“O, thou wilt be a wilderness again, Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants.”
—William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II
Well, maybe not.
Last week, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission passed a resolution opposing the reintroduction of Mexican wolves and gray wolves to the state. True Colorado natives (even if they don’t have the bumper stickers to tout it), wolves once roamed freely statewide; they haunted the grasslands, the forests, the mountains, the deserts. Then along came man, the great eradicator.
The westward expansion of the 19th century claimed first the staples of the wolf’s diet, notably bison, elk and deer, then the wolf itself. Their primary sources of food diminishing and their habitats under siege, wolves targeted the domesticated, hooved locusts that accompanied the spreading tendrils of humanity. The human response, of course, was to shoot and poison the animal into near-extinction. The last known native wolves in Colorado, according to the CPW website, were killed by 1940.
“It does not demean men to want to be what they imagine the wolf to be,” writes Barry Lopez in the classic wildlife book Of Wolves and Men, “but it does demean them to kill the animal for it.”
Crucially, the CPW Commission said it did not object if wolves migrated to Colorado of their own accord. Colorado maintains a policy to safeguard wolves that cross the border from neighboring states with existing populations; the wolf is no longer shielded by the Endangered Species Act, but some states among the lower 48 still extend protected status. That said, the wolf to most recently set paw in Colorado was shot and killed by a hunter, allegedly mistaken for a coyote.
Despite wolves’ rightful place in Colorado, and their economic and environmental benefits, reintroduction remains controversial; one can imagine their popularity among ranchers (who don’t want wolves harassing their livestock) and hunters (who don’t want wolves killing animals that they want to kill themselves). As a proponent of wild wolves and a wolf nerd (Shakespeare and Mark Twain are rivaled by L. David Mech on our shelves), it is with some reservation that I support the CPW’s decision — for now, for the sake of the wolves.
I moved to Montana amid the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s, and I lived and worked just north of the park boundary about eight years later, when various studies and socioeconomic data began to link the presence of wolves with positive impacts on local economies and the park ecosystem. The incendiary nature of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone was tempered somewhat by extensive outreach prior to, during, and after the first wolves were set free. Yet animosity remains; in 2005, I reported on a wildlife study related in part to complaints from hunters and the hunting industry that wolves were to blame for decreasing numbers of elk calves, which in turn led Montana’s wildlife agency to lower the hunting quota for elk, and sanctioned wolf hunts continue in Montana, Idaho and other states where wolves have been purposely reintroduced.
Colorado is home to about 4 million more people than Idaho or Montana, is swelling at a potentially dangerous rate, and has population centers near significant stretches of proposed wolf habitat. The state is also chock full o’ (gun) nuts. Gun owners here don’t hesitate to shoot people or pets, let alone apex predators they are predisposed to loathe and that conveniently kinda-sorta resemble another wild animal (the coyote) they are allowed to shoot on sight.
Colorado has also not yet experienced a broad, ground-level dialogue fueled by mutual education and empathy. But the gears are moving. We owe it to the wolves — and to ourselves — to share our remaining wildlands.
My first encounter with wild wolves was as brief and casual as it was thrilling and profound. A friend and I were hiking with Reese the dog, then barely a year old, in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest, just north of the Yellowstone National Park boundary. We ambled along a ridge that descended into an expansive meadow cut through by a creek and dotted with groves of aspen and pine. Reese trotted several yards ahead, but halted abruptly atop the escarpment, his ears pert on high alert, his tail raised at attention.
As my friend and I approached, knowing he saw something but not yet knowing what, Reese eased himself to the earth; he perched his head on his forepaws, tucked his ears back, and swept his tail. Then we saw the pair wolves, which had just emerged from a stand of trees. They stopped, about a half-football field away, and looked up at us.
“The wolf exerts a powerful influence on the human imagination,” observes Lopez in Of Wolves and Men. “It takes your stare and turns it back on you…”
The wolves gave us a moment’s consideration, then stalked away with purpose and lean grace. Within a few minutes, they crossed the meadow, summited the opposing hilltop, and vanished from view. My friend and I exchanged a dude look, then moved on in silence, as if we had just shared a religious experience. It was a sensation more people should have an opportunity to feel.
It may not yet be time for Colorado’s wilderness to welcome back its old inhabitants, but I hope that time is soon.