Why Wolves Now?
We’ve gotten a glimpse of different sides of the wolf reintroduction debate. Some people believe that ethically, it's time to return wolves to their native range now instead of waiting to see if they naturally migrate into the state. Others see reintroducing wolves as the only way to get them back because they don’t think the natural migration of sufficient numbers is possible. Still others view wolves as a way to restore the health of ecosystems. Reintroducing wolves to Colorado is a complex multi-sided issue that requires weighing the many potential costs and benefits.
Why consider bringing wolves back?
John Emerick is an ecologist and writer who has researched Rocky Mountain National Park. Here he discusses the ecological impacts that wolf extermination had on the park's ecosystem.
Wolves are native to ecosystems across our continent. Thousands used to roam much of North America, but by the mid-1900’s, they had been hunted to extinction throughout most of their range excluding Minnesota. Wolf recovery did not happen on a larger scale until wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995¹. After reintroduction, wolves began to expand outwards from the park into Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, and later to Oregon, Washington, and northern California. The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, is recovering in a limited range of New Mexico and Arizona². Colorado represents the last link of wolf habitat in the Rocky Mountains. Connecting the northern and southern ranges could increase genetic diversity and strengthen the health of wolf packs throughout the Rocky Mountains, making their chances of survival much higher³. Scientists believe wolves will naturally recolonize Colorado on their own, but this will take a lot longer than reintroducing them⁴.
Wolves’ role as a top predator has always been an important component of their native ecosystems. Scientists have learned that wolf removal in the 1900’s had negative effects on the places they inhabited. Wolves keep elk and deer populations in check and prevent overgrazing of willow and aspen in riparian areas. When wolves were exterminated, overgrazing occurred, causing growth of these plants to be suppressed. A lot of Colorado’s western riparian areas are under stress⁵ ⁶. When healthy, these ecosystems provide benefits to humans like helping buffer against floods and drought, providing habitat for wildlife, increasing local biodiversity, and keeping nearby ecosystems healthy⁷. Scientists believe that reintroducing wolves could be one piece of the puzzle in helping to restore the health of these riparian areas.