YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) — The saucer-sized footprints in the mud around the bloody, disemboweled bison carcass were unmistakable: wolves.
A pack of 35 named after a nearby snow-dusted promontory, Junction Butte, now were snoozing on a hillside above the carcass. Tourists dressed against the weather watched the pack through spotting scopes from about a mile away.
“Wolves are my main thing. There’s something about their eyes — it’s mystifying,” said Ann Moore, who came from Ohio to fulfill a life-long wish to glimpse the animals.
Such encounters have become daily occurrences in Yellowstone after gray wolves rebounded in parts of the American West with remarkable speed following their reintroduction 25 years ago.
It started with a few dozen wolves brought in crates from Canada to Yellowstone and central Idaho. Others wandered down into northwest Montana. Thriving on big game herds, the population boomed to more than 300 packs comprising some 2,000 wolves, occupying territory that touches six states and stretches from the edge of the Great Plains to the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Now the 2020 election offers an opportunity to jumpstart the wolf’s expansion southward into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. A Colorado ballot initiative would reintroduce wolves on the state’s Western Slope. It comes after the Trump administration lifted protections for wolves across most of the U.S., including Colorado, putting their future in the hands of state wildlife agencies.
The Colorado effort, which appears to have been successful, could fill a significant gap in the species’ historical range, creating a bridge between the Northern Rockies gray wolves and a small Mexican gray wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico.
“Colorado is the mother lode, the final piece,” said Mike Phillips, who led the Yellowstone reintroduction project and now serves in the Montana Senate.
WOLF FEARS IN COLORADO
Yet the prospect of wolves is riling Colorado livestock producers, who see the predators as a threat their forbears vanquished once from the high elevation forests where cattle graze public lands. Hunters worry they’ll decimate herds of elk and deer.
It’s a replay of animosity that broke out a quarter-century ago when federal wildlife officials released the first wolves into Yellowstone. The species had been annihilated across most of the contiguous U.S. in the early 1900s by government-sponsored poisoning, trapping and bounty hunting.
Initiative opponents have seized on sightings of a handful of wolves in recent years in northwestern Colorado as evidence the predator already has arrived and reintroduction isn’t necessary.
“We can live with a few wolves. It’s the massive amount that scares me,” said Janie VanWinkle, a rancher in Mesa County near Grand Junction, Colorado.
VanWinkle’s great grandparents shot wolves up until the early 1940s, she said, when the last wolves in Colorado were killed. The family runs cattle on two promontories with names from that era — Wolf Hill and Dead Horse Point, where VanWinkle said her great grandfather’s horse was killed by wolves while he was fixing a fence.
“I try to relate that to millennials: That would be like someone stealing your car,” she said. “He had to walk home 10, 15 miles in the dark, carrying his saddle, knowing there’s wolves out there. So of course they killed wolves on sight.”
Mesa County’s population has increased more than five-fold since wolves last roamed there, to more than 150,000, and VanWinkle sees little room for the animals among farms in the Colorado River valley and the growing crowds of backcountry recreationists on the Uncompahgre Plateau.
Colorado’s population is approaching 6 million — almost twice as much as Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined — and is expected to surpass 8 million by 2040.
“Things have changed,” VanWinkle said.
The pack that showed up in northwest Colorado last year is believed to have come from the Northern Rockies through Wyoming, where wolves can be killed at will outside the Yellowstone region.
Even with protections under the Endangered Species Act, thousands of wolves were shot over the past two decades for preying on livestock and, more recently, by hunters.
But rancor that long defined wolf restoration in the region has faded somewhat since protections were lifted in recent years. Opponents were given the chance to legally hunt wolves, while advocates learned state wildlife officials weren’t bent on eliminating the animals from the landscape as some had feared.
“I’ve got a simple message: It’s not that bad,” said Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith, who with Phillips brought the first wolves into the park in 1995 and has followed their impacts on the landscape perhaps as closely as anyone.
“I got yelled at, at public meetings,” he said. “I got phone calls: ‘They are going to kill all the elk and deer!’ Where are we 25 years in? We still have elk and deer.”
On a cold October morning, after examining remains of the bison eaten by the Junction Butte pack near a park road, Smith asked a co-worker to have the carcass dragged deeper into brush so it wouldn’t attract wolves and other scavengers that could be hit by a vehicle.
Later, as the sun struggled to break through cloud banks, he hiked up a trail in the park’s Lamar River valley to where the first wolves from Canada were released.
The animals initially were kept in a large outdoor pen to adjust to their new surroundings. The pen’s now in disrepair, sections of chain-link fence crushed by fallen trees. But Smith was able to show where wolf pups had once tried to dig their way out , and another spot outside the enclosure where some freed adult wolves had tried to dig back in.
All around were young stands of aspen trees. The area had been overgrazed by elk during the years when wolves and most grizzly bears and cougars were absent — direct evidence, Smith said, of the profound ecological impact from the predators’ return.
THE BALLOT BATTLE
Colorado’s wildlife agency said Thursday it considers a ballot initiative to reintroduce the gray wolf into the state to have passed after a group that opposes the initiative conceded the race and the agency consulted with the office of Gov. Jared Polis.
An announcement by Colorado Parks and Wildlife that it would begin planning for an eventual restoration of wolves in the state came with the initiative leading — with thousands of ballots still uncounted — and after another group opposed to the initiative said it was not conceding.
Two opposition groups, Coloradans Protecting Wildlife and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, issued statements Thursday saying it appeared that the initiative would succeed.
Parks and Wildlife spokeswoman Rebecca Ferrell said the agency, which had assiduously avoided taking any position on the initiative, issued its statement after consulting with the governor’s office.
“We had been holding, but with the Coloradans Protecting Wildlife concession this afternoon, along with the deluge of requests for comment, the Governor’s Office decided it was prudent to move forward with the statement sent,” Ferrell said an an email.
Conor Cahill, Polis’ press secretary, also said “it was important to respond” after the state wildlife agency received multiple requests for comment from media outlets following the announcements by the two opposition groups. The governor considers the initiative to have passed, Cahill said.
“Nothing is final until the Secretary of State certifies the election results, but at this time, we believe the measure will pass. So yes, this is a concession from our campaign,” said Patrick Pratt, deputy campaign manager for Coloradans Protecting Wildlife.
Janie VanWinkle, president of the Cattlemen’s Association, said the group “remains committed to ensuring real science” guides wildlife policy and wolf reintroduction.
Other groups opposing wolf reintroduction didn’t concede. A top opposition group, the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, said it was actively monitoring the vote count and will seek to fix any “no” votes rejected by elections officials because of signature discrepancies or other reasons, said Ted Harvey, campaign director for the Stop the Wolf PAC issue committee.
Colorado’s election results must be certified by Nov. 30. By late Thursday, the “yes” vote led the “no” vote by roughly 26,000 ballots out of more than 3 million counted — well above a threshold for triggering a mandatory recount.
Voters in metropolitan Denver and Boulder counties, who won’t be directly affected by any reintroduction, strongly supported the initiative, with rural voters casting ballots against it.
Supporters say it’s the first time that voters, rather than government scientists, are deciding whether to reintroduce the wolf, which once ranged across most of the U.S. before being hunted to near-extinction.
The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, which sponsored the initiative, said Thursday it believed the initiative had passed because votes yet to be counted in metropolitan areas east of the Divide would produce a formal “Yes” vote.
“This isn’t about the margin of victory,” said Rob Edward, head of the fund’s campaign. “Now it’s time to get on with the hard work of fashioning a future for the wolves that we coexist with.”
Proposition 114 would direct state wildlife officials to develop a plan to reintroduce wolves, once hunted into near-extinction, on public land west of the Continental Divide in Colorado before 2024. Ranchers, business chambers and rural governments strongly opposed the initiative, saying it would threaten livestock and Colorado’s lucrative hunting industry for elk and deer, key prey for the wolf.
Asked if any reintroduction process could trigger litigation, Pratt, of Coloradans Protecting Wildlife, said: “We have not ruled out any available options at this time.”