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Want to manage wolves in the West? How you do that depends on where you’re standing

A gray wolf walks by some trees in the snow.
Matt McCollum
Flickr Creative Commons
Gray wolves are listed as federally endangered in much of the country, but are under state control in parts of the Mountain West.

The Little Snake River crosses the Wyoming-Colorado border at least a dozen times on its westward journey. The river valley is agricultural, with goats, sheep and cattle grazing next to tiny school houses and churches.

“We don’t notice that there’s a border between Wyoming and Colorado here. We’re neighbors up and down this border,” said Bob Davis, a local rancher and Wyoming state lawmaker.

No matter what state you’re in, Davis said stock growers need to be prepared to handle predators, including gray wolves. His son recently bought some 190-pound dogs to protect a herd of sheep.

“You go to the store and you buy a sack of dog food for Fido. Well, we buy a pallet for the sheepdogs,” Davis said. “We [also] do check our herds more often, especially if we hear of a sighting that's fairly close. This year, there was a couple, and they were a little closer than what I thought they should be.”

If a wolf gets too close and Davis is standing in Wyoming, he can shoot it without a license. In most of the state, gray wolves are considered “predatory animals,” and can be legally harvested.

“If a wolf crosses the border into Wyoming, it's no different than if we crossed…into Mexico or vice versa into Canada. There's different rules. Different laws. And so if there's a wolf that is on the Wyoming side, he is fair game,” he said.

A map of wolf management in Wyoming.
Courtesy of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department
A map of wolf management in Wyoming.

In Colorado, meanwhile, the species is protected under state and federal endangered species laws. Killing a wolf can lead to a criminal investigation, fines up to $100,000 and jail time. Humans defending themselves – or ranchers defending their herds – work with the state parks and wildlife department to investigate the situation.

How western states manage gray wolves can stir controversy, especially now as Colorado prepares to reintroduce the animal. Wolves can benefit ecosystems, but they’re also sometimes a headache for rural ranching communities.

Wolves are already here 

The species has already migrated to Colorado – likely across Wyoming on a journey from Yellowstone – over the past few decades. Packs have been spotted in a number of counties along the border. Most notably, the North Park community near Walden has dealt for years with wolves killing pets or livestock.

“I know they're there because I've seen the damage that they've created,” said Philip Anderson, a North Park rancher and former head of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “It definitely gives you a fear of what could happen.”

Later this year, Colorado plans to reintroduce wolves along the Interstate 70 corridor near Vail. Wolves can travel as much as 30 miles in a day or more, so they may have an impact in other parts of the region.

Anderson worries that herds established in the center of the state, or traveling from Wyoming, will make their way to North Park. So, he and his neighbors have tried deterrents, such as guard dogs and donkeys, propane cannons and different types of fences.

“We continually work on trying to make the ranching business pay for itself so that we can continue to live. We don't get paid every month,” Anderson said. “When you see the pictures or you see animals that have been depredated on – or crippled because of depredation – it makes you wonder about your bottom line.”

Areas of potential wolf reintroduction in Colorado. The state is supposed to place them at least 60 miles from state and tribal borders.
Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Areas of potential wolf reintroduction in Colorado. The state is supposed to place them at least 60 miles from state and tribal borders.

Colorado recently created a fund to compensate ranchers who lose livestock to wolves. But Anderson said applying can be cumbersome and the money is not always worth the effort. What he wants is a policy like Wyoming’s – where lethal control is accepted.

He understands that wolves can be helpful for keeping the number of elk and other animals in check. But he adds, “I can't see them introduced without some ability to control them for stockgrowers…And we wonder sometimes why we have to try to reinvent the wheel in Colorado because we don't have to.”

Federal officials say they’ll allow some “lethal take” of wolves harassing livestock – subject to evidence submitted to wildlife agents.

The environmentalists’ perspective 

Some environmental groups are concerned about lethal control, especially on public lands. Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said ranchers should be allowed to kill wolves only in extremely rare cases.

“It's important to distinguish between natural losses that take place on public lands…and should be part of the cost of doing business from some sense of the illegitimate losses," he said. “And we think that the [Colorado] wolf plan is going to need a revision to prevent conflicts and strengthen protections for wolves.”

Wolf predation against sheep and cattle accounts for less than one percent of income losses for ranchers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Robinson said the animal – which inhabited the West for thousands of years – is beneficial for ecosystems because it controls other wildlife populations.

“At this point, the livestock industry needs to compromise with a public interest in restoring these beautiful, social, intelligent animals to play their vital ecological role in the forest, in the canyons [and] in the grasslands of western Colorado,” he said.

But how the wolf is managed in Wyoming could play a role in the Colorado population’s health. Pups have been killed over the border, and Robinson said that threatens conservation and re-establishment efforts. He’s advocating for the Cowboy State to loosen its laws, or for the gray wolf to return to the endangered species list there.

“The Center for Biological Diversity is working to restore the protections that wolves lost in Wyoming because of the terrible persecution that wolves are undergoing in Wyoming, as well as Montana and Idaho,” he said.

The Little Snake River Valley in Colorado and Wyoming.
Will Walkey
The Mountain West News Bureau
The Little Snake River Valley in Colorado and Wyoming.

Looking across the pond 

The Wyoming-Colorado border will continue to be a flash point during reintroduction efforts. States like Utah and some tribal communities have expressed concern over wolves migrating into their territories, too.

That mirrors controversies in Europe, according to University of Wyoming law professor Temple Stoellinger. Thousands of wolves live in Italy, and they sometimes migrate to France, Switzerland or Austria.

“So there's a lot of border dynamics with carnivore and wolf management in particular in Europe right now. And there's different levels of social tolerance,” Stoellinger said. “So there's a greater tolerance it seems in Italy for carnivores, and a lot of scholars are speculating that's because wolves never left the landscape in Italy.”

As wolf populations grow across the pond, some question whether it should remain protected under Europe’s version of the Endangered Species Act – called the habitats directive.

“We're all dealing with similar problems,” Stoellinger said. “And if we can just expand the conversation and use dialogue as an opportunity to learn from each other. [We can] learn from both what's worked and what hasn't worked as a way to find solutions moving forward.”

Stoellinger said an increased human presence around herds is a great way to scare away predators. Better financial compensation plans and the faster removal of carcasses from ranches can also help, as can defenses like better fencing and guard animals.

Either way, as wolves recover throughout the world, conflicts, debates and controversies are inevitable. And lines on a map will always be flashpoints between communities with differing viewpoints.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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