Should voters make this call of the wild?

The last time Colorado was home to gray wolves was in the 1940s. Supporters of reintroducing the endangered species to Colorado are busy gathering signatures to put a measure on next November’s ballot. (Public domain photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr: Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: This story originally was published on Nov. 17, 2019. On Tuesday, Dec. 10, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund submitted to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office what it said are more than 200,000 signatures to place restoration of wolves on Colorado’s 2020 statewide ballot. On Monday, Jan. 6, the Secretary of State’s Office qualified the measure for the ballot, saying that based on its sampling of “215,370 submitted signatures, the projected number of valid signatures is greater than 110% of the total number required.”

Over the next month, an army of volunteers will continue fanning across the state making sure they’ve gathered enough signatures to put a much-debated question on the November 2020 ballot: Should voters reintroduce gray wolves onto public lands in western Colorado where they once roamed but haven’t since the 1940s?

If volunteers successfully gather the necessary 124,632 signatures by Dec. 13, you could get a shot at deciding whether Colorado gets its wolves back along with whether to re-elect President Donald Trump or send a new U.S. senator to Washington. A group backing Initiative 107 says it already has enough signatures, but is gathering more just to be safe.

If the question makes the ballot, it will be the first time voters anywhere in the nation will decide whether to reintroduce gray wolves.

Backing this potential ballot measure is some serious money; the effort already has raked in nearly $1 million, with much of it flowing in from out of state. In a state with a growing rural-urban divide, the question pits wolf lovers and some environmental- and conservation-minded folks against some ranchers and sportsmen and opponents who decry “forced wolf introduction.” Others say Colorado, once part of the wolf’s native prowling range, is just not the same place it was when wolves prowled here. Colorado’s neighborhoods and cities are encroaching further into wild spaces, and demographers expect the state’s population to nearly double in the next 30 years.

Those who want the wolf back say reintroduction would help restore the state’s ecological balance as it has in places like Yellowstone National Park. Wolf packs there cut down an out-of-control elk herd that had over-grazed grasslands and caused soil erosion, among other problems. Some supporters have indicated wolves could even help mitigate the “sixth great extinction event” — an ongoing mass extinction event of species as a result of human activity — because of the wolf’s effect on its surrounding ecosystem.

But opponents say bringing wolves back now through a state popular vote is a big bad idea. It would be an exercise in “ballot-box biology” — putting a wildlife science question in the hands of average voters — according to Mark Holyoak, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which opposes the idea. Recently, county commissioners in Garfield unanimously approved a non-binding resolution opposing wolf reintroduction. Their fellow Western Slope commissioners in  Mesa and Moffat counties have passed similar resolutions.

Simmering beneath the wolf question is a larger tension about what’s best for everyone, from those who live along  Colorado’s bustling I-25 and I-70 corridors to those who live in its expansive rural areas. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, some see the potential ballot measure as one that “allows wolf-lovers in Denver and Boulder to make a decision that would affect ranchers and hunters in the western part of the state.” More recently, a man writing in The Montrose Daily Press said of the wolf measure, “a group of folks, mostly over in the urban Front Range” wants to “put 50 serial killers on the loose in our mountains.”

The rhetoric is heated, and perhaps unlike other issues voters could decide next year, this isn’t a partisan debate; it’s a more philosophical one about nature and society.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the gray wolf and where did it go?

Technically, we’re talking about Canis Lupus. That’s the Latin name. Colloquially, some call it the “timber wolf.”

The name of the wolf matters because this wolf — and only this wolf  — is the one addressed in Colorado’s potential ballot measure. The gray wolf is not to be confused with the red wolf, for instance.

Gray wolves used to prowl Colorado, but by the mid-20th century, hunters wiped them out from most of the lower 48 states. The federal government began establishing protections for the gray wolf in the late ’60s and classified it as endangered species in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act. At the time, only about 1,200 gray wolves survived in the lower 48 — nearly all of them in northeastern Minnesota, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) factsheet. 

The agency says there are now more than 6,000 wolves in the lower 48 states. The vast majority live in two large groups, one distributed among Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the other group dispersed in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, eastern Oregon and Washington and north-central Utah.

Wolves have migrated into Colorado over the years, but sightings have been rare. The state wildlife department is reportedly investigating two sightings this year. In 2004, a state wildlife department working group of farmers, wildlife advocates, sportsmen, biologists and government officials, came to an agreement for how the agency would manage wolves if they naturally migrated into the state.

Colorado, it should be noted, previously has reintroduced other animals, including the lynx in 1999, elk in the 1900s, bison in 2015, and turkeys in the 1980s.

So why are we talking about these wolves now?

One big reason: 2020 is a big election year.

Turnout is always higher in presidential elections, but 2020 will bring the re-election bids of President Donald Trump and Colorado’s junior senator, Cory Gardner. With control of the Senate and future direction of the country at stake, supporters of the measure are looking at a highly engaged electorate. If there was ever a time to push this, it’s probably now.

Adding urgency for supporters of the initiative: The Department of the Interior proposed in March removing the gray wolf from the list of endangered species.

“The gray wolf no longer meets the definition of a threatened or endangered species,” Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who is from Rifle, Colorado, said about the proposal.

Gray wolves have already been “delisted” in the northern Rocky Mountain states where the population has rebounded. The various states have assumed management of their wolf populations. Colorado would do the same were it to reintroduce wolves that had been or were later removed from the endangered species list. But for now, if the ballot initiative passes, management of the packs would remain under federal jurisdiction.

Finally, the Colorado legislature just hasn’t done much about this yet.

“I think what it boils down to is that it hasn’t been a priority,” says Nick Levendofsky, director of external affairs for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, an advocacy group for family ranchers and farmers. “This is an issue that hasn’t been driven by anybody except for the groups that are pushing for it to come to the ballot.”

A ballot measure is a way to put this issue in the hands of voters, and there seems to be enough money and will behind the effort to make a robust push in a busy election year.

In Colorado, it’s relatively easy to make laws and policy by asking voters directly instead of having to rely on lawmakers at the Capitol. That’s why we have legalized recreational marijuana and a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Unlike those, however, the wolf ballot measure would change state law, not the state’s Constitution.

This is not the first time policymakers here have debated the wolf issue, though.

In 1982, 1989, 2004, and 2016, Colorado Parks and Wildlife met to “discuss wolf reintroduction,” says John Murtaugh, the Rockies and Plains representative for a D.C. based organization called Defenders of Wildlife, which made a $100,000 in-kind donation to the Wolf Action Fund. “Each time they discussed it,” he adds, “they arrived at the same conclusion, which is that they don’t have the authority to make this decision.”

That’s true, says state wildlife department spokeswoman Rebecca Ferrell. In 2016, the Parks and Wildlife Commission (PWC), made up of 11 appointed members, reconsidered the issue of wolf reintroduction, and upheld previous conclusions that only the state legislature  — not the PWC or Colorado Parks and Wildlife — has the authority to approve reintroduction of endangered species, including wolves.

So, if lawmakers don’t seem all that jazzed to do it, wolf advocates are asking voters to do it for them.

What would the proposed ballot measure do?

If it passes, the new law starts a series of steps that would end with some eventual number of wolves being introduced onto public lands in the western part of the state. The ballot language also provides compensation for those who lose their livestock to wolves.

Initiative 107 would direct the Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to introduce wolves here “using the best scientific data available” and also to hold public hearings to gather “scientific, economic, and social considerations.”

The commission would have to figure out the details  — how many wolves exactly, where they would come from, how they’d be managed, what the compensation program would look like —  based on these hearings and testimony. The commission also would have to develop methodologies for determining when the gray wolf population is sustaining itself and “when to remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered or threatened species” as provided by state law.

The plan would be to start reintroducing wolves to Colorado by 2023.

What are the arguments for reintroducing wolves? 

Since it was humans who pushed wolves out of our state’s borders decades ago, for some supporters, restoring the gray wolf feels like an obligation to restore ecological balance.

On a recent Thursday at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide, animal caretaker supervisor Erika Moore explained why she supports the idea. “Bringing back wolves is hopefully going to have the same effect it did in Yellowstone where it actually revived the ecosystem,” she said.

Coloradans could decide next November whether the state should introduce the gray wolf to its public lands.This 11-year-old wolf, Koda, is among other wolves, coyotes, and foxes at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide, CO. Koda was adopted from a wolf facility in Lake George, CO. (Photo taken Oct. 3, 2019 by Alesandra Tejeda

The 1995 reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park is something that comes up often in conversations with wolf-measure supporters. Wolves culled overpopulating herds of elk and deer, which restored grasses, preventing soil erosion, keeping streams cleaner, aiding fish populations and more in a complicated series described as a “trophic cascade.” In other words, the introduction of an apex predator, the wolf, created a domino effect of ecological triggers from the top down that ultimately brought a natural balance back to the park.

“We do believe that wolves are necessary for the ecosystem,” Moore said, outside a gift shop of wolf-themed memorabilia. “The ecosystems cannot support how many elk and deer we have, and over time we’re going to start to see a degradation of ecosystems due to that.”

Some proponents claim introducing wolves could help alleviate Colorado’s issue with Chronic Wasting Disease, a neurological disease affecting elk, deer, and moose. It results in slow degeneration and eventual death.

Catherine Herzog, wildlife chair for the Pikes Peak group of the Sierra Club, was trying recently to persuade voters to sign petitions outside the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. “Half the herd of deer in the state of Colorado are infected with Chronic Wasting Disease,” she said. The CPW’s Ferrell confirmed that about half the deer herds in the state have CWD, explaining that a herd is considered infected if at least one animal in the group has tested positive for the disease. In elk, she said, up to one third of herds have been found to have CWD, which, again, means that at least one animal in the group has tested positive.

But, some opponents argue that the disease would still be spread through feces. Opponents and proponents cite different sources for their claims.

“To date,” says Jennifer Strickland, public affairs specialist for the Mountain-Prairie region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “there is no empirical evidence to support or refute” either position.

For Montana Democratic State Sen. Mike Phillips, a biologist who serves as director of the Ted Turner Endangered Species Fund and who has been involved in wolf restoration advocacy since 1995, reintroducing wolves here is about more than just Colorado, it’s about public lands across the country.

“The gray wolf remains fully protected under federal law. Consequently, its conservation future is relevant to all Americans,” he said in an Oct. 23 phone interview on his way to give a public talk in Denver about the wolf reintroduction battle. “This is a national issue.”

Wolves, he argues, have the capacity to inspire humans to be better. “How can you stand by and watch something you love be needlessly destroyed without rising up in defense?” he asks. If science makes clear that the “fate of humanity” is determined by the health of local landscapes, he argues, introducing wolves are both a symbol and a solution.

Others want to bring the wolf back to Colorado because it is the last state within the animal’s historic range that does not have them. To these supporters of reintroduction, it’s imperative that Colorado restore wolves, connecting the missing puzzle piece between the Arctic and the Mexican border.

There is something else: Plenty of voters might just like the romantic image of a wolf out there in the Colorado wilderness howling from a mountaintop. Some even believe “wolf tourism” could be a thing.

What are the arguments against reintroduction?

Some opponents just don’t want to see such a serious issue left to the average voter. Rather, they believe wildlife managers should make the call.

“If the initiative is approved,” says Holyoak of the elk-hunting sportsman group, “proponents may claim that ‘management itself would be left up to wildlife managers and professional biologists and ecologists,’ but that is after the fact that wolves would be introduced.”

In other words, the average voter is not a biologist who can appropriately determine where wolves should be reintroduced.

Another line of attack counters any possible ecological benefit. Just as pro-wolf folks use Yellowstone National Park as an argument for the introduction, so, too, does the anti-wolf crowd.

“Elk populations have diminished, their Shiras moose are basically extinct,” says Denny Behrens, an anti-wolf advocate. “In Colorado, the Shiras moose has become an icon; everybody wants to see a moose. So why would we introduce an apex predator that goes specifically after moose?”

However, according to Yellowstone National Park, predators are not solely to blame for a decline in moose populations over 40 years. Hunting outside the park, burning of habitat, and loss of old-growth forests also have played a role.

Behrens also argues that Colorado, with a burgeoning population of 5.6 million, does not have the space for wolves.

“That’s why I’m opposed to it,” said Lucy Harrington, a wildlife biologist who had just discouraged her father from signing a pro-wolf petition outside Cheyenne Mountain Zoo on a recent Sunday afternoon in Colorado Springs. “I love the idea [of wolf reintroduction],” she said. “But the reality is it’s just going to end up in a lot of wildlife-human conflict and the eventual eradication of wolves in the state.”

Some opponents contend too many wolves cutting down on elk and deer herds will hinder the state’s big game hunting tourism economy, which likely would not be mitigated by any kind of “wolf tourism.”

For others, the wolf program, which could cost taxpayers between $300,000 and $500,000 between 2021 and 2023, just isn’t a funding priority.

“We have bigger problems to invest money in,” said Andrey Tsepelev, a Colorado resident who also declined to sign a petition at the zoo.

Some opponents also say they’re OK with wolves that naturally migrate into the state, but for them to be deliberately relocated here is a problem.

But the notion that wolves could return naturally is misleading, says Rick Ridder, a high-profile Denver-based political consultant who worked on seven presidential campaigns and is advising the pro-wolf effort. Too many obstacles exist, he says, including highways and territories to cross where it’s legal to shoot wolves.

Where is the money coming from so far in this fight?

First off, there’s a lot of it.

As of Oct. 15, Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund had raised and spent nearly $800,000, according to state records.

The Tides Center, a progressive San Francisco-based charity that calls itself “the leading fiscal sponsor for social change initiatives in the United States,” has donated roughly $264,000. Defenders of Wildlife gave $100,000 for signature-gathering. The Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund gave $50,000.

Internet pop-culture icon Timothy Ferriss, another top contributor, donated $100,000. The entrepreneur, podcaster, and best-selling author known for his 2007 book The 4-Hour Workweek, has built a fanbase of millions for his podcasts and videos about life hacks. In August, Patch reported he hosted Phillips, the pro-wolf Montana senator, on an episode of his podcast and launched a $100,000 matching challenge with his listeners.

The Colorado Sierra Club, a member of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project’s coalition to push for wolf restoration, has donated just over $10,000.

Fighting the effort is an organization called Stop the Wolf Coalition, a collection of ranchers and sportsmen, and groups like the Colorado Wool Growers. Groups like the Colorado Farm Bureau have said their members have concerns about reintroducing wolves. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union oppose the effort.

A group called Coloradans Protecting Wildlife, made up of the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and Colorado Wool Growers’ Association, has also formed to fight a potential 2020 ballot measure.

“We don’t have the big-money environmental radicals that the opposition has, or that the pro-wolf people have,” says J. Paul Brown, a former GOP lawmaker and sheep and cattle rancher from Ignacio who is also a member of the Stop the Wolf Coalition. He says those who might have funds to fight it might be keeping their powder dry to see if the measure actually makes it on the ballot. “It’s an uphill battle for us,” he says.

To what extent could this issue reflect Colorado’s rural-urban divide?

“I think it’s very reflective,” says Levendofsky of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. People who live “in a bubble here in the Front Range,” he says, “don’t have an understanding of what goes on on the Eastern Plains or on the Western Slope.”

The editorial board of The Durango Herald in southwestern Colorado posited: “We believe it is possible that some people – some farmers and ranchers – could be taught to co-exist with big predators, if they saw the value in restoring ecosystems; but that will not happen because four-fifths of Boulder voters say “yes!” to wolves.”

In an interview, Brown of the Stop the Wolf Coalition charges that those trying to put the question on the ballot are “people on the Front Range — bunch of city dudes” who are trying to “cram it down our throats.”

“It’s a bunch of uneducated folks that are going to put it in our backyard and not their backyard,” he said. “And it’s just wrong.”

In June, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel newspaper on the Western Slope published an editorial that read: “It’s the Western Slope where the wolves would be reintroduced. That makes it easy for the Front Range voters to love the idea of wolves roaming free in Colorado without worrying too much about pets becoming wolf snacks.”

Some proponents of the ballot measure, however, point to polling that suggests people throughout Colorado support wolf reintroduction. “What we’re seeing now is increasing acceptance, in our polling, that the Western Slope supports wolf reintroduction at the same level as the rest of the state,” Ridder says.

The polling data he’s talking about comes from Denver-based New Bridge Strategy, which found in March that two-thirds of Colorado voters out of 900 interviewed favored “restoring wolves in Western Colorado,” while 47% said they would “definitely” vote yes on a ballot proposal.

Is there any room for compromise?

Folks on both sides believe that the news sometimes communicates extremes: whether it’s that wolves are vicious threats or that they are a cure-all for Colorado’s ecological problems.

“We don’t do well, even in our own communities that live so close to each other, trying to understand the other point of view,” says Bob Kjelland, director of communications for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

Defenders of Wildlife’s John Murtaugh says Coloradans could find a common cause if they start to trust each other a little bit.

“The nonprofit sector doesn’t have all the answers. The government doesn’t have all the answers. And the ranchers don’t have all the answers,” he says. “But if we can all get in a room together, bury the hatchet, and just talk about this because we’re trying to find a solution, I think together we can have those answers.”

Levendovsky says he also believes in compromise. Not necessarily in the end result, but in the process, which is why he opposes reintroduction being done through the ballot and not through votes in the General Assembly.

“If you’re going to be an informed voter, if you’re going to be an informed citizen, you can’t just take one side of the issue into consideration,” he says. “You have to look at everything, you have to look at the entire picture. It might be difficult and it might be uncomfortable, but that’s how democracy works.”

Alesandra Tejeda is a senior student journalist currently based in Colorado Springs, studying environmental studies and journalism. In 2019 she interned at WUWM, the member NPR station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has a passion for stories and the way they can move us.