Wolf symposium shared science

To the editor,

I was honored to share some lessons learned about ranching in wolf country at the Durango Wolf Symposium on Nov. 29. And I was disappointed by the letter to the editor (Dec. 6) sent by Naomi Dobbs representing the La Plata County Farm Bureau, La Plata County Cattlemen’s Association and La Plata Liberty Coalition – a letter that misrepresented both the symposium and the science on wolves.

Wolves are native to most of North America. Gray wolves lived from northern Mexico to the Arctic, from the Pacific to the Great Lakes. As with most species, individual size increased from south to north. Gray wolves were nearly extirpated south of the Canadian border; and after decades of recovery in the Northern Rockies, Great Lakes and a small part of the Southwest, they now occupy 

about 15 percent of their former range in the Lower 48. Gray wolves from any of those places could be reintroduced to western Colorado. Wolves already coexist with people and livestock in those places, and, in Europe, several times as many wolves live with millions of people.

The symposium brought together a group of wolf biologists, Native Americans, a historian, a range conservationist, a member of the Colorado Wolf Management Working Group, a rancher who has learned to live alongside wolves, and a local rancher who would rather not. The point of the symposium was to share multiple perspectives of professionals who have lived and worked with or studied wolves, not to have a debate between two sides. The organizers did not pay any of the presenters for our time.

It turns out that most biologists and even some ranchers think that western Colorado could once again be wolf country, and if so, that ranches would continue providing benefits to society, including habitat.

Colorado’s existing wolf plan (2004-05) did not address reintroduction, only management of dispersers from other states. That’s the plan that Mark Pearson outlined – a presentation misrepresented in the Dec. 6 letter.

The comparison of the Durango Wolf Symposium to the so-called “symposium” hosted by Big Game Forever, an anti-wolf propaganda organization, is an insult to science.

Had the writers actually attended the symposium, they could confirm it covered the usual issues raised by people who fear wolves. In contrast to what the letter writers would have you believe, the risk to big game is greatly exaggerated: most of the Northern Rockies now have more elk than they did when wolves were reintroduced. Only where wolves were allowed to reach very high density were they able to locally reduce (previously overpopulated) elk herds.

The purported threat to human safety was only addressed because it is a persistent concern, not a real issue. And hydatid disease, a parasite associated with domestic dogs and sheep, is a red herring.

I ran cattle in the northern San Juan Mountains for a few years. I never lost a calf, and thanks to strategic grazing

management and low-stress herding, my cows rediscovered their herd instinct and learned to mob up and run off potential predators. I actually left Colorado for five years to work on ranges shared with grizzly bears and wolves in Montana and Wyoming.

Since Montana stopped trying to count all of its wolves, those wolves have been verified as killing about 50 cattle (mostly calves) per year, out of about 2.5 million. Not all predation is documented, but it is far from what anti-wolf extremists would have us believe. Nevertheless predation can be locally significant. And it turns out that my experiences with strategies for preventing predation – while making the ranch more resilient – aren’t unique to me. Other ranchers in big-predator country, including Joe Engelhart who joined the symposium from Alberta, have successfully applied those ideas.

My purpose at the symposium was not to argue for wolf restoration in Colorado, but to share some experiences and the stories of some ranchers and cowboys who are learning to live with wolves.

But, full disclosure: I think Colorado is more Colorado with its ranchers than without. Our cowboys would be punchier, our mountains higher, our breeze more invigorating if it carried the howl of the wolf.

Colorado ranchers, tough as their wolf-country brethren, have a soft spot: love of their animals. It’s time for us to expand our love beyond humans and domestic animals to the wild ones. Our greatest wildlife biologist, Aldo Leopold, also a forester and farmer, saw it most clearly: only the mountain has developed a broad enough perspective to listen objectively to that howl.

– Matt Barnes, Dolores