On November 3rd, 2020, one of the most historic elections in United States history took place, with the highest voter turnout in the history of the country. But, in Colorado, another piece of historic legislation was passed. Winning by a slim margin, Colorado Proposition 114, the Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative, was passed. This represented the first time ever that a state used the ballot box to decide whether to reintroduce an extirpated species. Proponents of the bill pointed to the success of the wolf reintroduction programs in Washington, Idaho, and most famously, in Yellowstone National Park as evidence of the benefits of reintroducing the apex predator to their historic range. Opponents call it biology by ballot box and insist that the potential economic damages created by wolves outweigh the ecological benefits of their reintroduction.
The true impacts of the presence of a healthy wolf population in Colorado remain to be seen, but one thing is sure: Wolves will be reintroduced to western Colorado by 2024. To understand the potential impacts we can look to the incredible story of what happened in Yellowstone National Park.
A Sordid History: Man and Wolf
Homo sapiens and wolves have not always been enemies. There is a great deal of evidence that 20,000 years ago, during the last ice age, homo sapiens and wolves cohabitated hunting grounds, and that both species benefited from the presence of the other. Early humans learned pursuit-hunting techniques by watching wolves, and wolves fed on the scraps left behind by humans. This relationship eventually led to the domestication of some wolves, which after generations of selective breeding turned into dogs.
But, as human society evolved from hunter-gatherer tribes into permanent communities dependent on the cultivation of plant and animal food sources, their relationship with wolves changed as well. Seen as a menace and threat to livestock, and sometimes even humans, wolves became public enemy number one. Legends of the big bad wolf and stories of four-legged, toothy monsters devouring children can be found throughout our written and spoken histories, as wolves and humans learned to fear and hate each other. This animosity would continue for thousands of years.
Before the ingression of Europeans into the New World, wolves ranged across most of the American continent. But, over the next several hundred years, wolves were hunted, poisoned, and trapped to the point of total extirpation from most of the contiguous United States. Only in remote ranges of unspoiled wilderness in the Canadian Rockies and other inhospitable habitats did wolves escape persecution.
In 1926, a Yellowstone park ranger shot the last wolf in the Yellowstone area, thus beginning a 70 year period of ecological imbalance, where the apex predator was missing from a delicate ecosystem. The ecological impacts of this policy of wolf extermination can be felt today, and the scale and minutia of this impact could never have been imagined in that time when government-sponsored kill programs sought to eliminate the wolf entirely from most of its historic range.
A Land Without Wolves
It is easy to guess what happens in the immediate aftermath of the removal of an apex predator from an ecosystem; its prey will flourish. In the case of the Yellowstone wolves, their primary prey was elk, making up between 75-95% of their total diet. And the elk did indeed flourish in the absence of the wolf. Though data is not great from the early to mid-twentieth century, it is believed that the numbers of elk in Yellowstone grew by somewhere between 100-200%, at least doubling the elk population, potentially even tripling it. The increased number of herbivorous ungulates had a direct impact on the vegetation, especially along rivers and streams. Elk overgrazed these areas, preventing new growth of aspen, willow, or cottonwood trees.
At first glance, it may be easy to shrug at this, saying there is plenty of aspen and cottonwoods in the world, what’s the big deal? But the number of species detrimentally affected but the elk overpopulation and absence of wolves is still not fully known today. But it is known that the absence of wolves caused the near complete collapse of the native populations of beavers, foxes, and even the cutthroat trout.
For foxes, it was the coyote that was the direct cause of their demise. Without wolves to keep coyote populations in check, the number of coyotes in the park more than doubled. And without the presence of wolves, they began to target larger prey in areas where wolves would have normally kept them out. Beavers, already suffering from a lack of feed and building materials along the rivers due to elk over-grazing, were easy targets for coyotes, hunted to the point that they completely disappeared from the park.
Without beavers damming the rivers, along with the lack of vegetation caused by the elk, streams flowed fast, eroding away the riversides, polluting the water with silt, and making it all but impossible for native cutthroat trout to feed and spawn in the dirty, fast-flowing waters. The lack of fish in the water also affected the bear population, which depended upon the fish as a food source. And without new tree growth along the rivers, many migratory bird species nearly disappeared from Yellowstone.
In addition to the high elk populations and subsequent increased demand for grazing, the lack of wolves also changed elk behavior. In what is called the “Ecology of Fear,” when an apex predator is in the area, elk will rarely venture into thickets where visibility was low or exposed river bottoms without the strength of the herd. But since wolves were exterminated from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the elk would stay in river bottoms and exposed areas without fear, overgrazing those habitats at unsustainable levels.
The Return of the Yellowstone Wolf: The Trophic Cascade of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
In 1966, biologists concerned over the critically high elk populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem first took the proposal of wolf reintroduction to congress. And after a nearly 30 year battle in Congress and the local courts, biologists finally won and the wolf reintroduction program began in earnest in 1995. In that year, 14 wild wolves were captured from several different Canadian wolf packs. These wolves were then transported to Yellowstone National Park and placed in acclimation pens before being released into the park. By the end of 1996, 31 wolves had been released in Yellowstone. As of today, there are 96 wolves within the park boundaries and over 500 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, all descendants of those first 31 wolves.
Now, 25 years after their reintroduction, the wolves of Yellowstone have established themselves back atop the food chain. Since the wolves’ reintroduction, the Yellowstone elk population went from over 16,000 in 1995 to just over 6,000 today. And though it is thought that there are other factors that have affected this reduction in elk population, it is almost certain that predation by wolves is the primary mechanism for the reduction of elk.
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.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Image Review: Landscape Edition
with Matt Meisenheimer & Kenton Krueger
Tuesday, Feb 23rd, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)