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.

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