An ecosystem wanting for wolves

Predators could bring Rocky Mountain National Park back into balance

 

ESTES PARK, Colorado — Elk graze on neighborhood lawns, golf course greens and the grass around city hall in this gateway town to Rocky Mountain National Park. The burgeoning herd browsing through Estes Park is a popular tourist attraction — but it’s also a sign of an ecosystem out of whack.

About 3,000 elk roam the national park and the Estes Valley. In the absence of native predators, they devour willows and aspens inside the park, and hundreds of them head down-valley to chow on lawns in town. As a result, the National Park Service is seeking to limit the elk population, and some scientists and wildlife activists are promoting a toothy solution — the reintroduction of wolves — to restore this disturbed ecosystem.

The park is "mandated to look at the natural processes, which (in this case) is wolves," says Park Service spokeswoman Kyle Patterson. Wolves could reduce elk numbers, she says, and keep the herd mobile; ultimately, they could re-establish the park’s predator base.

But before Canis lupus returns to Colorado, supporters will have to placate the state wildlife managers in charge of surrounding lands, who fear wolves will wander outside the park and create more problems than they solve.

Wolves could stabilize an ecosystem

Settlers hunted elk out of existence in this valley over 100 years ago — even before they wiped out the area’s grizzlies and wolves. The animals made their return in 1913, when locals pushed state wildlife managers to transplant 49 elk from Yellowstone; two years later, Congress created Rocky Mountain National Park, which became a refuge for the elk.

With no predators chomping at its heels, however, the park’s elk herd grew ungainly, forcing wildlife managers to kill them to control the population. But in 1968, the Park Service stopped culling elk in response to public opposition, and let nature run its course. The elk population exploded, wreaking havoc on the park environment and altering the vegetation of meadows and winter range.

This summer, after 10 years of studies, the Park Service released four management options for the park’s elk. The draft alternatives describe a combination of controversial measures, including contraceptive injections, culling, and the re-establishment of wolves.

"The reason why the park put that alternative (of wolf reintroduction) on there is because science has unequivocally shown in Yellowstone and recently Banff (in Canada), that wolves help keep ecosystems healthy," says Gary Wockner, a wildlife ecologist at Colorado State University. In those parks, the predators’ return means that elk no longer loiter along rivers and streams, where ambushes are more likely. This helps native vegetation recover and with it, species such as beavers and songbirds (HCN, 3/31/03: Tinkering with Nature).

Park Service wildlife veterinarian Margaret Wild says wolves could also purge chronic wasting disease from the elk herd by killing weakened, diseased animals (HCN, 10/28/02: Deer, elk disease doesn't scare hunters). While the theory has not been tested on infected herds, Wild says computer models show that wolves can reduce and perhaps eliminate the disease in elk and deer. "It really makes a lot of sense, if you think about it," says Wild. "I think we can take the experiment in steps," tracking the proposed four-pack of wolves to see if they’re killing infected animals.

Do four wolves constitute reintroduction?

Wockner and others see the wolves’ return to Rocky Mountain as a battle within the larger war to recover the species in Colorado and the Southern Rockies. Gray wolves haven’t officially resided in Colorado since the 1930s, though in June 2004, a lone female that had wandered down from Yellowstone was run over on Interstate 70 west of Denver.

The state of Colorado hasn’t bought into this idea, however. Based on the recommendations of the Wolf Management Working Group — a panel of ranchers, local officials, hunters and environmentalists — Colorado supports wolf recovery only if it occurs through natural migration.

Rick Spowart, the district manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, says studies show reintroduced wolves will wander outside the park, trading one human-wildlife conflict for another.

The Park Service, meanwhile, is taking a very cautious approach. The reintroduction option would relocate four wolves to the national park. To prevent the pack from reproducing, the two males would be sterilized. The alternative also calls for shooting enough elk to reduce the herd to between 1,200 and 2,100 animals.

Patterson of the Park Service says that the agency is writing a management plan for elk and vegetation, not wolves. She adds that people can’t compare Rocky Mountain’s plans for curbing elk with Yellowstone’s successful wolf reintroduction because Yellowstone is nine times larger, surrounded by more public lands, and offers better habitat.

"(The plan) doesn’t count toward (wolf) reintroduction in any way, shape or form," says Rob Edward of Sinapu, a Boulder, Colo.-based predator-advocacy organization. "The Park Service needs to be able to make decisions based on the ecological health of the land, not the political whims of the day."

Edward, who along with Wockner represents wolf supporters on the working group, acknowledges that a combination of roads, livestock and shotgun-toting locals makes real wolf reintroduction in the Southern Rockies unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The small-scale reintroduction in the park could ease political opposition to an eventual larger presence of wolves in Colorado, however. Several polls show that 60 to 70 percent of Coloradans support wolf reintroduction. The national environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife has already said it will compensate the state’s ranchers for livestock killed by reintroduced wolves.

The Park Service plans to release a draft environmental impact statement in March 2006. Meanwhile, Sinapu and other groups are threatening to sue for a federal Southern Rockies wolf plan, similar to the ongoing strategy in the Northern Rockies. They’re also considering organizing a ballot initiative in Colorado for wolf reintroduction, if the state doesn’t soften its anti-predator stance.

The author is a staff reporter for the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn in Fort Collins, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.