Furthermore, the elk behavior has been changed back to a more natural state, where they avoid thickets and river bottoms out of fear of predation.
Though Yellowstone may never fully return to its balanced state, the return of the wolf has caused a trophic cascade, which is the domino effect on an ecosystem by the removal or reintroduction of an apex predator.
Due to the reduced numbers of elk, and the elk’s natural avoidance of river bottoms, new growth of aspen, willow, and cottonwood are flourishing. This new growth has helped to reduce erosion of the rivers, which has clarified the waters allowing for the resurgence of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Migratory songbirds have reappeared in the park, nesting and feeding in young trees along the riversides. And beavers are back. With increased feed and fewer coyotes (the reintroduced wolves have reduced the coyote population by half), beavers have reestablished themselves in Yellowstone, which has also had a beneficial effect on the trout populations. Beaver dams create slower moving sections of the river with deep pools, ideal for fish to congregate and spawn in.
But, there are also areas of the park that have yet to recover. Because of a change of flow of the rivers due to erosion, there are some historic thickets of willow and aspen that may never recover. But, the scale of this trophic cascade is the focus of an ongoing study to better understand the impacts of wolves and other apex predators on an ecosystem. There is still much debate over the ecological impacts of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but the positive impacts are hard to dispute, with the resurgence of numerous keystone species since the wolves’ reintroduction.
The exact areas in which the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife will reintroduce wolves have yet to be decided. But, it will certainly be somewhere in the western, mountainous portion of the state. It is interesting to note that the majority of voters in favor of Proposition 114 reside in the city centers of Colorado such as Denver, areas where they are unlikely to ever have to live alongside wolves. Opponents of the proposition predominantly reside in rural areas where ranching and hunting are major industries, and whose concerns over the economic impacts of wolves being reintroduced are not without warrant. It is true that a sustainable population of wolves will most likely result in the loss of some livestock.
In response to similar concerns in the ’90s during the legal fight over the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, the organization Defenders of Wildlife set up a fund to reimburse ranchers for every animal lost to confirmed or probable wolf predation. Since that year, they have paid out over $1.4 million to private owners. A similar fund would surely have to be established for ranchers in Colorado for the reintroduction to be successful and discourage the shooting of wolves on sight.
Other opponents of Proposition 114 include hunting outfitters and guides who depend upon a large elk herd for their livelihood. A reduced elk herd could affect the number of available elk tags each year for hunting outfitters. In Montana and Wyoming, several hunting outfitters have closed since 1995 due to the reduction in numbers of hunting permits. But, the economic benefit that wolves bring to Wyoming and Montana is clear. Yellowstone is the best place in the world to see wolves, which attracts millions of visitors each year. Guiding services, hotels, restaurants, and the US Park Service are the beneficiaries of having over 4 million paying visitors per year, many of them there to see the famous wolves of Yellowstone. If Colorado outfitters could find ways to evolve to meet the growing demand for outdoor wildlife experiences, the economic benefit could be significant.
History in the Making
With the passing of Proposition 114 in Colorado, the way has been paved for other states to use the ballot box to decide issues of ecology and conservation. And with the unprecedented existential threat of climate change being the issue of our time, this could place the power of change into the hands of the people, so that we can decide the fate of our wild spaces and the future of responsible management of our natural resources.
Colorado will undoubtedly face more challenges in the years to come in regard to the reintroduction of wolves, whether it be in a courtroom or deep in the mountains. But, the impact of the passing of Proposition 114 is clear. It represents the first time that voters were given the power to decide the fate of an endangered and iconic animal in their state, the incomparable gray wolf, paving the way for more such legislation in the future.