Expert’s report on wolf reintroduction seeks to help Colorado avoid pitfalls, offers facts

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  • Generally, wolves kill a small percentage of overall livestock numbers and affect few farms/ranches, but losses can be significant to affected producers.
  • Wolves may impact some big game herds at a local scale but haven’t been found to be the main cause of death on multiple big game species.
  • Experts recommend Colorado consider lethal control guidelines and methods early in the planning process.
  • Essentially, all professional wolf biologists and managers interviewed for this report stated that some form of wolf harvest will be a critical future management tool in Colorado.

Colorado can avoid costly mistakes made by Western states that previously reintroduced wolves if it sticks to fact, not fiction.

That’s according to renowned wolf biologist Diane Boyd. The Montana-based retired wolf expert outlined lessons learned based on 40 years of extensive research from across the country to help Colorado wildlife leaders plan and manage wolf reintroduction in her recently released report titled “Lessons Learned to Inform Colorado Wolf Reintroduction and Management.”

The report was commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation and is not part of Colorado’s wolf action plan, though its information may be used in the wolf recovery planning process.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife recently completed its initial wolf reintroduction and management plan process that began 15 months ago. The plan will serve as a draft to present to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, which will have the final say on the plan, including the reintroduction of wolves by the end of 2023.

“No matter what Colorado Parks and Wildlife does, they will not make everyone happy,” Boyd told the Coloradoan. “What they need to do is make decisions based on the best science that works for the majority of the wolves and the majority of the people who will live with the wolves in western Colorado. And that includes the public having to accept some level of lethal control of wolves once a sustainable population is achieved to help the majority of wolves survive.

“The limiting factor with wolves in Colorado will not be the ecological sustainability but the social palatability,” Boyd said.

Here are four key topics in the report’s research-based fact checks and recommendations for Colorado’s reintroduction efforts.

What impact do wolves have on livestock?

What the science says: Generally, wolves kill a small percentage of overall livestock numbers and affect few farms/ranches, but losses can be significant to affected producers.

Also, those wolves that learn to kill livestock generally continue to kill livestock and teach their young, but many wolves do not kill livestock.

Research largely supports the percentage of cattle killed by wolves in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho is less than 1%. But that number includes livestock not vulnerable to predation because the livestock is in feedlots or is located where wolves are not present. So the 1% is likely somewhat of an underestimation.

However, in addition to mortalities, producers also suffer indirect losses from wolves, such as stress, sickness and reduced weight gain and pregnancy rates.

What Colorado should do: Compensating ranchers for confirmed and probable livestock losses, validated by highly trained professionals, is a critical strategy, along with a comprehensive approach to managing wolf-livestock conflict that includes nonlethal and lethal removal.

A consistent theme that emerged from a review of state livestock compensation programs is the need for a positive relationship between the agency that manages the program and the state’s ranching community to foster trust from ranchers most affected.

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What impact do wolves have on big game species such as elk?

What the science says: Montana has had a viable population of wolves longer than all other western states. Most Montana elk hunting units are at or above management population objective, according to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, while Idaho and Wyoming elk herds largely reflect Montana.

Long-term studies in Idaho and Montana by state wildlife agencies concluded that wolves were not the main cause of death on big game species such as moose, elk or mule deer. For mule deer and elk, the No. 1 cause of death was due to mountain lions. For moose, it was “health-related and nonpredation.”

Still, there are localized areas where prey populations could potentially be reduced and behaviors changed due to wolves, making it more difficult for hunters.

Also, the claim wolves improve an entire ecosystem, called trophic cascade, in part by moving elk around has not been consistently proven across a large landscape because of the complexity of ecosystems.

What Colorado should do: Wolves may impact some big game herds at a local scale. Robust annual data should be collected for big game herds that are most likely to overlap in range with wolves through existing practices such as harvest data, survey flights, radio collars and telemetry. This data would provide more immediate information and highlight possible declines and causes of decline that may warrant more active wolf management.

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Does killing wolves that kill livestock reduce conflict?

What the science says: Overall, the incremental removal of wolves through translocation or lethal control of individual wolves helps reduce livestock predation in the short term but not the long term.

Studies of 967 wolf depredations and control actions over 19 years in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming showed removal of the entire pack reduced the occurrence of subsequent depredations by 79% over a five-year period. Partial pack removal reduced the occurrence of subsequent depredations by 29% over a five-year period.

Studies have found translocation of depredating wolves in Montana and Idaho did not reduce depredation or advance wolf recovery objectives.

What Colorado should do: Nearly all states require some form of nonlethal conflict reduction measures before lethal control is used. Colorado should follow that and the state should consider lethal control guidelines and methods early in the planning process to prepare for the time when wolves present chronic depredation challenges.

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Should hunting of wolves be allowed?

What the science says: Essentially, all professional wolf biologists and managers interviewed for this report stated that some form of wolf harvest will be a critical future management tool in Colorado after wolf populations meet specific recovery criteria.

In states such as Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, with liberal public hunting harvests of wolves for many years, wolf populations have remained stable or declined slightly.

But as Montana, Idaho and Wisconsin significantly increased harvest levels in 2021 and potentially beyond, it remains to be seen what impact this will have on overall wolf numbers and distribution.

What Colorado should do: It is recommended the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and stakeholders discuss potential for post-recovery wolf harvest early on in the planning process, even though any potential harvest may be a long time in the future and ultimately may remove very few wolves.

The status of wolves and associated management in Colorado should adapt as populations grow to assure adequate management flexibility that can address conflict situations during recovery.

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Dig deeper into Colorado wolf information

Colorado Parks and Wildlife: Visit https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/Wolves-in-Colorado-FAQ.aspx

Colorado State University: Visit https://sites.warnercnr.colostate.edu/centerforhumancarnivorecoexistence/