Second-graders take on Colorado’s wolf reintroduction

‘Wolves are AMAAAAZING! Because they help the ecosystem and are amazing.’

As happens so frequently these days, a Zoom room on a recent morning in March filled with participants. Faceless black blocks assembled, while four 8-year-olds, Rhyker, Zach, Karma, Amelia — or, as they would be called that morning, the “Wolfteam Friends” — jittered in front of a camera from their classroom in Northglenn, a Denver-area suburb.

“Thank you for being here,” a boy wearing a light-blue button-down with a tie said carefully into a black microphone. Amelia took the floor, her pink bow bobbing. “Our idea is to help people learn to live with wolves!”

 

Three groups of second-graders planned to speak that day (two of them in person) to a crowd of some 30 far-flung onlookers, mostly comprising educators, conservationists and parents.

“We are going to be teaching ranchers that the cattle —” Amelia’s voice became hushed “ — has to remain still.” Their poster presentation, with slides shared over Zoom, detailed their plans to advertise their ideas at feed stores and markets. The hope is that well-trained herding dogs and some fine-tuned techniques can help ranchers train livestock to keep calm rather than scatter in the presence of a predator.

The Wolfteam Friends occasionally got distracted: “Wolves are not a threat!” they all whooped. They took turns describing some of their slides. One showed a wolf with its neck stretched out and snout pointing upward: “And, and … um this is how wolves communicate when they’re lost: howwwwlll!!!” 

All in unison: “Owwwwwwwwwww!”

“Do you know why they don’t care?” Amelia asked, referring to the calm, unruffled cattle, getting back to the crux of their presentation. “Because wolves like hunting running animals, not ones that are bored like bison.” Her voice dropped low and then leapt (!) in pitch. “OMG you should loves wolves and you actually should because wolves are awesome. … Wolves are AMAAAAZING! Because they help the ecosystem and are amazing,” she said, tugging at her hot pink face-covering.

They concluded their presentation by howling.

  • “Wolfteam Friends” team members Rhyker, Zach, Amelia and Karma shared a plan to help educate cattle ranchers about wolf reintroduction.

    Courtesy of the second-grade students of the STEM Lab
  • Each second-grade team’s presentation started out with a statement of the problem.

    Courtesy of the second-grade students of the STEM Lab
  • Each team also presented an “Action Plan” with ideas for addressing a particular part of the possible problems with reintroduction.

    Courtesy of the second-grade students of the STEM Lab

In dresses, blazers, large pink bows, some sporting fluffy wolf ears, the group of a dozen second-graders from the STEM Lab, a K-8 elementary school with a “problem-based learning” approach, presented their proposals, sourced from months of research, about how to prepare the public for wolf reintroduction. They had a range of suggestions “to help people overcome fear.”

Last November, for the first time, voters undertook a groundbreaking conservation experiment when they opted to reintroduce gray wolves to the state. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is tasked with the reintroduction — and now, these students are taking a whack at it, too.

Back in the classroom, the “Wolves Explorers” were up. A boy with a blond mohawk introduced their idea. “In order to protect humans, our project is lasers and alarms in campgrounds,” he said. “Our stakeholders are campers,” he said as the next slide appeared: “And here’s the sound going off.”

  • Images from “Wolves Explorers” presentation illustrating an idea to scare wolves away from campsites using lasers and sound.

    Courtesy of the second-grade students of the STEM Lab
  • Images from “Wolves Explorers” presentation illustrating an idea to scare wolves away from campsites using lasers and sound.

    Courtesy of the second-grade students of the STEM Lab
  • Images from “Wolves Explorers” presentation illustrating an idea to scare wolves away from campsites using lasers and sound.

    Courtesy of the second-grade students of the STEM Lab

“Humans are the biggest threat to wolves,” one of the girls in the group said. “Scaring wolves away from humans protects the humans and the wolf. The red laser does not hurt wolves. Sounds don’t hurt, they only scare them.”

“What a fabulous idea you have there!” said Kevin Crooks, the director of Colorado State University’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, from his very own Zoom block. “I actually think that could work.”

EACH YEAR, students at the STEM Lab research and present proposals and solutions for a real-world problem. This year’s project — reducing conflict around Colorado’s contentious wolf reintroduction — began in January after parents, teachers and STEM Lab leaders chose the topic. “Last year, students had been working on whether or not we even should introduce wolves,” said Andrea Overton, the STEM Lab coordinator. Now it was time for the next steps in the reintroduction, and educators thought the topic posed enough perplexing problems to keep the students busy. “With such a narrow margin in the legislation passing,” Overton said, “it was clear there were issues around this. You know, clearly not everyone here agrees.”

Wolf reintroduction has been notoriously inflammatory, not just in Colorado, but also in other Western states that have brought back populations of Canis lupus. The issue is a thorny one, involving conflicts between property owners, conservationists and communities. There are few neat solutions to the question of exactly where wolves belong, especially when wilderness overlaps with livestock, hikers, pets and neighborhoods.

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) pack on ridge in winter, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Daniel J. Cox / Minden Pictures

In the months before the presentations, the three second-grade classes at STEM Lab met with experts from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, land managers and activists from the environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife. They watched countless videos and read articles as they researched the topic. They didn’t meet in person with ranchers or agricultural workers — as suburban students, they lack proximity to those perspectives — but they watched videos from groups opposed to reintroduction. “We made sure that students explored all sides of the issue,” Overton said. “We wanted them to approach this from the lens: How can this be successful for humans and wolves? How can we minimize negative impacts from humans and wolves living together again?”

Besides presenting proposals for keeping cattle calm and using lasers and sounds to scare away wolves, the students urged people to be smart around wolves: “Put your hands over your head or put your jacket over your head and make yourself big, so that the animal knows you are too big to mess with. LEAVE ME ALONE!” said Saanvi, who was wearing wolf ears. She was one of the students presenting in the group that opted to stay fully remote for the school year. “And don’t forget …. BEEEEEE SMART!

Crooks, who is with CSU’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, sat on the expert panel judging an earlier presentation; he is also a professor at the university’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology. He was struck by the enthusiasm and optimism of the young presenters. “Wolves are symbols of much deeper issues, conflict and unresolved societal debates. Some of those attitudes and values are formed early in age,” Crooks told me by phone after the presentations. “It’s really important to start to engage young people at early ages to start to educate them about these kind of conservation issues — but also to hear from them about their ideas.

“To hear children offering those suggestions in a very positive manner,” he said, “it’s just encouraging. It gives you hope about the future.”

A poster by second-grade “Wolfteam Friends” member, Rhyker.
Courtesy of the second-grade students of the STEM Lab

The STEM Lab is a suburban school, located in a suburban county, accustomed to non-rural issues; in several interviews after the presentation, teachers, parents and organizers told me they hadn’t heard any criticism of the project from parents or the community. When Proposition 114, the ballot measure on wolf reintroduction, was finally called weeks after the November election, voters opted by a razor-thin margin to say yes, indeed, bring wolves back to the state. The win, with urban and suburban counties largely carrying the victory, illuminated the rural-urban divide (though there were tipping-point rural counties containing towns such as Aspen, Durango and Telluride that were more widely in favor of reintroduction). Adams, an urban county spanning parts of Denver, the city of Aurora, Thornton and Northglenn — home to the STEM Lab — voted for Prop 114 by more than 8,500 votes. “It would be interesting and useful to have those same kinds of discussions with kids in rural communities where you have more of their parents or families or communities dealing with conflict with predators — not just wolves but predators in general,” Crooks said. “Those whose livelihoods might be more tied to agriculture or hunting.”

After the presentation, I connected with JP Robb, whose daughter, Caitlin, was in the third group and whose dog, Frank, a 45-pound shepherd-collie mix, “sleeps on the couch and lives a very nice life.” A few months ago, Caitlin discovered her own “wolf passion.” Back in October, when Robb and his wife were weighing whether to vote “yes” or “no” on Prop 114, Caitlin chimed in an emphatic “yes!”

“We were like ‘What?’ She was 7 years old at the time,” Robb told me. “We just asked her, ‘Why do you think wolves are great?’ and she said something like they keep the ecosystem in Yellowstone in balance — maybe she said ‘nature’ — but in any case, I was really surprised by that. And she was just like ‘Yeah! When there are no wolves there are too many elk and they eat too many plants and there are no places for the birds to go.’ I remember thinking, wow, what are you doing in school? This is awesome.” 

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) laying down in the snow in Alaska.
Mark Newman / FLPA / Minden Pictures

Caitlin will be 10 by the time wolves are officially back on the landscape in 2023.

“These days, she’s reading a lot and her latest thing is that she really wants to see one,” Robb said. “We backpack and hike a lot as a family, and she asked me recently: ‘Do you think they’re bigger than Frank?’

 “ ‘Oh, yes,’ ” he told her, “ ‘I think they’re bigger than Frank.’ ”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an associate editor for High Country News. She oversees coverage of the Southwest, Great Basin and the Borderlands from her home in Durango, Colorado. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor