Wolf Symposium left ranchers out in the cold
(Editor’s note: The following is a response from the La Plata County Farm Bureau and La Plata County Cattlemen’s Association on the Durango Wolf Symposium Nov. 29 at Fort Lewis College. The piece was sent by Naomi Dobbs, board member of the Farm Bureau and coordinator for LaPlata Liberty Coalition. The response, which came in at more than 3,500 words, has been edited for length.)
Two weeks after Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced concern over declining elk and deer populations, the Colorado Sierra Club and San Juan Citizens Alliance took a step closer to re-introduction of the Canadian gray wolf in Colorado by sponsoring the Durango Wolf Symposium at Fort Lewis College on Nov. 29. The stated objective was a “serious dialogue” about re-introducing wolves. Organizers and promoters claimed the event would be a balanced conversation based on facts and evidence, but when asked about lack of opposing views, they claimed wolf opponents were unable to attend due to conflicts. The Wolf Symposium had only one person formally speaking in opposition.
The event was promoted as the “largest group of wolf experts ever to gather in Southwestern Colorado,” which is factually incorrect as it follows Big Game Forever’s Wolf Symposium held three months earlier in Grand Junction. However, the Durango Wolf Symposium was the largest group of pro-wolf advocates ever to gather in Southwest Colorado – a bias the symposium repeatedly understated.
Brandon Hatter, local rancher and Cattlemen’s Association Board member, attended the symposium to get facts about how wolf re-introduction might be managed but left empty-handed as the conversation was one-sided and vague on details. For example, San Juan Citizen’s Alliance speaker Mark Pearson’s entire presentation was on the gradual and natural recovery of wolves in Colorado, which didn’t fit with the symposium’s billing, which is human-engineered and physically controlled. Hatter also took issue with predictions for Colorado based on other states, which don’t align to conditions in Colorado. For example, public lands in Colorado have hunting, hiking and camping, whereas shared range lands like Yellowstone National Park are only visited as a controlled, drive-through attraction. This wasn’t a conversation or a dialogue, or even a symposium, Hatter concluded, it was a lecture and sales pitch.
Most symposium speakers were individuals who gain financially from their pro-wolf narrative: authors/editors who had their materials for sale, wolf management “trainers,” professors, environmental activists and several executives of organizations that advocate for wolves – with many panel members wearing multiple, paid pro-wolf hats.
Attempted balance was provided by two Native American speakers, both of whom acknowledged they were not wolf experts. The panel also had two ranchers, neither of whom had any experience with wolves in the lower 48. Local rancher Tom Compton was the only speaker opposed to wolf re-introduction, but he had no experience with the potential economic impact and bureaucratic challenges of ranching with wolves, a perspective wholly missing from the panel. Canadian pro-wolf rancher Joe Engelhart and pro-wolf author Carter Neimeyer were introduced as providing balanced viewpoints, yet Engelhart doesn’t ranch in the U.S., and both Engelhart and Neimeyer have been routine speakers at pro-wolf events. Also, it’s worth noting that Englehart is involved in a ranching business with several thousand cattle, which is not comparable to small-scale ranching operations typical in Colorado Speakers did make reference to the last wolves killed in Colorado, but the point emphasized was the cruelty of their extinction without mentioning that wolves that historically populated Colorado were significantly smaller than the Canadian gray wolf. The pro-wolf speakers brushed aside the notion that the Canadian wolf was not native to Colorado. However, the panelists were quick to use the non-native status of other prey, such as the bighorn sheep and moose, to disregard the wolves’ impact.
Adding to the pro-wolf bias was the speakers’ eerie silence on the subject of wolves as a host of hydatid disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, hydatid is a parasitic tapeworm that passes from wolves to other animals and humans primarily through feces. The parasites form cysts in vital organs and are difficult to detect early on. A gap of data and training makes it hard to diagnose. Untreated, the mortality rate in humans is more than 90 percent. If the disease is properly detected, the primary protocol is removal of impacted organs and chemotherapy, according to the World Health Organization.
People who live and recreate in or near wolf habitat will be exposed to hydatid. In addition to normal defecation, wolves habitually mark territory and show dominance by leaving scat. Once deposited, the resistant tapeworm can lay dormant in dirt and vegetation. If pets or humans unknowingly track over infected ground, the microscopic hydatid can be transported into your home. The disease can lead to bacterial superinfections and fatal anaphylaxis.
Avoidance of the topic detracted from the symposium’s credibility. Adding to this were repeated and misleading comparisons between Colorado and wolf re-introduction states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. First, the low 2 percent livestock wolf predation in these states asserted by author and panel speaker Mike Phillips has been discredited by The Real Wolf, by Ted B. Lyon and Will N. Graves. Secondly, these three states represent 327,438 square miles and 3.3 million people as compared to Colorado’s 104,100 square miles and 5.5 million people. Colorado has almost twice the population and less than one-third the space of these other states combined.
Both Philips and speaker Diana Tomback disregarded this and instead emphasized what they claimed was a high percentage of public lands available for wolf habitat in Colorado. They presented slides showing the bulk of the Western Slope as prime wolf habitat covering mostly public lands. They proceeded to demonstrate favorable wolf outcomes based on “sophisticated ecological modeling,” a methodology neither would identify. An audience member also pointed out that the broad swath of Western Slope actually contained a high percentage of elevations that don’t fit wolf habitat. Furthermore, when it snows, elk and deer come down into the valleys and private lands for better food supply, and wolves will follow.
During the panel, Phillips tried to claim wolves would not come into towns because, “Wolves aren’t migratory.” He proceeded with a confusing monologue on how wolves stay in a territory, which evaded the obvious nature of wolves to follow prey, not to mention the necessary expansion of a wolf’s territory when it creates a new pack.
Compton added, “seeing a wolf near our playgrounds and bike paths is not something I’m looking forward to.” Panelists’ information also failed to factor the fluctuating human population of Colorado. Colorado has a diverse tourism-based economy that adds significant numbers of out-of-state visitors, bikers, hunters, fishermen and a variety of weekend warriors to spend time outdoors. These extra people also congregate in the same territory where advocates want to introduce this apex predator.
The pro-wolf panelists claimed re-introduction would create an economic benefit to tourism, despite at other times referencing how human presence would negatively impact wolves. Phillips claimed wolves could create a $30B benefit. However, the justification of eco-tourism for people who want to watch wolves conflicted with the fact that, as speakers admitted, wolves are elusive and rarely seen.
Farmers and ranchers are concerned about losses of livestock, which historically have not been fairly compensated. There’s also concern about increased operational costs, decreased livestock weights and birthing impacts. None of these topics were given adequate consideration. Most farm and ranch operations in La Plata County are small, with low capacity to absorb the costs that accompany wolves. Speaker Carter Neimeyer said wolf losses will not break a family’s back. This claim is false based on reports in just one region of New Mexico alone. Wolves do have a negative impact on farming, and their impacts can extend beyond. Just one fatality from a wolf attack or hydatid could have catastrophic consequences. However, there was ironically one pro-wolf reason to keep Canadian wolves out of Colorado which was also not fairly covered in the symposium: boundary preservation for the Mexican wolf.
Currently, Colorado serves as a buffer between the Canadian wolf to the north and New Mexico, home to the Mexican wolf, an endangered species. Wolves have territorial ranges from 100-300 miles, and it’s natural for young males to travel to establish their own packs. However, panelists failed to acknowledge that Colorado is an important safety-zone to protect the smaller Mexican wolf. To the surprise of many, Phillips labeled the Mexican wolf as a non-issue, claiming the breed was already hybridized.
Symposium supporter Rocky Mountain Wolf Project depicts Colorado as “The Missing Link” for wolf recovery but fails to mention the negative impact on the Mexican wolf. Phillips blunted the conversation by praising the benefit of wolves in the generic sense from Montana to Mexico.
References to wolves providing ecologic benefit to the “trophic cascade” was a theme promoted by FLC professor Andrew Gulliford. Trophic cascade was explained as recovery of riparian areas and rebounding plant-life achieved by introducing wolves to an area where elk overpopulation had damaged the ecosystem. However, Compton explained trophic cascade, based on observations from Yellowstone, was a human-engineered consequence. With elk protected in the park, they expanded to a point where the range was stressed prior to introduction of the wolf. As Compton explained, wolves didn’t heal Yellowstone, a man-made policy caused the imbalance and a policy change helped correct it.
According to farmers and ranchers in attendance, less favorable topics of hydatid, fair compensation and impacts to the Mexican wolf were not given adequate attention. Opposition questions from the audience were not allowed.
If Wolf Symposium organizers intend to continue the conversation, they need to provide facts and balanced perspectives. When it comes to wolves, farmers and ranchers definitely want to be part of the conversation because, according to La Plata County Farm Bureau President Charly Minkler, “When it comes to wolves, if we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu.”