If anyone is a leading authority on wolf reintroduction, it's Mike Phillips. The conservation biologist first captured a wolf in Minnesota in 1980 and has since amassed decades of experience. His research has studied the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies, red wolves in the Southeast and Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest. He's the co-author of The Wolves of Yellowstone
, which details the reintroduction that he oversaw with the Yellowstone National Park Wolf Restoration Program. And more recently he co-authored Awakening Spirits: Wolves in the Southern Rockies
, which, like his recent presentation in the Springs, advocates for reintroducing wolf populations to Colorado.
Though native, wolves have not roamed Colorado since the 1940s
, when unregulated hunting pushed populations to the brink of extinction. The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, and wolves were listed as an endangered species one year later in the Lower 48. The animals are still listed as endangered in Colorado.
Since the year 2000, there have been three documented wolf sightings in state. In 2004, a female gray wolf was hit by a car on I-70; in 2006, a collared gray wolf was found dead due to poison near Rifle; and a hunter shot a wolf he mistook for a coyote in 2015.
Though seemingly unable to shed the stereotype of the "Big Bad Wolf," statistically, wolves do not kill people, according to Phillips.
“[Historically] wolves don't pose a threat to human safety,” Phillips told the audience, throwing his hands up emphatically. “That’s just a fact.”
But just three weeks prior to Phillips' presentation, Mesa County Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to oppose any efforts to expand or reintroduce wolves in the county, citing threats to moose populations and livestock, and the spread of disease. Phillips says it's rare for a wolf to kill livestock, and if/when it does the wolf is older, or injured, and it's not normal pack behavior.
A map presented by the Colorado Wildlife and Wolf Center depicting wolves historic ranges in the U.S.
Between 1997 and 2015, Phillips says 117 cattle were killed by wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains. That's 0.002 percent of an estimated six million cattle during that time. He also notes that ranchers are compensated for their loss when it does happen. The 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Management Act authorized up to $140,000 per eligible state from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for wolf loss compensation and preventing future conflicts. The Act replaced Defenders of Wildlife
's Wolf Compensation Trust, which paid $1.4 million over 23 years to compensate ranchers. Defenders of Wildlife, which works to protect native animals and their habitats, contributes funds to help states initiate wolf compensation programs. In lieu of the Wolf Compensation Trust, Defender's created the Wolf Coexistence Partnership
, which works with ranchers on nonlethal techniques to keep wolves from livestock.
As for the threat to the moose population and of disease, Phillips says wolves rarely hunt moose because of their size, and disease is also rare.
Although Colorado Parks and Wildlife wouldn't stop a natural repopulation, Phillips says it's very unlikely, if not impossible, for wolves to re-inhabit Colorado without human help. The main reason is because to the north, Wyoming aims to limit wolves to the northwest corner of the state. Outside of the designated areas — 88 percent of the state — wolves are considered predatory and can be killed without consequence, which has kept the animals from migrating to Colorado.
A recent Outside Podcast questions
the theory of how reintroduction of top down predators can create a trickle effect on an ecosystem, and how much credit wolf reintroduction should get for the health of the Yellowstone ecosystem over the last 20 years. According to Outside, the benefits of wolves are exaggerated, not giving enough credit to increases in other predators like grizzlies, or the effects of drought, which also contribute to the thinning of elk and deer herds. (Thinning herds makes for healthier woodlands, according to Outside.)
But Phillips and his colleagues counter that wolves, over time, can restore balance to an ecosystem if they exist in large enough numbers. In the Yellowstone example, multiple pack reintroduction thinned deer and elk herds and increased herd movement.
That movement not only aerates the soil and creates healthier woodlands, but also increases competition between coyotes and wolves, and decreases predation on smaller mammals. This is all in line with the idea of Trophic Cascade, and the trickle down affects everything down to waterways and aquatic life.
Phillips and the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project
, a collaboration of 20 organizations focused on restoring wolves in Colorado, advocate that wolves would have a similar effect in Western Colorado. And g
iven the amount of public lands, populations of deer and elk, and a majority in favor of their reintroduction (60 percent of Coloradans over 20 years), it would make for a simple transition.
"Western Colorado represents a true mother-load of ecological habitat for the gray wolf," he says. “All we have to do is put them back."