The Case for Gray Wolf Reintroduction in Colorado (on the ballot for November 2020)

There is a motion on the 2020 Colorado ballot to allow the reintroduction of gray wolves to the state of Colorado. This is an exciting opportunity for animal lovers and conservationists alike. And though the subject is a much-debated one, here is my reasoning for voting for this initiative...

The Science:

In a perfectly balanced world, all ecosystems are self-sustainable. This means that vegetation is lush and abundant, providing food and shelter for prey and other animals alike, while top predators keep prey animals (herbivores) in check, so that they don't decimate the vegetation. It's a perfect circle, and can naturally remain in balance until something comes along and upsets part of it. For example, humans killing off all of the top predators.

Wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears are the top predators of Colorado (although wolves and grizzlies have been extirpated by hunters since the 1950's). They hunt prey that are larger than themselves, such as elk and moose. They normally hunt sick, diseased or older individuals, actually working to keep the prey populations healthy and disease-free. Keeping the elk and moose in check keeps these herbivores from overgrazing on vegetation. Smaller predators, such as bobcats, coyotes and foxes prey on smaller prey animals like rabbits, prairie dogs, rats, and voles. These prey species reproduce at a very high rate, so keeping their population levels down is important for the health of the habitat. When all of the natural animals are part of the habitat (a habitat within which they all evolved to work together), the ecosystem is balanced. It would be unlikely for this balance to shift if the wildlife remain healthy. But because of human interference, many of the world's ecosystems are no longer balanced in that way. The killing off of wolves and grizzlies by hunters has allowed elk and deer populations to rise, which in turn are devastating important vegetation and habitat for other animals. The rise of smaller predators like coyotes, who take the place of the wolves at the top of the ecosystem, causes a decline in other prey populations, sometimes destabilizing communities and driving local extinctions. Hunters, in essence, replace the role of top predators, but don't often do a good job in keeping the number of prey animals abundant. Right now Colorado's elk and deer populations are decreasing at an alarming rate because of overhunting and poor hunting methods. This isn't the only reason for the decline though, as much of their habitat is also being lost to the hands of the oil and gas industry.

If wolves were reintroduced and hunters were subtracted from the equation (at least temporarily), there would be a good possibility that balance would return to the ecosystem. Leaving nature alone can often lead to ecosystem recovery, and the reintroduction of certain keystone species, like the beaver and the otter and even the wolf, has yielded some miraculous stories of habitat recovery. Beavers introduced to areas in which they were once eradicated has led to a recovery of natural wetlands that existed there before destruction of the habitat by human development. This is because beavers create wetland almost entirely on their own. Otters reintroduced to ocean areas where sea anemones have taken over and devastated coral have brought that coral back to life again, restoring the diversity of that ecosystem. Wolves could do the same thing for Colorado's ecosystem, as they benefited a similar ecosystem at Yellowstone National Park when reintroduced there in 1995. To learn how wolves restored this ecosystem, you can visit Yellowstone's website link at:

Colorado is a fantastic place for wolves, and gray wolves are very easy to coexist with. Wolf biologists emphasize the fact that the mythology and lore surrounding wolves makes them out to be much scarier than they actually are. There are little human-wolf conflicts, as wolves prefer to stay away from humans and hide. They also don't often go for sheep and cattle (as the mythology leads us to believe). But even so, there is a large budget set aside to deal with any conflict between wolves and ranchers that results from the reintroduction.

It's a fact that the more wildlife that disappears from this planet, the less inhabitable this planet becomes for us. In other words, we depend upon wildlife, and the more steps we can take to save it, the better off we will be as a human race.

The Ethics:

Is it okay for one small faction of the population to make major conservation decisions for the rest of us? Well ranchers (and hunters) have been controlling much of the way we do things since the start of the agricultural revolution. Their voices are loud - they have many people to feed and a high demand upon them for their products. However, should important conservation decisions continue to be made by them? Was it fair that they alone decided to rid most of the country of wolves without asking any of us?

Scientists and conservationists are often at odds with ranchers, as ranchers need deforested, clear-cut land with a monoculture of vegetation to feed cattle. A rancher's bottom line is profit, while a conservationist's bottom line is the health of our planet (as there is very little money in conservation work - trust me, I know). The way the world has done its agriculture has led to so many devastating consequences for our planet. Cattle is the number one reason for rainforest destruction, and will continue to be. Even though other crops also wipe out acres of rainforest, cattle is still far ahead of any of them. Cattle farmers are a huge reason why many of the world's species are endangered and quickly disappearing. Cattle can be a tempting snack for any large predator, and the shooting of these animals once they set foot upon a rancher's land is a common occurrence. It accounts for much of the decline in big African animals such as lions, cheetah, leopards, wild dogs, hyenas, and more. It is also the reason for much of the local extinction of larger wildlife in the US.

Conservationists in many countries are trying to convince ranchers and farmers to move from the cattle industry to the wildlife tourism industry. As the effects of global warming become more prominent around the world, it becomes more and more difficult to keep a healthy number of cattle alive. Because of record droughts happening in Southern Africa right now, many, many cattle are dying. People are dying as well. Switching from ranching to wildlife tourism would not only be a more sustainable and less devastating industry during hard times, it would also work to conserve both wildlife and its habitat for the benefit of paying tourists (and hence the planet). Much of the local ecosystems could be recovered, and global warming could be more easily combated. If we could simply lessen our dependence on the cattle industry here in the US, we could start restoring large swaths of habitat. Where hay and grasses once grew, subject to heavy pesticide use and the degradation of the soil and the wildlife on it, forests could have the chance to regrow, restoring nutrients to the soil and bringing back wildlife.

If we put a greater importance on conservation than ranching, we will keep this planet healthy for much longer. And now is a time more important than ever to put that into practice. As we watch the planet sink deeper and deeper into disruption, we need to make these small sacrifices while we still have the choice. 

The Heart:

Nothing warms a conservationist's heart quite like imagining a healthy planet where animals are abundant and thriving. Where we can walk into a forest surrounded by singing birds and signs of life all around us. These spaces continue to get smaller and smaller, and for many, this is heartbreaking to the point of depression and constant sadness. Conservation has been proven to be the most depressing line of work, and for good reason. It's hard to get across accurate information about our environment  with so many sources of news and so many opposing voices in the media. But our situation is dire, with our planet being attacked from so many sides (oil and gas, agriculture, carbon emissions, habitat destruction, pollution, overpopulation). The eradication and loss of any species absolutely and truly breaks my heart. Watching my favorite place on Earth, the jungle, be decimated and knowing I can't do anything about it, crushes my soul. Any little step we can manage to take in the right direction for the planet is a welcome one. Knowing that wild and free wolves are thriving somewhere in a Colorado forest would be a blessing. It's not fair that a few humans decide the fate of so many majestic creatures, when so many others love and cherish their role in our lives and the life of our home. 

Here's a really great and informative podcast in which a wolf biologist who has been studying them for decades speaks to this decision and to the importance of wolf conservation. Thank you for listening. I urge anyone in Colorado to research this issue and vote for it on this year's ballot. 


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