Here come the wolves

When it comes to wolves, Colorado is not an island. 

When gray wolves return to Colorado, they will connect a contiguous population of this species from Mexico to the high Arctic. 

In Arizona, we are working to restore populations of the endangered Mexican gray wolf and have implemented an innovative compensation program to reward livestock producers who use non-lethal coexistence strategies to prevent conflict between livestock, wolves and humans. 

The statute implementing Proposition 114 requires compensation to producers when wolves kill livestock. The statute also requires the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to “Assist owners of livestock in preventing and resolving conflicts between gray wolves and livestock.” 

Currently, stakeholder advisory groups charged with working with CPW and the Commission to guide the wolf restoration process are contemplating compensation schemes, expecting wolf predation on livestock. In fact, an incident of predation has already occurred through a naturally migrating wolf pack lucky enough to have survived the gauntlet of neighboring states. 

Compensation schemes matter, because they can either encourage or discourage conflict between humans and wolves. But to be fair, compensation schemes must reflect all stakeholder values, including those not associated with livestock production and hunting. 

Currently, the biggest delimiting factor in wolf restoration is intolerance. Intolerance feeds upon conflict, and when we do not actively prevent conflict, we get exactly that – conflict between wolves and livestock. Intolerance will later justify wolf hunting programs, which means the compensation schemes being designed in Colorado will directly impact how wolves are perceived and ultimately treated in the state in the long-term. 

Will the Commission choose to assist livestock owners and pay for practices that reduce conflict (sometimes known as pay-for-presence or outcomes-based compensation), or pay for conflict through a typical damage compensation program? One program is preventive and recognizes the benefits of wolves, while the “status quo” program rewards conflict and only recognizes the cost of wolves. 

Livestock producers are not the only interests that should be considered in any compensation scheme – photographers, nature enthusiasts, and yes, even the urban dweller as part of the public trust, have rights to compensation for the absence of wolves – compensation that recognizes the value of wolves to a biodiverse landscape that provides all of us with clean water, clean air, disease control, climate regulation and psychological well-being. 

Will wolves kill livestock in Colorado? Ultimately, that is up to the producers, too. Ranchers are not powerless bystanders and have a responsibility to protect livestock from predation. Nonlethal practices are working elsewhere – including grazing management, low stress herding, range riding, fladry and guard dogs – and yes, they require effort. But effort is the cost of the privilege of subsidized grazing on public lands. With hazing regulations now in place, producers can work to prevent conflict while being responsible stewards of the land. 

I believe ranchers and wolf advocates want to minimize livestock losses. Preventive coexistence strategies must be included in any compensation scheme and producers incentivized to use them. If livestock producers are compensated for preventing conflict, Colorado has an opportunity to dismantle the culture war against wolves, within and outside its borders, by turning the expectation of livestock depredation to an expectation of prevention – and that’s good news for wolves and humans everywhere.

– Courtney S. Vail, Arizona, biologist/social scientist, advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project