One of the greatest environmental success stories in history is playing out on the landscapes of the rural West.
When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone and Northern Idaho in the mid-1990s, the ecological ideas of how large predators affected ecosystems, and the conservation policies that could support predator restoration, were mostly theory. Now, ten years later, grounded knowledge has replaced theory, and the wolf stands out as one of the greatest environmental success stories in history.
Prior to wolves, elk numbers in Yellowstone had been growing dramatically, and burgeoning populations of sedentary elk were severely overgrazing the native landscape. When wolves started chasing elk, many other changes followed. Willows grew higher and spread more widely, beavers returned and made ponds, riparian-dwelling plants and animals returned including songbirds and trout, elk carrion fed scavengers such as grizzlies and ravens, and coyote populations dropped resulting in more ground squirrels and gophers which in turn fed hawks and eagles.
But even in the face of this less hospitable climate, a surprising thing has happened in the Northern Rockies: wolf tolerance from rural landowners is increasing, and wolf numbers are growing dramatically.
After listening intently to the legitimate concerns of ranchers, the nonprofit group Defenders of Wildlife created a program that compensates ranchers for livestock lost to wolves. Defenders has another program that builds fences, buys guard dogs, and pays for other proactive tools that promote wolf recovery. Given the success of these two programs, a few states (including Colorado) are considering similar incentives.
Gary Wockner is one of fourteen people who is charged with developing a management plan for wolves in Colorado. He’s spent a significant amount of time studying the role wolves will play in our ecosystem, human attitudes about wolves, and wolf conservation programs.