On 3 November 2020, voters in the US opted to remove Donald Trump from the White House. But the next president of the US was not the only matter at stake in Colorado, which also voted to reintroduce grey wolves to the state – the first time the ballot box has controlled a species reintroduction.
Grey wolves once ranged over most of North America, but by the early 20th century, they had nearly been wiped out, following a government- sponsored eradication programme. Wolves survived only in Alaska and the northern Great Lakes – areas unfavourable for livestock rearing. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 saw wolves placed on the Endangered Species List. Recovery programmes enabled wolf recolonisation of Montana, while reintroductions took place in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995 and 1996. Mexican grey wolves – descendants of just seven survivors from the subspecies – were reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico. The northern wolf populations expanded into Washington, Oregon and California, but to the ire of conservationists, Colorado was omitted from the recovery programme.
Now, the state remains the missing piece of the puzzle that could allow genetic exchange between the northern and southern populations. The move has met with opposition. Some believe that these decisions should be left to wildlife departments. ‘There’s a reason reintroductions haven’t taken place through the ballot box before – direct democracy has its limits,’ says Shawn Martini, head of the Colorado Farm Bureau, which spearheaded the Rethink Wolves campaign. Th e bulk of the opposition comes from rural ranchers and hunting associations, who fear for livestock, deer and elk populations. Martini says that the romance of wolf reintroduction spoke to urban voters, who ignored practicalities. ‘The majority of support was along the eastern stretch from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, where Denver, Boulder and other urban centres are,’ he says. ‘The initiators went straight to progressive urbanites to get the 215,000 signatures needed to get the reintroduction onto the ballot.’
Conservationists are sympathetic to the concerns of livestock owners and hunters, but evidence suggests that the impact of wolves is marginal. ‘Generally, we haven’t seen widespread declines in deer or elk in the Great Lakes states following reintroduction; in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, deer populations are abundant,’ says wildlife ecologist Carlos Carroll. Where wolves could have far-reaching impacts – positive ones – is on the 17 million acres of forest in Colorado. According to Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, the hydrology of streams within Yellowstone, and the ecology within them, has changed since the return of wolves. ‘Cottonwood seedlings were browsed by voracious elk,’ he says. ‘With wolves back, browsing elk had low visibility in areas with steep river embankments. Elk essentially abandoned these areas and you have this regeneration of old cottonwood, alder and willow forest that had existed more than a century ago.’
Beavers also returned, their dams slowing streams to create habitat for fish, birds and insects. ‘I think we will see a similar thing in Colorado,’ adds Robinson. Opponents point to the state’s dense population. ‘Colorado has three times the population of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho combined. We’ve got highways, mines, transmission lines, housing developments,’ says Martini. ‘Proponents just want the wolves here, and adopt a “damn the consequences” attitude.’
Conservationists on the other hand, think that the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other regulatory bodies have long been in thrall to industry and that industry campaigning has shaped the anti-wolf rhetoric. ‘Th e livestock industry were the beneficiaries and proponents of the original wolf extermination. They fought many years against wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone and Idaho,’ says Robinson. According to conservationists, adverts, paid for by livestock-industry players and trophy-hunting organisations, inflated the proposed cost of reintroduction to the taxpayer and wrongly claimed that wolves were colonising Colorado naturally from Wyoming.
In October, the Trump administration controversially de-listed the grey wolf from the Endangered Species List. With wolves occupying less than 20 per cent of their historical range, the legal justification was tenuous. ‘The Trump administration took the most narrow interpretation of the ESA and said that a single, stable population of wolves in the northern states is sufficient for the species to be recovered,’ says Carroll.
Joe Biden could reverse the de-listing, but as the narrow margin of victory for reintroduction in Colorado shows, calls for wildlife recovery are often followed by resistance from industry. Biden’s challenge will be to navigate these two viewpoints.