By now, the news and the images have gained a strong psychic foothold in the Colorado High Country. Last week, there were two endangered gray wolf sightings, one in Jackson County and one in Grand County. (Not sure at this point if it was one wolf sighted twice or two wolves.) Biologists from the Wyoming Game & Fish Department have confirmed that the creature caught on video in Jackson County was indeed a wolf, from the Snake River pack, which, I assume, is HQ’d up around the Snake River, which rises in northwest Wyoming before flowing into Idaho.
According to multiple news sources, the last native resident gray wolf in Colorado was killed about 1940.
It has therefore been a long while since the howl of canis lupus has echoed through the forests of the Centennial State.
But there have been several other recent instances where wolves wandered south from their home turf in the great white north.
One of the highest profile cases occurred in 2004, when a lone female wolf, of her own volition (read: no governmental participation), zigzagged her way 1,000 miles from Yellowstone National Park all the way to Eagle County. The wolf, known pedantically by its U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service designation “293F,” got splatted and killed on Interstate 70.
According to a press release issued by WildEarth guardians at the time, the fact that this lone wolf made her circuitous way to central Colorado was worthy of celebration. And in one sense it most assuredly was. I loved — and still love — the fact that many of the poster-child examples of endangered or threatened species “reintroduction” going on in this country take the form of natural animal migration. Filling a habitat vacuum, as it were.
To wit: Jaguars — the world’s third-largest feline species — have begun to cross the border — probably without legal documentation — from Sonora into Arizona and New Mexico. (That will surely stop if Fearless Leader gets his way with his idiotic proposed border wall.)
The best examples of such natural species reintroduction are found in the dense forests of northern New England and the Adirondack Mountains, which, by all accounts, are wilder today than they were 150 years ago. In that once-well-tilled part of the country, there now dwell bear, moose, coyotes, wolves and, for all I know, lions and tigers. This joyous reality did not come about because of invocation and implementation of the Endangered Species Act, but, rather, because, when the people who once called the North Woods home started moving out, critters moved back in from their haunts in Quebec.
It is a bit different in Colorado, where the population is both skyrocketing and sprawling. The main issue in the West vis-à-vis endangered species — especially of the carnivorous variety — comes from institutional opposition, which can include ranching interests, real estate developers or even ski areas — all of which are concerned (among other things) with the part of the Endangered Species Act that demands the protection of “critical habitat” once a species is listed as legally endangered by the Fish & Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged by Congress to oversee all matters related to legally endangered animals and plants. Critical habitat designation makes certain activities slightly more problematic for those inclined toward “development.” That, plus it makes the business of marketing mountain paradises more difficult when prospective customers start fretting about their poodles getting snatched by wolves. I mean, can you imagine the fallout the first time a pack is seen wandering on the fringes of Willits? I would pay good money to see that!
Like many of my fellow tree-huggers/granola-crunchers/pinkos, I am thrilled to hear that the wolf or wolves video’d in northern Colorado last week made their way to a state that badly needs an increase in its large predator base. I am also concerned for the life of those two wolves, both of which are now trying to survive sans pack support in hostile territory.
I used to live in that part of the state, and, let me tell you, an enclave of environmental progressivism it ain’t. It’s big-time hook-and-bullet country, where the definition of biodiversity centers pretty much upon ample populations of bovines, trout and elk. As recently as 2015, a hunter north of Kremmling shot and killed a lone wolf, thinking it was a coyote.
In addition, I have spent a big part of my life in the heart of one of the most-heated wolf-recovery controversies in the country, southwest New Mexico, where the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction has been beyond contentious — a place where, if your vehicle sports a “Wolves Belong” bumper sticker, you can expect serious vandalism when parked at a trailhead.
I find myself, not surprisingly, on the side of the wolves, and I have opened my big mouth on the subject of reintroduction many times in circumstances that might very well have ended with the resident bubba population mopping the floor with my flowing locks. But, beneath my pro-wolf-based verbosity lies a truth I do not often repeat to my pinko compadres: A big part of me does not want wolves officially reintroduced, or even wandering into, Colorado. Not yet at least. Not under current circumstances.
Understand, I do not buy into the anti-wolf propaganda that says wolves decimate elk populations, that they prey upon unattended pets and the occasional tasty human youngster. I also do not buy into the bullshit “local-control” argument as it applies to national forest lands owned by every American. I DO buy into the argument that large predators are necessary for any ecosystem to flourish.
I suspect many well-meaning people will use these two wolf sightings last week as a rallying cry for full-blown reintroduction. Sounds good. But I fear for the individual wolves themselves as they try to survive in parts of the world where many people are still afraid of them and who are willing to engage any sort of argument/action to oppose having them running free in lands they can see from their living room window. As many as half of the Mexican wolves reintroduced into southwest New Mexico over the past 20 years — an area much less-populated and much more wild than anywhere in Colorado — have been killed, mostly by ranchers. As long as variations on the anti-wolf theme are still prevalent in the rural West, individual members of this magnificent species are going to get shot, poisoned, harassed and run over by people who really don’t want the West to be re-wilded.
We all know what’s going to happen to those wolves in Jackson and Grand counties, don’t we? They’ll have trouble surviving because wolves need other wolves to help them hunt. Or they’ll get run over on I-70 or U.S. 40. Most likely, they’ll get blown away by some yahoo, even though it’s a federal crime to kill an endangered species.
One day, this part of the world will be more ready for the wolves, whether that readiness stems from human population declines associated with the inevitable implosion of the recreation-based economy or whether it stems from people coming to their senses and realizing that having the big bad wolf wandering through our forests is both ecologically beneficial and an aesthetic gift from the heavens. Until then, I fear that wolves are being used to make political points as much as ecological. But, either way, their day will surely come.
M. John Fayhee is the founding editor of the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal. For the past three years, he has split his time between El Jebel and New Mexico’s Gila Country.