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Will 'wanton killer' lope into Colorado?


EAGLE, Colo. - Wes Schlegel, a lifelong rancher, just couldn't figure it out: "If my dad and granddad could have heard what was said here tonight, they'd be rolling in their graves."

What he'd heard was praise for wolves, now gone from the Flat Tops Wilderness some 30 miles from here. Schlegel lives about 15 miles from the Flat Tops.

Schlegel said he'd heard stories growing up about a wolf pack that in 1912 or thereabouts arrived from Wyoming; he never heard anything good about those wolves. The killing of one of the last wolves in 1923 was of such significance that people still think of that as a benchmark year, he said, the year the land became safe for ranching.

Few genuine ranchers remain in Vail-dominated Eagle County, but a dozen like Schlegel turned out Oct. 23 for this meeting at the 4-H Exhibition Hall. They had been promised the "facts" about bringing gray wolves to Colorado and elsewhere.

Their interest is not academic. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study issued in 1994 concluded that, if wolves were to be reintroduced in Colorado, the Flat Tops would be one of only two sites in Colorado that made sense. The other was the San Juans, in southern Colorado.

Leery of the "facts" that would be delivered, some 15 members of Sinapu, the Boulder, Colo.-based group dedicated to gray wolf recovery, also showed up to ask questions, causing ranchers such as Schlegel to shake their heads in puzzlement.

Both sides, it appeared, heard what they had expected to hear as Troy Mader of the Wyoming-based Abundant Wildlife Society of North America methodically faulted wolf reintroduction. Restoration efforts were motivated mainly by romantics who dream of hearing wolves howl in the night, he told the group.

"The wolf is being used to sell the Endangered Species Act," he said. "We're spending money on megafauna when we should be spending the money on other species that need to be saved." If wolf recovery stands any chance of real success, he continued, the program must be built out of incentives, not disincentives, with acceptance by the livestock community essential. Much of Mader's lecture, however, was intended to prove that wolves have no place in much of the United States since they "kill wantonly': Four once killed 200 deer in one night in Minnesota, he said.

Sinapu members took issue with Mader, and it was hard to tell how well his arguments played with the ranchers. His economic argument, however, proved effective. Providing the buffer between wilderness and the rapidly urbanizing second-home cities of the Vail Valley, these ranchers have resented gentrification of their enclave and resisted cashing out to hobby ranchers. They see wolves as just more predators for their livestock.

"I want to know why you want to bring wolves back," Schlegel demanded of Sinapu outreach coordinator Rob Edward. Edward shared his conviction that wolves are the engines of evolution, helping trim the gene pool in prey species, including deer and elk, of less competitive strains, which sport hunting does not do.

Schlegel doubted that, and he recalled seeing a mother coyote kill six sheep "for the sole purpose of teaching them to kill."

"It's certainly a theory," Edward responded. "Some of this stuff we have to know by common sense," Schegel rebutted.

To many members of Sinapu, though, common sense said that the goal of Abundant Wildlife Society was to kindle animosities and drive a wedge in the way of genuine dialogue.

For more information, contact Abundant Wildlife Society of North America, 12655 Highway 59 North, Gillette, WY 82716 (307/682-2826), or Sinapu, Box 3243, Boulder, CO 80307 (303/447-8655, fax: 303/447-8612); e-mail [email protected] - on the Web at: http://www.sinapu.org/.

Allen Best is managing editor of the Vail/Beaver Creek Times in Avon, Colorado.