This article is part of an ongoing series about wolves. Previous articles about Gunnison’s public public wolf meeting back in January, as well as a piece from Western ecology graduate Courtney King outlining the ballot initiative process, are available on Top o’ the World’s website.
“I’ve been supportive of wolf restoration and the initiative process since it started,” says Gary Skiba, the wildlife program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance in Durango.
“The reason the initiative happened is because neither the [Colorado Parks and Wildlife] Commission nor CPW itself had any intention of moving forward with wolf restoration,” explains Skiba, who holds a graduate degree in wildlife biology.
Before going to work in the nonprofit world, he was a wildlife biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife for more than two decades, before its merger with Colorado State Parks in 2011 that created its current format — Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).
The 2020 ballot initiative effort that jumpstarted wolf reintroduction was led by the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund — now the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (RMWP) — which spent more than $2 million passing Proposition 114.
When the initiative passed, it mandated that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Commission reintroduce wolves within the state by the end of 2023.
Skiba helped manage the coalition of volunteers pushing for the initiative in the leadup to the 2020 election. After the measure passed, he became part of a small team of advisors to the RMWP, a role he still occupies.
Live and let live — The advent of impact-based wolf management in Colorado
Nearly two decades ago, as part of his former role with the state, Skiba served as the biological and technical lead for Colorado’s 2004 wolf management plan. That plan is currently still in effect until the new plan is adopted later this spring.
More recently, he served as part of the 17-member Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG), a diverse cohort of experts with a collection of wildlife, ranching, hunting, and other backgrounds that contributed ideas to CPW’s Technical Working Group (TWG), the body that crafted the agency’s draft plan.
“We worked on a consensus model in the SAG … if there was consensus it meant that no one in the group of 17 members was strictly opposed to that particular idea,” says Skiba. “I feel for the people writing the plan, because it’s difficult to capture everything precisely.”
Skiba says the 2004 plan was intended to provide clarity for Colorado at a time when the range of wolves reintroduced in Yellowstone and central Idaho was expanding — and uncertainty loomed over the species’ status under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“In fact, the first wolf that we confirmed in Colorado was in 2004 right in the middle of our planning process,” says Skiba. The female wolf, which had traveled more than 500 miles, was later killed crossing I-70 in Clear Creek County.
The planning process back then was intended to provide guidance as the possibility of further wolf run-ins became increasingly likely.
“The key piece that came out of the 2004 plan and is reflected in the current plan is what we call impact-based management,” says Skiba.
“The best way to define that to me is live and let live. If there are 1,000 wolves in Colorado and they’re causing no problems, you have no reason to do anything as far as management — removal, changing their behavior … but if you have 10 wolves and they’re causing problems, you probably need to do something,” he explains.
Compensation and mitigation in the new era
One of the key facets being discussed and honed at a series of public meetings across Colorado is that the compensation offered to agricultural producers for damages caused by wolves is significantly more generous than what was outlined in the past, and for other predator species.
For confirmed mountain lion and bear kills, CPW compensates the livestock owner up to the fair market value (FMV) of the animal — up to $5000 an animal.
Under the statute that came out of the ballot proposition, wolves are treated separately for CPW compensation, which includes receiving FMV up to a higher $8,000 limit.
With the current draft plan, producers obtaining compensation do not need to prove they attempted mitigation measures first, and may receive fair market value for injured animals requiring veterinary care, again up to fair market value.
“It’s far more liberal than what we do for bears and lions,” says Skiba, who attributes the pushback by ranchers to legitimate fears that the resurgence of wolves will impact their already slim operating margins.
He says there was significant debate about whether producers should need to showcase proof of using non-lethal deterrence methods before making a compensation claim.
“We ended up not going in that direction because the producers made some good points about they’re being a situation where people don’t know there are wolves in the area, and where wolves just moved in — because wolves can move quickly,” Skiba says.
He admits this is a murky issue in many ways, but says that CPW should conduct outreach to define and broadly promote non-lethal mitigation strategies to help quell anxieties and reduce damages as much as possible.
CPW has assembled a seven-page resource guide document aimed at helping ranchers understand the breadth of mitigation options available. The guide is based on lived experiences with wolves up in Montana, and Skiba says he would like to see CPW facilitate the teaching of those concepts to ranchers in workshop format.
“We have lots of evidence from across the west that preventative techniques work, and different techniques work in different places,” he adds.
All things considered, human presence remains the most reliable predator deterrent, and Skiba points out that it is common practice for herders to accompany sheep out in the fields. On cattle ranches, this would mean employing range riders to patrol ranches.
He says that CPW will have to continue to wrestle with the complicated nature of wolf kills — and of the presence of wolves on the landscape, which can also lead to indirect losses. In a ranching context, non-direct losses include decreased weight gain in calves and reduced pregnancy rate for cows.
CPW’s current plan aims to pay producers for these indirect impacts, which are not accounted for in the case of similar bear or lion presence.
Demonstrating that wolves are the main driver of these harms could prove difficult because of the sheer number of variables in play — including other predators like coyotes or mountain lions, shifting weather, vegetation changes, and any number of additional environmental factors.
Skiba says that cattle producers in the Centennial State are not accustomed to bearing the costs of protecting their livestock from wolves, although he thinks it may be time they do so — with the aid of pro-wolf NGOs and supporters whose financial contributions could ease that burden.
“I can’t say that there’s going to be enough for everyone, but I can tell you there’s a lot of money out there,” he says.
To that end, both CPW and Colorado State University (CSU) have established funds to help offset the cost burden to producers of employing various mitigation strategies.
“Proactive, nonlethal approaches to prevent conflict are available, including fencing, fladry (flagging), scare devices, guardian dogs, range riders, and livestock management practices. The Wolf Conflict Reduction fund supports the efforts of Colorado State University and partners to implement on-the-ground, nonlethal tools to assist livestock producers and local communities in regions with wolves. Your contributions will support research, education, and outreach efforts to reduce conflict with wolves,” reads the description of CSU’s Wolf Conflict Reduction Fund, which is accepting public donations.
In practice, none of the measures listed off by CSU are anywhere resembling perfect. Successful implementation will involve mixing and matching strategies to suit the surrounding landscape, and take into account that wolves can habituate over time to different strategies as a result of their inherent “neophobia” — a fancy term for fear of new things.
For example, flagging situated around designated calving pastures might prove effective for a couple of months, just long enough to serve its primary purpose.
Skiba notes that it’s important to keep in mind that in the Northern Rocky states, research has shown that only 17 percent of wolf packs turn to depredation. While the reasons behind that statistic remain largely unknown, it suggests that the looming depredation issue in Colorado may not prove as massive as some fear.
The role of wolves in complex ecosystems
The tendency to blame wolves and treat them differently than other predators is common amongst agricultural producers — and others cautious about or opposed to their reintroduction.
However, wolves can coincide with humans with neutral or positive impacts, including for hunters and outfitters concerned about elk populations, a coalition that has widely opposed wolf reintroduction in Colorado.
Concerning the prospective impacts on elk numbers, Skiba says many Colorado hunters and outfitters have not accepted the fact that the increase in the wolf population post reintroduction has coincided with boosted elk populations in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
In Montana, elk populations are up 30 percent since wolves made a comeback, to the point where they have far exceeded local population objectives and are now largely considered overpopulated.
”I’m not going to tell you that there won’t be negative impacts [on hunting], but based on what we know from those three states, it doesn’t look like there will be,” relays Skiba.
In discussing the positive attributes of wolves, Skiba, like any diligent scientist working with a complicated system, is quick to provide qualifiers. He’s also realistic about what humans know about the inner workings of biological systems — very little.
“The best information we have is from Yellowstone, and as people point out Yellowstone isn’t Colorado and Colorado isn’t Yellowstone, and that’s very true,” says Skiba, who stresses the wickedly complex nature of ecological systems.
This inherent complexity makes it difficult to assign any changes strictly to wolf reintroduction, or to predict how many wolves would be necessary to result in changes to various ecological systems in Colorado.
Skiba notes that some of the benefits cited when discussing wolves — including the dispersion of elk in the Yellowstone Valley, which led to vegetative regrowth along riparian corridors — may have been oversimplified (like in this widely popular YouTube video) to attribute them predominantly to wolves’ presence when other factors were likely in play.
What we do know is that the carcasses wolves leave behind spread nutrients to a variety of scavenging animals like magpies, ravens, and foxes.
In some instances, wolves can have a strengthening effect on ungulate species, culling sick or genetically inferior deer or elk from the population, and allowing other healthy, prime-age individuals to thrive and reproduce.
By competing with coyotes, bears, and mountain lions, wolves can also decrease the population of other predators — particularly coyotes, and reshape the ways these other predators hunt.
All of these possible impacts, Skiba says, must be contextualized to Colorado, which will require time and experience with wolves on the ground. Unlike Yellowstone, Colorado has consistent human presence in almost every corner of the state — save for a few relatively small, remote wilderness areas, and even those places receive significant, growing visitation.
Taking all these factors and associated caveats into consideration, Skiba’s argument in favor of wolves is far simpler: He believes humans should restore wolves because they are a missing element that has been removed from the ecological equation artificially by humans.
“What I always go back to is that wolves were here,” he says. “Wolves lived in Colorado for at least the last 10,000 years … they were part of a system, and everything that we know biologically and scientifically about predation is that it’s an important process to ecosystems,” he says.
Critically, predation by wolves differs from hunting conducted by humans in that wolves serve as a constant pressure on ungulate species like elk, whereas human hunting is restricted heavily to specific, short seasons.
Looking ahead: Prospective delisting and the controversial phase four
As it stands, CPW has constructed a four-phase population plan to down-list and eventually delist the reintroduced wolves from the state’s endangered and threatened species list as their population increases.
This process includes key benchmarks at 50 wolves observed for four consecutive winters to move wolves from endangered down to threatened, and a benchmark of 150 wolves in successive years (or 200 in any one individual year) to shift the wolves from threatened status to classification as a standard, non-game species.
Ultimately, CPW’s plan to move wolves from endangered to threatened and then into a possible game species will depend on whether or not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) utilizes the 10(j) rule, which would label the wolves within Colorado as an “experimental, non-essential population,” exempting them from federal management under the Endangered Species Act.
At the state level, Skiba believes the criteria set in place to down list and eventually delist wolves is fairly low, and that CPW has not yet succeeded in establishing a valid, concrete definition of what constitutes a “self-sustaining” population, which is required by the law.
Additionally, he says he would like to see a geographic component to the wolf reintroduction qualifications, which would take into account the distribution of wolves across the Western Slope.
Skiba and Matt Barnes, a fellow member of SAG, as well as a wildlife conservationist and range manager, illustrated their point to other SAG members by dividing the map of the western slope into six sections. They argued that wolves should be present in each divided area before being fully delisted from threatened to a non-game species.
“It hasn’t flown well with any number of people, including the Technical Working Group,” notes Skiba of his geographic range idea.
Nevertheless, he maintains that a healthy distribution of wolves is important to their successful recovery, and for attaining the full ecological benefits of wolves across the state.
Fighting phase four — and creating a bright future for all
A critical part of maintaining that healthy, self-sustaining population is ensuring that wolves are allowed to roam freely, so long as they don’t adversely impact humans and their property.
Skiba predicts that the human-animal conflict that will almost certainly arise with wolf reintroduction will create pressure for CPW to authorize the lethal taking of wolves in order to protect livestock. This danger, he says, is why well-funded mitigation strategies are so crucial to successful reintroduction
Then there is the matter of CPW’s proposed phase four, which would go one step beyond the classification of wolves as a non-game species to allow for recreational hunting. The details regarding what benchmarks would be required to reach that fourth phase have not been provided in CPW’s draft plan.
Phase four is likely illegal under current law (barring a legislative act explicitly allowing it), as the ballot initiative specifically outlined that wolves should be reintroduced as a non-game species.
Even if the provision was legal, Skiba doesn’t think it provides much benefit for the productive management of wolves.
“Recreational hunting doesn’t fix much,” he says. “It doesn’t target the right animals. If you have a problem with a particular pack or a particular animal depredating on cattle — and CPW decides that you need to remove that animal, you can’t really do that through recreational hunting.”
In order to see a positive impact for ranchers, recreational hunters would need to kill off the majority of wolves in Colorado, which would then violate CPW’s overlying objective to ensure a self-sustaining wolf population that fulfills the agency’s outlined role in the 2020 ballot initiative.
In fact, CPW has stated that there will be no official upper limit, at least for the time being, on Colorado’s wolf population.
“If you have 1,000 wolves in there, and it’s all rainbows and unicorns, no worries — you don’t need to change that number of wolves,” says Skiba, who explains that there are far too many unknowns to establish a scientifically-backed population goal at this time.
Barring significant human kills of wolves, he’s confident that the logistical elements of CPW’s wolf reintroduction plan will result in a healthy, growing wolf population utilizing Colorado’s prime wolf habitat within just a few, short years.
Beyond that, Skiba says a successful reintroduction will look like Coloradans coming together to listen to each other’s needs and ensure that wolf reintroduction is viable for all.
“That’s another piece of success — that we have wolf advocates together working with the livestock community to minimize depredation as much as possible,” he says. “Those NGOs and others that are wolf advocates are standing ready to help in various ways … and that needs to be recognized and promoted.”