by Michelle Nijhuis
Last April, in a narrow mountain valley in northwestern Colorado, Cristina Eisenberg was searching for scat. The diminutive, dark-haired biologist and two members of her field crew had set up a kilometer-long transect through elk habitat, and the trio was walking slowly along the line. It was a raw day, cold and windy with spells of freezing rain, and the biologists had been moving through meadows for hours, looking for elk poop, deer poop, coyote poop, mountain lion poop. This was old-fashioned wildlife biology -- hardly glamorous work -- but in it lay the story of the landscape, of the pursuers and the pursued, and Eisenberg was absorbed in the tale.
Then, on the edge of an aspen grove, one of the biologists saw something unusual: a scat roughly as long and wide as a banana, tapered at the ends, perhaps two months old. When Eisenberg examined it, she saw that it contained hair from deer or elk and shards of bone, some almost as long as a fingernail. It smelled distinctively earthy, like a shady forest floor.
In the course of her research, Eisenberg had seen and handled thousands of scats just like this one, but not here, not in Colorado. Everything about it -- the size, the shape, the smell, the contents -- indicated a creature that had been extirpated from the state more than 70 years ago. Everything about it said wolf.
Within an hour and a half, the crew found a similar scat, some 500 yards away. Later that day, in another aspen grove about five miles away, they found two more. Less than a week later, Eisenberg's lead tracker, Dan Hansche, found a wolf-like scat with a similar, smaller scat laid on top -- suggesting, Eisenberg says, that an adult wolf had been teaching its pup to mark territory.
As the weather warmed last summer, the field crew found 11 more wolf-like scats, and Hansche documented a set of tracks with wolf characteristics. Then, at dawn on July 27, Eisenberg and another biologist were driving down a winding valley road, deep in a discussion about statistics, when Eisenberg spotted a black shape running across a bright green alfalfa field, perhaps 100 yards away. The stance, the gait and the set of the ears all suggested the wolves Eisenberg had spent so much time observing near her home in northwestern Montana.
This past November, during another trip to her Colorado study area, she found another set of wolf-like tracks, fresh prints that extended at least a quarter-mile up a snowy ranch road. All in all, Eisenberg and her crew found some 18 separate signs of wolf activity during visits over a seven-month period. This animal -- or animals -- was no mere passerby.
Officially, wild wolves do not live in Colorado. The nearest established population is in Wyoming, where gray wolves were introduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. But rumors of wolf sightings abound in Colorado, and in recent years, at least two wolves have died in the state. In 2004, a young radio-collared female wolf from Yellowstone was killed on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs, about 30 miles west of Denver. In the winter of 2009, another young female collared wolf traveled a 1,000-mile-long route from the Yellowstone region to the Meeker, Colo., area, roughly 20 miles from where Eisenberg and her crew work. That wolf's death, in April, is still under investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and neither state nor federal officials will comment on the matter.
Like most scientists, Eisenberg and her colleagues are cautious. For months, even among themselves, they half-jokingly spoke of "visitors from the North," reluctant to name a species as controversial as the gray wolf. They emphasize that DNA testing, now under way at a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, is needed to back up their identification of the animal or animals that produced the scat and tracks. But whatever the animal is, it appears to be eating what wild wolves eat, and traveling over the landscape the way wild wolves do.
When wolves arrive in an ecosystem, everything changes: the ecology, the politics, relationships both animal and human. "We know more about wolves, and the management of wolves, than we do about many other forms of wildlife," says Douglas Smith, leader of the Yellowstone wolf project. "But we rarely get to put it into practice, because people freak out, flat-out freak out, when a wolf shows up."
Wolves herald a grand experiment -- and in Colorado, that experiment may already be under way.
The chunk of northwestern Colorado where Eisenberg works is called the High Lonesome Ranch. Bordered on the south by Interstate 70 and on the west by the rippling shale and sandstone curtain of the Book Cliffs, it encompasses desert flats, river valleys and high-elevation aspen stands. With the recreation, outfitting and grazing permits it holds on Bureau of Land Management land adjoining its property, the ranch operates on a roughly circular 300 square miles -- an area larger than Lake Powell at full pool.
"It's an overwhelming landscape," says Eisenberg, who, with conservation biologist Michael Soule, flew over the ranch in a helicopter last May. "Even from the air, practically everything you can see is the ranch. You think, 'How are we ever going to measure this?' "
On winter afternoons, fading light glows in the snowy fields and sagebrush near ranch headquarters. High, rocky ridges rise in every direction, silencing the nearby interstate. Despite the dense, almost palpable quiet, the High Lonesome Ranch is a busy place, with a full-time staff of 40, a commercial kitchen, a well-stocked gift shop, and enough pickup trucks and road equipment to outfit a small highway department. Experienced guides lead hunting and fishing expeditions into remote ranch valleys; masseuses knead sore muscles; chefs prepare elaborate multi-course meals. In the ranch dining room, leather-bound albums display photos of grinning guests posed with their trophies: bull elk, bears, mountain lions, colossal trout. "While you're here," one slogan goes, "you own the place."
Not really, of course. That privilege belongs largely to Paul Vahldiek Jr., the president, CEO and chairman of the board of High Lonesome Ranch. Vahldiek, a tall, heavyset Houston trial lawyer with a boyish face and an attitude of expansive hospitality, is a man of epic enthusiasms: for wildlife, for travel, for good food and drink. A dedicated outdoorsman since his seventh-grade basketball coach took him fishing for trout and redfish on the Gulf Coast in the 1960s, Vahldiek spends several weeks each year on the property -- yet he rarely leaves ranch headquarters, and almost never hunts. Instead, he conducts a whirlwind of meetings with business partners, contractors, scientists, architects and staff, often becoming so absorbed in conversation that he loses track of time. "When he drives," says his wife, Lissa, "my job is to say 'Paul, the road. Paul, the road.'"
Petite and blue-eyed, with arching eyebrows, Lissa Vahldiek grew up in the news business: Her father, the son of a sharecropper, rose from a bookkeeping position at a Florida newspaper to found Southern Newspapers Inc., now a chain of 17 small and mid-sized papers in Texas, Alabama and Georgia. Lissa has spent most of her career with the company, and now serves as its vice president and CEO. She loves the outdoors -- on her cell phone, she proudly displays a photo of one of her prize High Lonesome Ranch catches, a 14-pound rainbow trout -- and is supportive of Paul's work with the ranch, but the place is clearly his realm. "Where newspapers are truly my passion, I think it's truly his passion," she says.
Like so many heat-weary Texans, Paul dreamed of a mountain getaway. Unlike many, he and Lissa had the funds to buy one. A big one. He wanted snowy peaks, not desert cliffs and sagebrush, and at first the valleys of northwestern Colorado held little appeal. But he also wanted a property that could be managed for conservation, and a friend who had hunted in the area pointed out that lower-elevation lands were accessible year-round -- to humans and wildlife. In 1994, Vahldiek bought the first piece of what would become the High Lonesome, completing the purchase of one valley before going on to the next, and then the next. The North Dry Fork Valley, where ranch headquarters now sits, alone comprises 18 former homesteads. "In Texas, you can have a long fenceline, but there's always some guy in a truck driving along the other side, waving at you," he says. "Here, the Book Cliffs are our fence. There's no one waving at us."
From the start, Vahldiek says, he wanted to protect the land for the long term, so he set about learning how to be a good steward. The ranch sits in the gas-rich Piceance Basin, but Paul used his legal expertise to cut off oil and gas company access to mineral leases. ("I haven't been the normal rancher in dealing with them," he says.) He decided to run 400 head of cattle, a fraction of the number permitted by the BLM. After a misguided attempt at pond-building by a former ranch manager -- an undertaking that eventually led to a settlement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency -- Vahldiek hired a team of stream experts to repair the damage and plan a new large-scale stream restoration project. He funded a ranch-wide biodiversity survey by scientists from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and commissioned detailed maps of his private and permitted lands. And he recently hired Jones and Jones, a Seattle-based firm of architects, landscape architects and planners, to come up with a conservation plan. Two years ago, he sold minority shares in the ranch to several partners, including conservationist David Ford, a former general partner of Goldman Sachs. Today, the official mission statement for the High Lonesome describes a "model of sustainability" that maintains biodiversity and open space while allowing a mix of uses -- primarily ranching and recreation -- for its financial support.
But in the midst of all his activity, Paul noticed that in the high reaches of the ranch, in the aspen stands, something was wrong. The trees were dying, and there were few young sprouts to replace them. The trees were on his mind in August 2007, when he traveled to Montana for a meeting of the conservation and education committee of the Boone and Crockett Club, the venerable hunting and conservation organization founded by Theodore Roosevelt. There, he met Cristina Eisenberg, who told a story about aspen, elk and wolves.
Fifteen years ago, with two daughters barely out of diapers, Eisenberg and her husband, a software designer, moved from coastal California to a remote property in northwestern Montana. Eisenberg, whose father worked in the Mexican diplomatic service, had a cosmopolitan childhood -- in Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere -- but she had always been drawn to cold places with mountains, big trees and what she calls "real weather." An artist by training, Eisenberg put aside her watercolors to raise her children, and in Montana, she learned about the natural world alongside them. "They always wanted to know, 'What's that bird? What's that tree?' " she remembers. "They were my teachers." In a landscape with large predators, they protected themselves by learning to recognize tracks; wildlife field guides were among the girls' first books.
In the mid-1990s, like many other local residents, the family started seeing what they thought were wolf tracks, and hearing howls that didn't sound much like coyotes. Eisenberg reported her observations to wildlife officials, who were polite but dismissive. "I was a housewife with two kids in tow," she says. "I didn't look much like a credible source."
But wolves from Canada were, in fact, recolonizing the area, and by 1996 there were an estimated 75 wolves in northwestern Montana. On the 20 acres where Eisenberg and her family live, a metamorphosis began. "In three or four years, everything changed on the land," she says. "Deer were no longer standing around and eating all day -- they were on the move. Plants that had been shrubs were suddenly six feet tall." By 2005, a three-acre meadow near their house had been overtaken by cottonwoods, conifers and shrubs such as serviceberry and wild rose.
As her daughters grew older, Eisenberg began to search for a new career, and in 2004, she enrolled in an environmental studies graduate program at Prescott College. The transformation of her backyard fresh in her mind, she focused her studies on wolves and their ecological roles.
Biologists have long recognized the power of predators in ecosystems. In the 1930s, Aldo Leopold, who advocated wolf extirpation early in his career, began to realize that the killing of predators had helped create what he called "the modern curse of excess deer and elk." In 1980, ecologist Robert Paine coined the term "trophic cascades" to describe the ripple effects of predators on herbivores, and herbivores on plants. Researchers continue to investigate and debate exactly how trophic cascades operate, but they find these so-called top-down effects at work throughout the natural world: Predators ranging from mountain lions to otters to sea stars have dramatic impacts on the ecosystems they inhabit.
In 2006, Eisenberg began her Ph.D. research with William Ripple, an Oregon State University professor who studies trophic cascades in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere. In 2000, he and his colleagues published evidence of what had been dubbed the "ecology of fear" -- that predators altered ecosystems not only by killing prey, but by scaring it. In Yellowstone, nervous elk became less interested in eating and more interested in moving, apparently allowing more young willows, cottonwoods and aspens to sprout in some places.
Eisenberg has spent the past four years gathering data for a dissertation on the effects of wolves on elk, aspen and songbirds in Glacier and Waterton Lakes national parks. It's a demanding study that has brought her face-to-face with wolf dens, wolf kills, and, of course, wolf scat. In 2007, Eisenberg spoke about her work and about trophic cascades at a Boone and Crockett meeting -- to an audience that included Paul Vahldiek.
Vahldiek wasn't the only one seeing trouble in the aspen stands: Foresters throughout the Rocky Mountains had reported unusually rapid and widespread aspen die-offs, and, like Vahldiek, they'd noticed that young trees were scarce. By 2006, close to 150,000 acres of Colorado aspen were dead or damaged, according to aerial surveys. By 2008, the apparent peak of the die-off, the damaged areas exceeded half a million acres, with 17 percent of the state's aspen showing declines.
Researchers blame the die-off -- now known as Sudden Aspen Decline, or SAD -- on a combination of culprits, including insects and diseases emboldened by drought and higher temperatures. But hungry elk, which love to munch on tender aspen shoots, may also play a role in the trees' troubles, both recent and long-term. As Vahldiek listened to Eisenberg, he began to wonder if the aspen on his ranch could use a few more predators.
Eisenberg and Vahldiek struck up a conversation, and Eisenberg was intrigued. She was working on a book about trophic cascades, and was especially interested in the conservation of predators on private lands. After she visited the ranch, Vahldiek asked her to propose a study of aspen, elk and predators on his property. He and his business partners said they were interested in serious science, and willing to fund it.
Though Eisenberg knew of the recent wolf sightings, both rumored and confirmed, in Colorado, she assumed the animals were transients. But as she spent more time on the ranch, and as she and her field crew started searching its meadows and aspen stands for scat, she realized Colorado might already have a new resident predator.
It's easier for a wolf to get from Yellowstone to Colorado than it might sound. "Wolves are just driven to travel," says Douglas Smith, the Yellowstone wolf biologist. "For them, it really isn't a big deal." While wolves are wary of humans, they are able to pass through developed landscapes -- even, apparently, the ranchlands and gas fields of southern Wyoming. Single wolves, or small coalitions of two and three animals, regularly strike out in search of unoccupied territory.
The risks are high, as the deaths of the two radio-collared wolves in Colorado demonstrate. But the potential rewards -- wide-open territory, abundant prey -- are enormous. Even journeys of hundreds of miles "aren't in any way eyebrow-raising," says Smith.
So no matter what left the scat and tracks on the High Lonesome Ranch, wolves are likely to keep venturing into Colorado. Wolves from Idaho and Montana began showing up in eastern Oregon and Washington at least a decade ago, and now both states have breeding pairs of wolves. Utah has confirmed six sightings since 1994, but no evidence of breeding wolves.
The wolf populations in Idaho and Montana, along with wolves in eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and northeastern Utah, were taken off the federal endangered species list last April. But wolves that wander into Colorado are considered endangered species, and their management is led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2004, a working group of livestock producers, wildlife advocates, scientists, sportsmen and others appointed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife developed a management plan, focused on transient wolves and on the state's responsibilities once its wolves are removed from the endangered species list. The group recommended that the state allow wolves to live where they find habitat, and permit a variety of measures -- including, in some cases, lethal methods -- to deal with problem wolves.
But before wolves could be delisted in Colorado, a population would have to meet recovery goals set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Such goals don't even exist yet, and are unlikely to be considered unless and until evidence of breeding wolves emerges. "We haven't talked about what a Colorado (recovery) plan might look like," says Ed Bangs, the Western gray wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His agency, he adds, has "no plans for active recovery in Colorado, no active discussion to put wolves there, take them out of there, do anything with them."
For a wandering wolf hoping to settle down, Colorado offers habitat -- and prey. Independent wildlife biologist Carlos Carroll, who has co-authored several studies of potential wolf habitat in Colorado and elsewhere, says the state could support a population of at least 1,000 wolves. "Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are in the same league in terms of the numbers of wolves that each state can hold," he says, "and they're quite a bit above the other states in the West." In Colorado, however, potential habitat is fragmented into smaller chunks, and Carroll says that a wolf population would depend largely on three disjunct swaths of public land in western Colorado -- one in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, one southwest of Aspen, and one in the Flattop Mountains, just northeast of the High Lonesome Ranch.
To preserve their genetic diversity, says Carroll, wolves in Colorado would need to move among these three "source populations" -- through the mostly private land that separates them. "If wolves aren't able to persist (on private lands) or move across them without getting killed, that poses some risk to the source populations," he says.
But the protection of wolves on private land requires the presence of another notable species: rural landowners with a soft spot for predators. "Wolves can live pretty much anywhere people will allow them to live," says Shane Briggs, wildlife conservation programs supervisor for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "The real questions for managing wolves aren't biological -- they're social and political."
Paul Vahldiek had plenty of questions when he first heard about the wolf evidence on the ranch. Would wolves shrink his prized elk herd, which attracted so many of his clients? Would they unsettle his cattle, and lower their birthing rates? "I didn't wake up one morning and cheer and say, 'OK, wolves!' " he says. "But it's the hand we're dealt. And if they help the land be healthier, I'm for that."
His neighbors may not share his equanimity. Though surveys indicate widespread support for wolves among Coloradans in general -- the most recent, a 2001 poll funded by foundations and conservation groups, found that well over 60 percent of Southern Rockies residents even supported deliberate wolf reintroduction -- ranchers and other rural residents are not as enthusiastic as city dwellers. Even some staff members at the High Lonesome Ranch are less than thrilled about the possibility of wolves in the area.
Scientists and managers who work with wolves often remark on the uniquely powerful human responses, both positive and negative, that the animals provoke: "Wolves make people absolutely nutty," says Ed Bangs. "You get all the pro-wolf people saying, 'God, we're finally saved, the ecosystem is in balance,' and you get the other side saying it's proof that Satan has returned to Earth."
But on the ranch, as the evidence of wolves emerged, the science proceeded calmly. Eisenberg continued to visit and develop a final plan for her research, and she sought the advice of Michael Soule, a well-known conservation biologist and the president of the nonprofit Wildlands Network. Soule, whose angular features and grave manner belie a healthy sense of humor, calls wolves an "inexpensive and practical tool" for restoring ecosystems and improving their resilience to climate change. He envisions corridors of public and private protected areas throughout North America, including along the spine of the Rocky Mountains, that would aid the restoration and conservation of ecosystems and their keystone species, including large predators. When Eisenberg told him about the High Lonesome, he visited the place for himself, and presented the Wildlands Network vision to Vahldiek.
"I thought it was a brilliant vision, a necessary vision," Vahldiek says now. "Did I think it was achievable? Not initially. My first thought was, 'Let's bring reality into the equation.' "
In January 2009, at the invitation of the Wildlands Network, Vahldiek attended the Western Conservation Summit, a gathering of conservation leaders in California. "So here I was, this hunter, this rancher, this duck out of water, kind of sneaking around," says Vahldiek. He mostly listened for two days –– "not an easy thing for me to do," he admits with typically self-deprecating humor. During the conference, he spotted a six-foot-high wall map of the Wildlands Network Spine of the Continent conservation initiative, and he located his ranch.
"On the scale of that map, the High Lonesome -- well, I don't think it was as big as a half dollar, but it was bigger than a quarter," he says. "I thought, 'Dang, well, I'm a butcher's son from south of Houston, and with people's belief and help, I put a quarter-plus on this map. And there are millions of people and organizations out there that work towards conservation. If I could put down a quarter, why couldn't other people put down half dollars, or dimes, or nickels, if they thought it was going to make the world and wildlife a better place?'
"At that point," he says, "I didn't think it was so silly anymore."
Vahldiek is now a board member of the Wildlands Network, and Soule serves as an unpaid science advisor to the High Lonesome Ranch. Vahldiek emphasizes that he and his partners are more interested in conservation than profit. "None of the partners need anything to be sold or done on this ranch to complete any financial planning," he says. "They're more concerned about how to care for it into perpetuity."
Vahldiek hopes that recreation, ranching and other enterprises on the ranch will support conservation for the long term, and he's confident that his partners and heirs will continue to protect the land. But the ranch, it's worth remembering, is no national park: There are as yet no guarantees of protection for posterity -- the partners are considering conservation easements, but have not yet put any in place on the main ranch properties. And as on most private lands, much of the decision-making power rests, for good or ill, in one set of hands.
Eisenberg and Vahldiek, during a conversation about their collaboration, say the needs of science and the demands of landownership have, so far, coexisted peacefully. Vahldiek smiles and adds, "Well, you know, Cristina doesn't get a vote." Eisenberg smiles at the joke, which, of course, is not really a joke. The High Lonesome Ranch, with or without wolves, is a landscape controlled from the top down.
During a few short, sunny days in December, the Vahldieks come to the ranch to discuss research, conservation, and wolves with Eisenberg, Soule and state wildlife officials. In two days, despite a raging head cold, Paul will fly to the Bahamas, where he and one of the High Lonesome partners recently bought a three-mile-long island off Grand Bahama called Deepwater Cay -- a historic bonefishing resort that Paul also plans to manage, like the ranch, for conservation. "That was the one place we used to actually go and relax," says Lissa with amused dismay. "Now, it's work, and we're walking around with clipboards."
But business, for the moment, has been set aside, and Lissa, Eisenberg and Soule walk along a quiet, snow-covered dirt road, toward a stand of aspen near where the first wolf-like scat was found.
This stand looks more vigorous than many on the ranch, with small aspen trees scattered among the larger trunks. It appears that few aspen sprouted here between 1920 and 1995, but then young trees began to spring up, Eisenberg says. And she wonders: Why is this stand apparently healthier than so many others on the ranch? Could mountain lions, whose populations rebounded in Colorado in the 1970s as hunting regulations took effect, be hunting here now, protecting some of these young trees from hungry elk? Does the eradication of wolves help explain the 75-year lack of new growth?
Eisenberg hopes to answer such questions by studying the patterns of predators and prey on the ranch, and examining the relationships of those patterns with aspen growth. Any effects of returning wolves on elk and deer, and in turn on aspen, won't be evident for years. For now, she will continue to gather data, and ponder the ecological influences of predators -- including the visitors from the North.
"Aspen are complicated," says Soule with a smile, calm in the knowledge that scientific questions always create more questions.
The return of wolves to this valley, and to the state of Colorado, raises the most complicated questions of all. But Soule, as he surveys the vast ranch landscape for signs of predators, remains serene.
It feels wonderful," he says. "I'm not frightened at all."
Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor of HCN. Her work appears in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert.
This coverage was funded by High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund contributors and by a grant from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.© High Country News