When you think of a wolf, what do you see? Is it one of those cute and cuddly National Geographic cubs, staring at the camera with sullen yellow eyes and shabby ears? Or is it the Big Bad Wolf blowing your house down? Maybe a ferocious red-eyed demon, sharp teeth bared? Or a lonely silhouette against a white moon? Wolves have had various faces, many of which were created by media propaganda and folklore. 


The battle between these warring images of wolves came to a head in November 2020 in Colorado with the passage of Proposition 114, a ballot initiative to re-introduce grey wolves into the Western Slope of Colorado. The initiative was spearheaded by several grassroots campaigns but was vehemently opposed by cattle ranchers and hunting organizations living and working in locations where the wolves are to be reintroduced. Proposition 114, passed by a narrow majority, will lead to grey wolf reintroduction starting in 2022 or 2023. It was the first initiative concerning wildlife to be voted on by a state.


Proposition 114 has been extremely controversial. Who in the general public had the authority to make this decision? On one hand, rural mostly Republican/Conservative voters are temporally and spatially close to wolves, having most likely encountered the animals in the past. Cattle ranchers will also have to face the potential fiscal consequences of wolf reintroduction. On the other hand, the urban majority Democrat/Liberal voters are spatially distanced from wolves, as they live in an ecosystem which is inherently unsuited to their survival. These voters encounter a different, more appealing image of these animals in the media. Furthermore, urban democrats are more likely to be educated, meaning they might examine the wolf conundrum from a more academic perspective. Though advocates and opponents both argue that they ‘know’ the better course of action for the wolf,  no matter how hard humans try to relate to nature and vice versa, they will never be able to fully understand each other. 


It’s important to put wild reintroduction into historical context. Wolves have always been loved by First Nations peoples; most Plains tribes have stories that characterize wolves as protectors or djinn-like spirit guides.. However, during the latter half of the 1800s, white settlers and hunters decimated wolf prey populations similarly to  bison, elk, and deer.  By the early 1900s, less than 1,000 elk remained in Colorado, compared to over a quarter million elk today. At the same time, domestic livestock were increasing in numbers, providing an alternative prey source for wolves. Due to the loss of elk, bison and deer, and the emergence of this new prey source, wolves began attacking livestock. Shifting the blame from their own actions, hunters and ranchers began killing off wolves. The species was eradicated from Colorado in the 1940s through shooting, trapping, and poisoning at the hands of vengeful ranchers. Following this, government sponsored predator control eliminated the last wolves throughout most of the western United States.


Things began to change for wolves several decades later in 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was signed into law. Eastern timber wolves and Northern Rocky Mountain wolves were listed as “endangered,” and were one of the first species to receive federal protection under the law. These protections were expanded to the majority of remaining wolf populations in the Lower 48.


However in January 2021, federal protection for the majority of gray wolves was stripped away. Now, wolves are managed by whatever state they wander into. They have the potential to be either vulnerable or protected; they roam territories ranging from Indigenous lands and national parks where wolf hunting is illegal, to Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, where wolf killing is legal and culturally acceptable. Wolves that cross the invisible boundary from Colorado into Wyoming, into its “predator management area,” are vulnerable to state policies that allow wolves to be killed any time of the year, without a license. In Idaho, where the Nez Perce Tribe successfully oversaw the reintroduction and management of wolves for more than a decade, the state now permits the killing of up to 90% of the population, which is currently about 1,500 wolves. In Utah, ranchers don’t need a license to kill wolves that prey on livestock.


So if wolves no longer have protections, why put Proposition 114 on the ballot? Sans wolves, prey species such as deer and elk flourish, leading to high levels of overgrazing and soil erosion. Elk and deer, when not forced to migrate due to predators, browse on the same patches of willow, aspen and cottonwood, which beavers rely heavily upon for building dams. Without dams, river banks get destroyed, which in turn lowers the songbird and beaver populations. 


Furthermore, the absence of wolves in the area has led to higher populations of coyotes, which has lowered the amount of foxes and ground squirrels. This in turn has led to a decline in populations of rare birds of prey who require these smaller vermin for food. Lastly, without a predator to weed out weaker elk or deer, diseases spread rapidly, including the deadly Chronic Wasting Disease. In essence, wolves act as a vital tool for preserving the delicate balance of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem. 


In sum, wolf reintroduction is justified as an effort to enhance the integrity of the biotic community. However, some questions must be asked: are the wolves being introduced adding to the integrity of the Colorado mountain ecosystems if they are transplants from other areas? Should we let wolves come back to the environment on their own or do nothing related to wolf reintroduction, perhaps choosing an alternative method for balancing the ecosystem? How do we use animals, for human gain or for ecosystem benefit? 


What happens now since Prop 114 has passed? Recent history has shown us that reintroducing wolves is unlikely to harm the livestock and agriculture industry. Since grey wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park in 1995, only one in 10,000 cattle in wolf-occupied counties have been  killed by wolves on average. In addition, records show wolves have not significantly impacted elk harvests. Wolves also often target old and weak animals that might have otherwise died from starvation or disease, which means that wolves may even be an asset to ranchers rather than a detriment. Exactly how many livestock will be killed by wolves each year is unknown. Over the past few years in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) confirmed a total of 136 cattle (both adults and calves) and 114 sheep (adults and lambs) were killed by wolves in 2014. However, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported 2,835 cattle and 453 sheep killed by wolves in the same region and time period. On one hand the USFWS data are underestimated because they do not include livestock that are killed by wolves but are never found or reported. Conversely, the NASS numbers are based on a self-reported survey of livestock producers and do not include verification of kills. After combining the two datasets, the estimated percentage of cattle killed by wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain states since wolf reintroduction in 1995 is under 1% compared to other predators. In addition, based on evidence from northern Rocky Mountain states, reintroducing wolves will likely have a relatively low impact on big game and hunting in Colorado.


But how does one estimate the value or cost of wolves to farmers and society at large as a non-market entity? It is estimated that the benefit of reintroduction would outweigh the costs, yet there would still be millions of dollars in costs, including paying ranchers for lost livestock. But maybe we're looking at this in the wrong way, maybe instead of paying ranchers for losses, perhaps ranchers should be paid to coexist with wolves? A study found that killing wolves is actually associated with more livestock deaths the following year, as wolves control the populations of smaller predators like coyotes that can have a major impact on cattle numbers. 


But what happens if the wolf population grows out of control? A proposed method for curbing possible wolf overpopulation are wolf hunting permits, yet this increases human-nature conflicts. Thus, nonlethal methods for wolf determent are crucial. One increasingly popular way to combat wolf predation is to use a livestock guarding dog (LGD). These dogs live with the cattle herd and bond with the livestock from an early age. With wolves, the ideal situation would be to create a dog pack that the wolves would see as competition. This would deter wolves from entering the LGDs territory, leaving the livestock alone. In Colorado, where sheep producers faced cougars, black bears, coyotes, and wolves, dogs averted nearly $900,000 in livestock losses in 1993 alone. However, the use of domesticated animals (dogs) to protect against wild animals (wolves) for protection of half domesticated/half wild animals (as cows are neither domesticated or wild) introduces an interesting paradox. 


There are other potential downsides to the CPW reintroduction plan. What is most odd concerning these plans is the direct exclusion of local indigenous and native voices. Among the Pueblo tribes, wolves are considered one of the six directional guardians, associated with the east and the color white. The Zunis carve stone wolf fetishes for protection, ascribing to them both healing and hunting powers. In indigenous cultures in general, wolves are not considered separate from humans but teachers, equals existing within the same world. In order to correctly reintroduce wolves, indigenous perspectives should be at the center of the conversation


In the modern age, the typical human struggles to view themself as part of the larger environment. The fact that people are caught up in the passions of disagreement (over Prop 114) distracts from the issue of rapid, unsustainable bio-spherical change. Humans have created distance from ecocide (massive destruction of wolf populations in this case), but when forced to interact with and acknowledge that distance, tensions arise. It’s sometimes much easier to separate ourselves from ecological systems when we are the cause of a lot of the suffering. 


Will Proposition 114 ultimately be successful? Going forward, the issue will be whether the mix of private and public lands in the western slope of the Colorado Rockies will allow reintroduction. So far things are not looking good. A private conservative ranching county with attitudes similar to those in the legal wolf-hunting territories of southwestern Wyoming, Rio Blanco, has unanimously passed a resolution to become a “Wolf Reintroduction Sanctuary County,” declaring that Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s “artificial reintroduction” would not be allowed. 


In the end, the survival of wolves (and frankly any species with a tumultuous relationship with humans) doesn’t actually depend on finding habitat and abundant prey to eat — it depends on human tolerance.