By Dylan Anderson
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) held its second wolf reintroduction education session recently with a focus on what other states have done when releasing wolves and managing conflicts with livestock.
One of the speakers, Ed Bangs, was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s gray wolf recovery coordinator for the Northwest United States from 1988 until he retired in 2011.
“Wildlife reintroductions are a dime a dozen. You can’t hardly think of an animal that hasn’t been reintroduced,” Bangs said. “Doing it with wolves is novel only because people get excited about it.”
This was the second of three information sessions put on by CPW as it plans how it will fulfill Colorado voter’s direction to reintroduce wolves by the end of 2023. Bangs said managing wolves is more about managing how people view them, as the species itself isn’t difficult to manage.
Wolves’ lives revolve around killing large ungulates, Bangs said, which at times does include livestock.
While predation sometimes has led to individual ranches having significant damage in years, it does not have a significant affect on the industry in general, Bangs said.
“It is pretty easy to downplay wolf predation if it is not your livestock being killed, but it is a very big issue and something that you really need to pay attention to,” Bangs said.
Bangs said he also talks to ranchers who cannot sleep at night because they are worried about what wolves could do to their herd. He estimated about 10 percent of the wolf population in the Northern Rockies is killed every year to reduce conflict with livestock.
Compensation programs are part of the solution, Bangs said, and in 2009, the federal government approved a program to give states money to reimburse ranchers for their losses. Still, in remote Idaho, only about one in seven suspected losses to wolves was confirmed and the rancher paid.
“Compensation is not a cure-all either. It helps, but other management programs also have to be in concert with compensation,” Bangs said.
In Wyoming, there is a compensation program not only if a rancher has wolves clearly kill livestock, but also for missing livestock. Mike Jimenez, a wolf biologist for 30 years, said having clear programs like this helps to ease tensions.
Wolves will follow their prey, Jimenez said, which will often put them in contact with livestock. After reintroduction into Yellowstone, Jimenez said they saw that most of the wolf packs had preyed on livestock. Jimenez said the more they studied, they began to kill more of these problem wolves.
Using this calculated lethal control, Jimenez said they were able to reverse the trend in livestock predation and Wyoming actually had more wolf packs but less packs involved in livestock kills as a result.
“It was simply because of us focusing and lethally removing wolves that were chronically causing problems,” Jimenez said.
Wolves often travel long distances when looking for a new place to roam. One collared wolf traveled about 3,000 miles through Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado in just six months, Jimenez said.
Colorado will need to set up its own regulations for wolves, Bangs said, and it is important that there are checks and balances in the system, because wildlife officers will be under a lot of pressure when assessing a potential wolf kill from both ranchers and wildlife advocates.
“You really need the public on both sides of the issue to trust you are giving it a fair shot,” Bangs said.
When looking at packs already in the Rocky Mountains, Bangs said wolves primarily live in contiguous forests in mountainous areas with lots of big game animals around but little livestock. That is primarily in western Montana, northern Idaho and areas in Wyoming around Yellowstone National Park.
“These are unique, contiguous extensive areas of public land that aren’t found elsewhere,” Bangs said, adding that other areas like prairies have become too developed for wolf packs to survive.
While some are worried wolves could have large-scale impacts on big-game populations, Bangs said he doubted that because Colorado lacks the contiguous habitat required for them to have such an impact.
When it comes to wolf population, Bangs said it grew rapidly after reintroduction in other states, but, eventually, the populations stabilize as packs stake claim to the habitat.
“It happened in northwest Montana, in Idaho and Yellowstone, and that is what will happen in Colorado,” Bangs said. “Rapid growth and then a plateau as the suitable habitat is filled.”