Big Bad Wolf

There was a time when “Little Red Riding Hood” made me shiver, made me pull the covers up over my face so I wouldn’t catch a glimpse of a wolf glaring back at me through the dark window. I’ve outgrown that now, but I still hesitate before venturing into the woods. I remind myself that I’m safe, there aren’t any wolves out there. Humans haven’t left much space untouched for other far-roaming and territorial top predators. But in a few states, wolves are back, and so are those childhood storybook fears.

I saw a wolf for the first time six weeks ago. There are few places in Colorado where this is possible, and they’re most certainly not in the wild. Just like the grizzlies and the buffalos, Americans decimated wolves in their Manifest Destiny-fueled westward expansion. By the mid-20th century, overhunting had driven wolves out of the Rocky Mountains almost entirely. Not until 1974 did the new Endangered Species Act recognize their plight and give a federal mandate to restore them to their native rangelands.

In 1995 and 1996, this act came to fruition when a fleet of trucks dropped off a load of sedated Canadian gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Burly wildlife biologists in steel-toe Timberlands and Carhartts (or so I imagine) fitted each one with a little plastic ear tag, let them loose, and prayed they would like each other enough to copulate.

Wolves are pack animals that require plenty of territory to defend. They hunt together, share the responsibility of raising the alpha female’s pups, and generally depend on their group for survival. Needless to say, you can’t just let loose one or two and expect them to make it. So, they started with 50 and the wolf population took off. Fifty became 200 over the next decade, and that number continues to grow. Due to the return of their natural predators, the grossly inflated Yellowstone elk population decreased, overgrazed vegetation grew back, erosion improved, and waterways became healthier. The BBC produced an inspiring video about it called “How Wolves Change Rivers” that I remember watching in 10th grade biology. Many reintroductions of displaced species end in failure, but this one was a miraculous success.  

Wolves are apex predators (top of the food chain), and historically a staple of the ecology of the American West. Their position at the top of the food chain truly affects the rest of the ecosystem, so taking them out of the picture threw a wrench into the carefully balanced cogs of nature. Colorado State University-based conservation biologist Dr. Barry Noon informed me that it’s easy to tell that vegetation in Colorado is being overgrazed by unchecked elk and deer populations. “Hike anywhere in the Rocky Mountains,” he says, and you’ll see the damaged branches and stunted growth: “all the buck brush, antelope bush, mountain mahogany.”

People like Dr. Noon want to see wolves reintroduced to Colorado. He travels all around the state giving presentations at schools, workplaces, and public venues trying to educate people about the issue. In these efforts, he emphasizes the ample wilderness habitat available, the ecological benefits of wolf reintroduction, and the moral obligation of conservation.

Pro-wolf people like Dr. Noon argue that Colorado has the space. There exist tens of millions of acres of wilderness managed mostly by the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service, not yet reached by sprawling Denver suburbs or luxury ski resorts.

A large contingent of Colorado’s wildlife biologists, conservationists, and activists are on board, but that’s not all it takes. Wolf reintroduction has been met with considerable opposition. At the edges of the deep wildernesses, wolves and humanity mix—cattle graze and people wait at rural bus stops. Unsurprisingly, wolves are making a seriously bad first impression.

David Spady is a media consultant for Americans for Prosperity. This organization claims to “protect the American Dream by fighting each day for lower taxes, less government regulation, and economic prosperity for all.” He’s a self-declared environmentalist, but to be sure, “not the kind that lives in big cities, drives electric cars, and views mankind as a threat to the planet.”

Spady took it upon himself to put together a documentary likening the dangerous and predatory nature of wolves to that of the federal government. His documentary is called “Wolves in Government Clothing” and is aimed at highlighting voices of rural New Mexicans and Arizonans who feel threatened by their newly reintroduced wolf neighbors. One woman swears a wolf held her hostage in her own house.  Another resident puts her kids inside a cage at their school bus stop to keep the wolves out. That’s right—in rural New Mexico, people have constructed cages at bus stops to prevent their kids from being eaten.

“Kid cages” have unsurprisingly become subject to plenty of ridicule in the media. Experts will not hesitate to tell you that they’re completely unnecessary—human children at bus stops are simply not at risk. The very few wolf attacks that have been recorded (mostly in Canada and Alaska) involved sick animals or those that had become accustomed to getting food from humans.

Kid cages aside, the argument over whether or not to restore wolves to their native land is fraught with plenty of other loud and opposing voices. Back in Yellowstone, the plan was that once the wolves reached a population of 150, they would be delisted as an endangered species. Wolves in Wyoming would lose federal protection and would be handed over to state management. The state would continue carefully monitoring the population, but on their own terms. The Man would relinquish his control over Wyoming’s no-longer endangered species, and locals could establish a wolf hunting season.

Tom Toman, from Wyoming, works for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. He tells me that sure, he wants wolves back, they’re part of the North American heritage. However, he doesn’t think Colorado should bring them in artificially—it’s just too politically messy. In Yellowstone, the 150 threshold came and went, and wolves remained federally protected. This really pissed some people off. There was uncertainty as to whether wolves would make deer hunting for humans more difficult. Mostly, though, people didn’t like all the government meddling, seemingly without end. As Toman puts it, these were the moderates, the Wyoming hunting folk that didn’t mind too much in the beginning if the government brought in a few wolves. Yet, when the populations kept rising, “they were saying ‘I don’t mind, but boy, how many do we need?’”

Tensions continued to rise as the government seemingly failed to follow through on its promise to limit wolf populations. Wolves began to spread to the ranchlands on the outskirts of Yellowstone, killing cattle and sheep and generally making themselves more politically unpopular, or at least polarizing.

Environmentalists were thrilled at the success of the new wolf population. The conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife was and is still holding out for 5,000 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Area, and won’t settle for less. But this number is based on historical populations before all the human settlement we have today, so it’s rather optimistic.

Toman says the wolf management choices “put some people into the anti-wolf category that didn’t need to be there.” The moderate Wyomingites who didn’t used to mind their wolf neighbors started to get fed up with the ever-growing wolf presence in their lives.

Sensing this conflict of interest, Toman says Defenders of Wildlife boldly proclaimed that they would compensate ranchers for each and every animal they lost to a wolf, forever. For a while, they actually did. But sometimes you just can’t tell whether your sheep was eaten by a wolf or by a coyote, or whether it just wandered off into oblivion never to be seen again—and why not get the wolf-lovers to pay you for those, too? Dr. Noon informed me that in wolf-occupied states, less than one percent of livestock mortalities are caused by wolves, less than was reported by ranchers to Defenders seeking compensation. After a few years, Defenders of Wildlife stopped paying ranchers, to the outrage of bereaved livestock owners.


Wolf populations have spread from their reintroduction site in Yellowstone and down from vast wildernesses in Canada. They can now be found across several states in the Pacific Northwest, northern Midwest, and a small pocket of New Mexico and Arizona. This is only a fraction of their historic range (which is most of North America) and yet, they’ve already managed to make an outspoken enemy of most of the agricultural sector. Accounts of sheep and cows killed by wolves in states farther north have many Colorado ranchers staunchly opposed to wolf reintroduction, and understandably so. It’s a financial risk threatening their livelihoods and an industry that feeds the nation. But is it, really? Coyotes and dogs kill livestock too, and in many cases, it’s hard to tell who the perpetrator was, according to Dr. Noon. He even makes the argument that wolves might drive down the booming coyote population that’s more likely to hunt low-hanging fruit like sheep.

Shortly after they stopped dishing out sheep compensation to ranchers, Defenders of Wildlife shifted its focus to a program called the Wolf Coexistence Partnership, in which they educate ranchers on learning non-lethal methods of discouraging wolves from picking off their livestock. They started with ranchlands in Idaho’s Wood River Valley, utilizing a cocktail of creative strategies. Cowboy-style range riders, sheep dogs, blaring alarm systems, non-lethal rubber bullets, and good old-fashioned fences. This all reduced the number of wolf kills by 90 percent, and in turn, reduced animosity.

This seems to me like an elegant solution to the conflict between man and wolf, a complex and politicized problem. But so often, what seems like the obvious solution gets lost in our society’s bureaucratic system and reluctance to learn and change. That’s where the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (CPWC) comes in.  

The CPWC is a citizen board appointed by the Governor. They are in charge of policy and ecological management of Colorado state parks. Only two out of 11 members hold even a bachelor’s degree in science. Three of the 11 members actively run ranches and farms in Colorado. This surprised me—they’re in charge of policy that controls all the state parks, shouldn’t they have more experience in ecological management?

“They don’t have to have a degree—a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate in wildlife management. In fact, most [council members] don’t,” says Toman. Incredulous, Dr. Noon poses a question to me over the phone: “Could you imagine having a medical commission in Colorado that didn’t have any nurses or doctors on it?”

I replied that I couldn’t. In researching the commission more closely, I found that they’re accused of being influenced by the oil and gas industry—the chief administrative officer of Xcel Energy himself is on the commission. This sounds dangerously comparable to environmental regulation on a national scale (think about the major oil and gas tycoons Trump has appointed to head the EPA)  and blaringly contradictory. The actions of oil and gas industries generally do not facilitate ideal habitats for wildlife. The worst of it is that the CPWC holds tremendous political power—in 2016, they denied the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado. As of now, wolves are not to be reintroduced artificially, though the decision stipulates that if a wolf happens to wander over 300 miles south of Yellowstone, citizens are encouraged not to shoot it unless it proves troublesome.

Toman assures me that wolves are coming to Colorado on their own, and that we should just butt out of it. I asked Dr. Noon what he thought.

In true scientist form, he laid out his estimate of the exponentially decreasing statistical probability that wolves will recolonize on their own, based on several compounding variables. In a quick, back-of-the-napkin computation, he came up with about a one in 100 chance.

The area south of Yellowstone and the Tetons and north of Colorado wilderness areas could not be described as an ideal wildlife channel. Even in rural Wyoming, there are freeways and human settlements. Oil and gas extraction wells are also increasingly common, operated by so-called ‘man camps’—thousands of workers living together often in dormitory-like housing in the absolute middle of nowhere. “Young men with guns with lots of spare time,” summarizes Dr. Noon. “And what do they like to do with the guns? Shoot things.”

Dr. Noon’s estimate felt pretty convincing to me. The chance of one wolf crossing this expansive and formidable landscape is already slim, and, in order to make it, a wolf would need not only a breeding mate too, but at least repopulate a few other individuals to form a pack so that they could hunt successfully. However, anti-wolf reintroduction advocates continue to tout the argument that wolves are likely to repopulate Colorado on their own as a justification to oppose human-powered reintroduction. They cite the fact that there have been three or four confirmed wolves seen in Colorado (all of which people eventually killed). They also point to many more anecdotal wolf sightings—but these could have easily been misinterpretations of distant coyotes and dogs.

Another argument the commission used to justify their 2016 decision was that a Canis lupis (gray wolf) subspecies, the critically endangered Mexican Gray Wolf, was never historically present in Colorado, and therefore, shouldn’t be brought here now. This begs the question—why don’t we just bring in the northern gray wolf instead, the subspecies that did historically live here?

This claim seems like an obvious hole in their logic. I even asked a CPWC member to clarify their reasoning for me, with no reply. Regardless, Dr. Noon says their argument is based on an insignificant detail—I suspect it’s a diversion tactic by the commission. “Canis lupis, no matter which subspecies, will figure it out,” he says. He emphasizes that it’s also important to consider the fact that the distributions of wildlife species are dynamic, and always have been—basing our management decisions on historical distributions, especially now that we’ve altered the landscape beyond recognition, doesn’t make any sense. “It’s a silly argument,” says Dr. Noon, “It shows a lack of understanding of how ecological systems work.”

The CPWC is supposed to listen to a council of advisory scientists, but it seems like they opted to ignore them on this one. Why? We can only speculate, but I credit the questionable composition of the CPWC with making seemingly uninformed decisions, perhaps motivated by apathy and political pressure rather than conservation goals.

Snow was accumulating fast the day I visited the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center (CWWC) in rural Divide, Colorado. It’s one of the few facilities in the state that keeps captive wolves and offers educational tours to the public. I park my car and bundle up before venturing down the slick driveway to the welcome center. The fox enclosure to my left is complete with a multi-story “fox apartment” and the famed “only fox skyway in America” (and probably anywhere else). The resident fox is plopped like a king on the roof of his house, enormous bushy coat blowing slightly in the breeze, disinterested. There’s ambient music playing, which strikes me as strange. A little farther away, I catch a glimpse of a shaggy white wolf staring back at me. Behind a chain link fence she paces back and forth through the ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. If I tune out the classic rock and squint through the fence, I can almost imagine what she would look like in the wild. 

I take the feeding tour, so I get to watch the wolves eat dinner. The guide walks us past each forest enclosure designed to isolate a pair of wolves that get along amicably. All of them seem thrilled to see her, bounding back and forth behind the fence with mouths open and tongues lolling in wide, canine smiles. Our guide treats them like beloved dogs, cooing softly to each one as she throws them large chunks of raw meat.

Despite the endearing relationship between wolf and human that I witnessed on my tour, the CWWC emphatically discourages taking on wolves as pets. Illegal breeders sell captivatingly adorable wolf and wolf-dog hybrid puppies to people who think they can handle them. When the animal grows up, the owner realizes it is too intelligent and energetic to live a life of complicit domesticity. Approximately 200,000 abandoned young wolf-dogs are euthanized each year in shelters nationwide, according to the CWWC. They don’t belong in your home, they belong in the wild, they emphasized.

On my way out, they asked us to sign a petition in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project to be sent to the CPWC in favor of wolf reintroduction. The woman at the desk told me they were “cautiously optimistic,” though I suspect her display of hopefulness was just for my benefit.

Culturally, many of us are raised to fear wolves. Fairy tales from the European tradition consistently cast wolves as the trickster and the villain: “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Three Little Pigs,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It is no surprise, then, that even after we outgrow our childhood stories, this animal that we so rarely see in person remains ingrained as a symbol of danger for many. This narrative translates to politically outspoken anti-wolf advocacy that doesn’t reflect the science.

“Everyone has a right to their own beliefs and values, but they don’t have a right to their own facts and data,” says Dr. Noon. Real data seems to support that wolves cannot repopulate Colorado on their own. Kids are not in danger of being eaten at bus stops. Farmers can take measures to protect their livestock from the landscape’s natural predators. Wolves are extremely important to maintaining a balanced and healthy ecosystem. People opposed to coexisting with wolves seem to be using whatever anecdotal evidence suits their argument best. And without any experts on the CPWC (Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission), Colorado’s policy is based on this extreme viewpoint, which happens to have some of the loudest and most influential voices. How can we expect to make an informed decision without first reforming the system in charge?

Dr. Noon wanted to tell me one more thing that was on his mind. Not speaking as a scientist, just as a fellow human being. He pointed to the large Christian demographic in Colorado. “I don’t know how you can espouse a belief in creation and then pick and choose amongst the creatures, which ones you will tolerate and which ones you won’t,” he said. “How does it seem appropriate to be so hateful and so intolerant of one of this being’s most wonderful and complex and behaviorally sophisticated creations?”

 wolf | February 2019