may seem like a radical proposition. But if you take the long view, it’s wolves’ absence from the state that is the anomaly. Ancient bones excavated from Larimer County put wolves in what is now Colorado as many as 12,000 years ago, when they shared territory with grizzly bears, wolverines, Pleistocene jaguars, and eaglelike vultures. As those jaguars and vultures blinked out, wolves persisted and probably thrived any place where there were bison, deer, or elk to eat, which means wolves were everywhere. A map included in a 1994 federal study on the potential for reintroduction in Colorado is dotted with historical wolf sightings so numerous and widespread it looks like the state has chickenpox.
The European-American colonists who arrived in the 1800s did see wolves as a kind of disease. The settlers quickly decimated wild game herds, over-hunting to such a degree that elk largely disappeared from Colorado’s national forests and required their own reintroduction effort in the early 1900s. As wolves’ food sources dwindled, cattle herds grew, and wolves adapted. The animals began to make their living the same way many people did—on both game and cattle—so settlers used guns, traps, and poison to eliminate the competition. Wolves were largely erased from Colorado by the 1930s, with the last one likely killed in 1945. The same story played out all over the West. From then on, the fate of wolves would depend on the proclivities of man.
We have wolves in the West today because human predilections change. In 1967, wolves were one of the first animals protected under the then new Endangered Species Act. Some 28 years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for managing federally endangered species, began to restore wolves to the country’s Western mountains. In 1995, 29 wolves captured in Canada were released into Yellowstone National Park on the Wyoming-Montana border and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho. From a biological perspective, the reintroduction has been a fantastic success. Today, roughly 2,000 wolves roam the northern Rocky Mountains, and they’ve dispersed into Oregon, Washington, and Northern California.
Back in 1995, when U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt carried one of those first wolves into Yellowstone in a steel crate, a young biologist named Mike Phillips trudged through the snow just ahead of him, wearing a gray National Park Service sweater and forest green skull cap. Phillips had arrived in Yellowstone from North Carolina, where he had been overseeing a federal effort to restore red wolves, to lead the park’s reintroduction efforts. Later, after leaving the National Park Service, he would spend years as an independent scientific adviser to federal wolf recovery efforts in New Mexico and Arizona, giving him a hand in every wolf reintroduction that’s been attempted in the United States. Now, in Colorado, he hopes to be part of what he views as the final chapter. Which is why, six years ago, Phillips convened a meeting of conservationists and political operatives at the Denver Zoo to talk about how to get wolves back into Colorado—and whether putting the question on the ballot was a legitimate option.
Phillips, 62, is fit and compact, with wispy white hair. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, where he directs the Turner Endangered Species Fund, an initiative of Ted Turner’s, and moonlights as a state senator. Phillips has a mischievous cackle and a low, rich voice, which he uses to orate as much as converse, often calling upon soaring language and pausing for dramatic effect. Had his politics leaned in a different direction, he might have had a successful career on right-wing talk radio. Instead, he’s spent years introducing mostly unsuccessful progressive bills to the conservative Montana State Legislature to, say, outlaw intentionally running over coyotes with snowmobiles, something people apparently do. “My colleagues enjoy my hearings because the ideas are well presented,” he says. “But they never vote for them.”
The work of restoring wolves is in some ways its own Sisyphean task, full of endless and sometimes outlandish arguments over whether wolves do or don’t pose existential threats to ranching, do or don’t harbor bloodlust for human children, do or don’t possess transformative ecological powers. Phillips has stuck with it not because he’s particularly obsessed with wolves, but because wolves are powerful advocates for the cause that really animates him: the preservation of biodiversity in an age of extinction.
Wolves are useful in a practical sense because they require sprawling protected lands with minimal human presence, conditions that tend to benefit all sorts of other animals, plants, and insects. But they are also potent symbols. In a world where environmental narratives are overwhelmingly defined by loss, wolves tell a story of possibility. “So many endangered species are complicated,” Phillips says, explaining that decades of coddling can result in just a few hundred animals occupying mere pinches of their former habitats. Wolves aren’t like that. Give a wolf food to eat, don’t poison it, and it will probably succeed. “It’s not a fucking black-footed ferret,” Phillips says.
Wolf people like Phillips have had an eye on Colorado for decades for a simple reason: It has ample and obvious wolf habitat in the form of millions of acres of public lands rife with deer and elk. The 1994 federal study estimated that the state’s wild ungulate populations—including the largest number of elk in the nation—could sustain as many as 1,128 wolves, and it identified some level of opportunity for reintroduction in all of its national forests.
Phillips began working on the potential for wolf restoration in Colorado around the same time as that study. By then, he was advising the federal recovery team for Mexican wolves, which were reintroduced to New Mexico and Arizona in the late 1990s. The Mexican wolf project has always been more precarious than its sister effort in the northern Rockies, not least because the subspecies came perilously close to extinction and today’s survivors are genetically related. Phillips believed that the wildlands of western Colorado represented the Mexican wolf’s best shot at long-term survival because they provided superior habitat and a crucial link to the genetically rich populations in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. To meet its obligations under the Endangered Species Act, Phillips figured the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would eventually have to turn to Colorado. “For the longest time I kept saying, ‘The feds are going to come,’” he says. “The next logical step is this biological mother lode of western Colorado.”
Phillips saw the state as the missing piece in a continental conservation campaign that would see an interconnected wolf population restored from Mexico to the Arctic—the entire length of its former range. In the modern world, successful restoration at such scales is prohibitively difficult, especially for large carnivores. Just think of all the roads, cities, political boundaries, and land owners between the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Alaskan tundra. Yet for wolves, Colorado makes such an accomplishment possible. Says Phillips: “It’s the last great restoration landscape.”
As conservationists like Phillips waited for the feds, people like Rob Edward worked to build support for wolves within the state. Today, Edward is the president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, the political entity pushing this coming November’s ballot initiative. The fund is supported by a coalition of grassroots activists and national conservation groups, with its political activities so far bankrolled in large part by the San Francisco–based progressive group Tides Center, conservation nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, and private donors solicited by Phillips, who serves as a ringleader for reintroduction, but as a private citizen. For Edward, it’s the culmination of decades of plodding efforts. He spent the late 1990s giving wolf talks around the state as a staffer for Sinapu, a now defunct Boulder nonprofit that promoted carnivore restoration. Around that time, Sinapu received grants from the Turner fund, and Edward and Phillips collaborated to map potential reintroduction sites.
Then a two-year-old female wolf that had traveled all the way from Yellowstone was hit by a car on I-70 near Idaho Springs. It was June 2004, and the incident triggered the first serious, statewide conversation about wolves. Edward was one of 14 stakeholders appointed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, CPW’s predecessor, to the Wolf Working Group, which included ranchers, biologists, hunters, and environmentalists and was charged with developing a management plan in case wolves pushed into the state on their own. “That was a successful effort to make Colorado more friendly for wolves,” Edward says. “We ultimately agreed that wolves should be able to roam freely throughout Colorado.” But while the group’s work helped prepare people for the idea of wolves in Colorado, it did nothing to put wolves inside state boundaries.
By 2013, it had become clear the feds would not do the job either. In fact, that year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing gray wolves from the Endangered Species list entirely. The agency looked at the thriving populations in the northern Rockies and Great Lakes region and decided to call it good. Although the proposal failed, it was a clear signal the feds were done shelling out political capital on wolves. That left two paths for the canines to return to Colorado: They could wander in on their own, or they could be actively reintroduced by the state.
[Read More: If Wolves Are Already in Colorado, Should We Still Reintroduce Them?]
“I said, ‘Screw it, let’s put this thing on the ballot,’” Phillips says. When he laid out the idea in the meeting at the Denver Zoo, “everyone looked at me like I was crazy.” Well, maybe not everyone. Edward was there that day, and the two men had batted around the idea for years. They’d hesitated because it was risky, something you only do when you’ve exhausted all other options. “It’s kind of going nuclear,” Edward says. “If you spend a million-plus dollars to put a question before voters and they turn it down, you don’t have any leverage with policymakers going forward. You need to be pretty confident you can win.”
Initiative 107 appears to have more than enough popular support to succeed. This past August, researchers at Colorado State University conducted a public opinion survey of representative voters that found 84 percent intend to vote for wolf reintroduction. According to the survey, majorities support the measure not only on the Front Range, but also on the more conservative Western Slope. Even large majorities of self-identified gun rights advocates, property rights advocates, hunters, and ranchers signaled support for reintroduction.
Marj Perry is not one of those people. Instead, she finds herself in a typecast role: She’s a rancher who opposes wolf reintroduction. Perry and her husband, both 67, run a few hundred head of cattle on their ranch in Carbondale and have grazing leases in the White River National Forest. Their ranch straddles the Crystal River for a mile. It’s land her grandfather raised cattle on, then her parents. When Perry was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, Carbondale was a cow and coal town with unpaved roads. That was before it became a bedroom community for Aspen, a place service workers could afford to live, and then a place they probably couldn’t as it morphed into a lifestyle town of its own.
In mountain hamlets like Carbondale today, it’s difficult if not impossible to pay a mortgage with agriculture. And, if you already own land, agriculture is rarely the best way to squeeze the most money out of it. In the mid-1990s, Perry’s father sold 125 acres to a golf course developer. When her father died, the family sold most of the main ranch to wealthy neighbors. But Perry and her husband’s 600 acres have remained in the family and in production. Eleven years ago, the couple put the land into a conservation easement, forgoing future development rights for $7.5 million while cementing its future availability for farming and ranching.
All of that is to say that Perry is intimately familiar with the financial incentives that work against agriculture in modern mountain towns, and she worries that wolves will be another weight on the scale in favor of cashing out. “We have a lot of risk of losing more private land in western valleys,” she says, “and it’s really critical land.” Mountain ranches are central to the character and aesthetic appeal of rural Colorado, and they provide habitat for birds and small mammals. “You introduce 30 wolves, there’s not going to be a big change,” Perry says. “But if you look at Montana, it’s apparent that costs of ranching are going up as wolves increase.”
Other opponents of wolf reintroduction can be found in the op-ed pages of local papers. In the Montrose Daily Press this past fall, one writer equated reintroduction to setting “50 serial killers on the loose in our mountains.” The organized opposition includes groups like the Farm Bureau Colorado, the Colorado Outfitters Association, and some cattlemen’s organizations who have lined up behind the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition. The group has sometimes promoted dubious claims—that wolves could spread the novel coronavirus to humans, for example—but it has also engaged wolf advocates in the tit-for-tat arguments that trail wolves wherever they go.
Like so many other political battles, the fight over wolves tends to chase its own tail, with opposing sides trading barbs for decades, scientists offering measured evidence, and no one seeming to change their minds. Hunters fear competition for deer and elk; ranchers fear predation; and wolf advocates contend the fears are overblown. At a symposium in Durango in 2018, Phillips gave a talk in which he argued the struggle to accept wolves stemmed from a misguided belief that they kill on a whim. He pleaded for a debate based on facts. Tom Compton, a rancher from Hesperus, agreed about the need for reasonable dialogue when he took the stage later. “But when you look at me and see my cowboy hat,” he said, “you’re pretty dang sure my facts are going to be a little bit different from your facts.”
Twenty-five years into the wolf experiment in the northern Rockies, there are plenty of facts to consider. It’s evident that wolves have been one factor, among several, in shrinking the sizes of a few formerly hearty elk herds. It’s also true, according to data from state wildlife agencies, that elk populations remain healthy overall and that hunters harvest as many animals as they did before wolves’ resurgence. Wolves do kill sheep and cattle, with conflicts more common in areas with higher wolf and livestock densities, according to a 2018 study by Montana wildlife scientists. In that state, however, they take fewer livestock than both mountain lions and grizzlies. Livestock producers have developed strategies for minimizing wolf predation, and some ranchers have even learned to embrace wolves who show no taste for livestock. Because wolves are territorial, these animals can provide protection from problem predators. Put this all together and it’s clear that hunters and ranchers can live with wolves. Whether they want to, however, is an entirely different question.
For Perry, even a small risk of predation is one she’d rather live without. “I don’t think I could stand our cows getting killed by wolves,” she says. There’s an emotional cost as much as an economic one. On top of that, she struggles to understand the purpose of reintroduction. The pro-wolf campaign implores Coloradans to “restore the balance.” “It’s so vague,” Perry says. “Why do we want wolves? Just because they were here?” With the crush of development and a booming human population, Perry doesn’t think there’s room anymore: “What we have now is nothing like what they left.”
The essential role of the wolf in nature is as an apex predator. Its job is to eat meat. Predation is trickle-down ecology. Carnivores eat animals that mostly eat plants. Keeping the herbivores’ numbers in check helps plants thrive, and healthy flora provides for the birds and bees.
When wolves were returned to Yellowstone, they did help restore a certain balance to the landscape, a balance between life and death. In the park, the absence of predation—from humans and animals—allowed elk populations to balloon. The old and weak animals that carnivores typically pick off saw their lifespans extended, and large elk herds mowed through willow and aspen saplings, degrading stream corridors. Since wolves returned to Yellowstone, some—but not all—of these afflicted areas have gained new life, with fewer elk allowing the vegetation to rebound. The vegetation invited back beavers, who eat and build with it, and their dams spread water across the landscape, another boon for plants. It’s a beautiful story, but not a tidy one.
“Everyone talked about wolves did this, wolves did that,” says Doug Smith, the leader of Yellowstone’s wolf project for the National Park Service. “Well, we have the richest array of carnivores anywhere in North America.” Few other places have three large predators, he explains. “We have six. And we have them all in high density.” Wolves did their part to check elk populations in Yellowstone, sure, but they had an assist from grizzlies, black bears, and cougars. That means the ecological lessons of Yellowstone won’t easily translate to Colorado. Outside of heavily protected areas like parks, carnivores rarely rise to the kind of densities Smith is talking about because people kill them. For that reason, Smith doesn’t expect wolves would deliver ecological change to Colorado like that seen in Yellowstone.
Initiative 107’s proponents are well aware of the complicated nature of the Yellowstone story, but they argue it would be wrong to conclude that wolves hold no ecological value for Colorado. Delia Malone, a Redstone-based ecologist and member of the reintroduction campaign, points out that the holes predators like wolves leave in the natural system are evident in Colorado. In 2018, 45 percent of the state’s elk herds exceeded CPW’s population objectives. Get enough wolves in the right places, and they might have a part to play in regulating those herds.
Engage the campaign’s supporters in conversation long enough, though, and it becomes apparent that the value they see in wolves doesn’t primarily lie in their ability to solve a specific environmental problem. They want wolves because they believe they belong. If it was right, in the early 1900s, to remedy the over-harvest of game by reintroducing elk, why shouldn’t it be right now to rectify the persecution of wolves by welcoming them home? “I always come down on the side of restoring wolves,” says Gary Skiba, a retired Colorado Division of Wildlife employee who worked on wolf issues with the agency. “For me, that’s really an ethical and moral decision, not a scientific one. It’s about what we’ve done to ecosystems all over. Generally, any opportunity we have to restore a species, we should.”
After 107 was certified in early January, a sense of inevitability about wolves’ return began permeating Colorado—and ultimately infiltrated the Capitol. State Senator Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail and a rancher, introduced a bill in January that would return wolves to the Western Slope without having to deploy the nuclear option of a ballot initiative. Donovan solicited input from stakeholders, including sportsmen, ranchers, and Initiative 107’s political advisers, as she revised the bill this spring, and before the pandemic shut down the Legislature, it looked like it might have had a shot at passage.
Donovan wanted to create an alternative path for reintroduction that would encourage 107’s proponents to withdraw it. Ballot measures are blunt and narrow instruments. They pose complicated questions in a simple enough fashion so that people can vote “yes” or “no.” Initiative 107 would require CPW to develop a science-based plan to reintroduce wolves and implement it by the end of 2023, bringing an answer to the question of whether wolves would return to the Centennial State but little clarity on how and where. “One of the problems with doing it as a ballot measure,” Donovan says, “is you’re going to have the population centers of the state, which by and large don’t have direct connections to Western Slope agriculture, making a decision that will not impact them directly.”
Donovan’s bill—an implicit acknowledgment that wolf advocates hold the upper hand in the reintroduction debate—was a signal that the power dynamics surrounding land and wildlife in Colorado may be shifting in significant ways. Agricultural interests have long dominated these arenas, wielding considerable influence at the Capitol and holding majorities on CPW’s (and before it, the Division of Wildlife’s) politically appointed governing board through both Republican and Democratic administrations. As recently as 2016, that board—the Parks and Wildlife Commission—passed a resolution opposing any move by the feds to introduce Mexican wolves to Colorado.
In 2019, Rick Ridder, a paid political consultant for 107 and longtime Democratic operative, tried to find a sponsor for a bill like Donovan’s so that wolf advocates might have saved the money and effort a ballot campaign requires. Even after a decisive blue wave election, his efforts fizzled. To 107’s supporters, this history shows that the state’s political institutions don’t reflect the will of the people—and they won’t unless someone forces the issue.
Neither CPW nor its current commission have taken a position on Initiative 107, says spokeswoman Rebecca Ferrell, but the agency will comply with the mandate should the measure pass. If that time comes, Donovan’s bill could serve as a road map for how to approach questions like how many wolves constitute a recovered population and how to compensate ranchers who lose livestock. “There’s a couple of people who were like, ‘Hell no, no wolves,’” Donovan says of the input she received. But she explains that the confluence of recent events is also seeding more pragmatic attitudes: Wolves are already showing up in Colorado and many people seem to want them here, so it’s probably time to make it work.
On January 19, CPW officers investigated another elk carcass in Moffat County, roughly six miles from the one Craig Press reporter Joshua Carney was tipped off about earlier that same month. It was surrounded by tracks measuring up to five and a half inches wide. The officers were following the trail through the snow when the silence was pierced by howls. Using binoculars, they located six wolves less than two miles away.
Rob Edward says the news filled him with hope, but he was maybe less buoyant than you’d expect from a guy who’s spent 25 years angling for wolves. “None of the biologists that we’re in touch with think this small number of wolves is a harbinger of a newly jump-started recovery,” he says. For one thing, DNA tests on scat samples have shown at least two of the wolves to be siblings. “You don’t want brothers and sisters mating,” he says, “unless you want a bluegrass band.”
For another, the journeys of the few wolves that have wandered into the state since the I-70 hit-and-run have generally not ended well. “There’s no question Colorado is within dispersal distance for wolves in Wyoming and Idaho,” Yellowstone’s Doug Smith says. But a combination of natural and human factors make it unlikely they’ll form a sustainable population on their own. In 2009, another Yellowstone wolf was discovered dead by illegal poison in Rio Blanco County. In 2015, a hunter shot a wolf near Kremmling, having mistaken it for a coyote. If these nomads don’t die, the likelihood they’ll find another wolf with whom to mate are slim. The chances that enough wolves could pair up to establish a whole population are slimmer still.
Reintroduction, by contrast, brings certainty—and a more potent strain of hope for people like Edward. Environmental news these days is mostly dreary. The atmosphere is scorching, the oceans are acidifying, and hurricanes batter the East Coast while megadroughts parch the West. To 107’s supporters, wolves are an antidote. A vote for wolves is a vote for a future in which the natural world is a little less flattened by human influence and a little more complete.
“In places like Colorado, people embrace wildness; they embrace ecosystem restoration,” Smith says. “I know those sound to a rancher or hunter like, blah blah blah, more tree huggers blathering on, but it’s been a true sensation in Yellowstone. It really has made people’s lives better.” Travelers visit the park to experience a lost world in the process of reassembly—grizzly by grizzly, beaver by beaver, wolf by wolf. Many come to Yellowstone hoping to glimpse a wolf striding through the Lamar Valley. For others, that’s unnecessary. It’s enough to know they’re there.
Cally Carswell is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.