Canis fiasco

  • Jonathan Thompson


Government sharpshooters may soon stalk elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, picking off one animal at a time. They promise to do their shooting in the early morning, so as not to disturb park visitors, and officials have assured the press that they plan to preserve the herds' "viewability" throughout all of this. After all, the elk are one of the park's main attractions. 

Some 500 miles south of the park, federal officials occasionally shoot or trap Mexican gray wolves after the canines have killed three or more domestic animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service has also initiated a program to allow citizens to shoot wolves with paintballs in order to scare them away. 

Though both situations sound bizarre, perhaps even farcical, they are both very real. And both use absurdly unnatural methods in an attempt to bring out-of-whack nature back into a natural balance. 

In Rocky Mountain National Park, the elk killing - or, in Park Service lingo, culling - is intended to protect native willow and aspen groves from hungry ungulates that number in the thousands. The elk that aren't shot will be kept away from native flora by fences, herded away by dogs, and scared away by park staff shooting blank ammo. This is all necessary because, after elk and their predators were hunted out of the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hunting was banned in the park. Then elk were reintroduced. The elk returned with a vengeance; their less politically correct predators never did. 

Down south, the feds shoot or trap wolves as one of the more twisted parts of a government program to bring the wolves back to the wild; by removing wolves that get "three strikes" by killing livestock, a hostile populace is kept somewhat appeased. Mexican wolves once roamed across the Southwest, but beginning in the 1800s, hunters whittled down their numbers. By the 1970s, when the Mexican wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act, it was nearly extinct. The reintroduction program, which John Dougherty explores in this issue's cover story, began in 1998, to the extreme displeasure of many of the folks who live in the recovery area. 

Ten years later, the wolf program has devolved into a fiasco. Wolves have died in alarming numbers. Some were shot by poachers, some were accidentally killed after they were trapped, some were shot because they developed a taste for beef. Today, the number of wolves remains far below biologists' goals, and just recently another pack was trapped and another one vanished altogether. The problem, as Dougherty discovers, is anything but simple: Politics have crowded the wolves into unrealistic boundaries, bad genetic stock has left weak animals in the wild, and scared and angry ranchers aren't about to give the wolf, or the wildlife agencies, any breaks. 

If only the Mexican wolves could be transplanted to Rocky Mountain National Park, both problems might be solved - the elk would get eaten, and the wolves would have some insulation from ranchland (wolves released in Yellowstone ultimately thrived). Unfortunately, northern Colorado is far from the Mexican wolf's range, and though park officials have considered a strictly limited, intensively managed reintroduction of wolves into the park as a tool for culling elk, it will likely never happen. 

I can't help but believe that both the elk program up north and the wolf program down south will ultimately fail. Because in both cases, we're trying to fix our mistakes using the same approach that caused the problems in the first place.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Dec 27, 2007 10:02 AM

< ... though (Rocky Mountain National) Park officials have considered a strictly limited, intensively managed reintroduction of wolves into the park as a tool for culling elk, it will likely never happen. >

Jon, you are a "glass half empty" guy in this article but I get your point. Relax, Gray wolves have been back for over 4 years. They probably came from the Yellowstone packs (a week's walk away) and they haven't been causing problems yet. Sure, a few will cause problems to humans in the future. The people that have seen these wolves on their ranches or while hunting and reported the sightings did not want to kill them. Times have changed. But there will be a limit on how many wolves the habitats can sustain before there is a wolf problem. So, how many will be too many? This might be a good time to think about it.

The first I saw was a 100 lb wolf on May 15, 2003 on my ranch 15 miles east of the Park. It did not have a tracking collar. I watched it from 150 yd away with a 9-power riflescope for over a minute until my coonhound spotted it and started barking. The big wolf had been in the rock outcrops and then just loped away across my pasture in no real panic. I immediately sent an email to the Colorado Division of Wildlife's area manager thinking that someone had dumped a wolf like they dump prairie dogs around here at Boulder County's Rabbit Mountain Parks and Open Space (first hogback west of the Great Plains).

Since then I have seen several different wolves and have been as close as 20 ft from one Gray wolf that loped past me after I turned on my floodlights and walked outside in January 2006. There was a wolf scent post on my place in 2006 that was inspected by another national-level wildlife biologist and I have seen over 100 wolf scats within around 10 miles north and south of here when riding my horses on the old wagon roads. I have bagged and tagged 8 scats for future DNA testing when the wildlife agencies finally decide that determining lineages (mitochondrial DNA) is important for future management decisions for the wolves.

So what do I think about the twaddle from several wildlife agencies that these are hybrid wolves? (1) Wildlife agencies will not be required to pay for damages caused by wolves if they can use as a defense that the animal was not a purebred wolf; (2) Wolves can be shot without it being a criminal act; and (3) The claim that DNA cannot prove a wolf is 100% purebred is a joke because humans have 99.9% the same DNA as a chimp ... and some wildlife managers prove that they are more like a chimp on this issue. There are genetic markers that can determine a purebred wolf.

I think one pair of wolves on my place had pups in 2006 based on scat samples I collected and observed.

But back to the real problem. Elk have been tearing the hell out of plant communities around Rocky Mountain National Park for too many decades and need their numbers brought down quickly - as in yesterday and not tomorrow. Do you really believe aspen trees don't have limbs less than 7 ft from the ground? Ecological damage caused by over-grazing by deer and elk in our parks is insulting to wildlife that depend on shrubs and me. Tom Abbott, PhD, Boulder County, CO

Dec 31, 2007 07:41 AM

We have only just begun to fight

I find it very sad that you feel the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf will fail and I heartily disagree! Currently there is a scoping period in process. This WILL change some of the rules and regs that currently harm the wolves. It is not a failure, it is a work in progress. The disturbing factor is that there are people here who feel they are above the law.

An active group of pro wolf volunteers close to the wolfs traditional home range are vigilantly working to change things on the ground. If we seem inactive it is only because we work within the law and expect our representatives to do our will. Another work in progress and a slow one indeed. Help us by speaking with your representatives about your support of the reintroduction of this magnificant predator.

What this program needs is more funding, more staff, more law enforcement!

Jan 03, 2008 04:27 PM

Why not just let the public hunt elk in the park, thereby feeding humans in the area?

As for the wolves...issue limited quota hunting permits and you can help the local economy while taking care of the wolf problem.