Wolves - To Be, or Not To Be?
Alright the title is a bit dramatic. I am guessing pretty much nobody reading this actually wants these beautiful animals to no longer exist. However, not a lot of people want to live in close proximity with them, which is an issue that has been popping up for decades. I'm not here to share my feelings on this, as I am not a scientist, but I want to lay out information for folks to learn more about the struggles faced by those who need to make these decisions.
Few topics in the world of conservation spark as much debate as the reintroduction of large predators into native territories from where they had been extirpated. The big two for us in the US are wolves and grizzly bears (and mountain lions to a lesser extent). As charismatic species, these animals garner the attention and imaginations of people nationwide. Disney movies, cartoons, and stuffed animals have contributed to the personification of these species, for better or for worse. Dogs are considered man's best friend and our kids sleep with teddy bears. These factors have significantly impacted our views of these animals and have created challenges for biologists and game managers studying their behaviors and impacts on our country's ecosystems.
In the early 1900's, wolves in the US were nearly driven to extinction due to our rapid expansion westward and growth of agriculture. Their environments were destroyed to make room for fields and farmers saw them as pests - and frankly they were for those with livestock. They were hunted, trapped, and poisoned on a huge scale - even Teddy Roosevelt considered them as "a beast of waste and desolation".
Now, before I start to sound all preachy, I want to be clear: wolves are lean, mean, killing machines and they will likely kill livestock and game animals when reintroduced into areas near civilization. On average (roughly, and in the Yellowstone area), a single wolf will kill between 1.5-2.2 elk per 30 days. Given a population of say, 200 wolves, that would be about 3,600-5,280 elk per year.
In the state of Colorado, where Prop 114 is currently on the ballot to reintroduce wolves to the western slope, there are estimated to be about 280,000 elk in the state. As a rough estimate, and on the high end, a population of 200 wolves would kill less than 2% of elk in the state. That is a reasonable number (in my opinion), but the concern is the population getting out of control. In Minnesota there are currently estimated to be about 2,700 animals - extrapolate those numbers to Colorado and you can begin to see the issue. If elk hers are thinned in their territory, they will tend to turn to livestock and other food sources. Not to mention the other ecological issues that come with a lack of elk (and how could I forget, unhappy hunters).
Now, the gray wolf is listed as an endangered species by the federal government under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. However, wolf populations have rebounded significantly since then and under the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), wolves are listed as a species of Least Concern, the lowest (or best) possible rating a species can receive, in the same category as squirrels or whitetail deer.
What this comes down to, and it comes full circle, will be regulations and population control. If wolves are reintroduced into a former native range, how will we regulate their growth. Many people say let nature run its course. Humans, simply by existing, make this nearly impossible - we impact everything around us in an "unnatural" way. Will the federal government allow states to regulate their own populations and remove the wolves as a federally protected species? Will states open up a hunting season for population control? If there was an easy answer, it would have been implemented by now. There is a reason this topic is so hotly debated amongst biologists and conservationists. There are emotions attached due to our personification of these animals and the impacts they have on our livelihoods (referring of course to ranchers and farmers). We don't want to lose these animals, they are an icon of North America and of the wilderness that remains. Finding a balance is key, and unfortunately as of now that balance remains lost to us.