Episode 3

July 27, 2023


Restoring Landscapes and Relations in Colorado

Hosted by

International Wildlife Coexistence Network Josh Adler
Restoring Landscapes and Relations in Colorado
For the Wild Ones
Restoring Landscapes and Relations in Colorado

Jul 27 2023 | 00:37:30


Show Notes

A discussion of wolf reintroduction efforts and challenges in Colorado. Discover why wolves provide essential value to the biodiversity of landscapes.


Featuring Delia Malone - An ecologist at the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, as well as the wildlife chair for the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club and vice chair of Roaring Fork Audubon. 


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Episode Transcript

Host 00:00:03 This is for the Wild ones brought to you by the International Wildlife Coexistence Network. I'm your host, Josh Adler. Thanks for joining us. Be sure to check wildlife coexistence.org for updates on campaigns, webinars, and other ways to help support human wildlife coexistence around the world. Our guest this episode is Delia Malone. She's the wildlife chair for the Sierra Club's Colorado chapter, and an ecologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University. You were telling me about where you live and why it's, it's significant for wolves. Guest 00:00:55 So I live in a town called Redstone, and Redstone is about 40 miles from the very robust and bustling town of Aspen. And, uh, it is near to one of the first places that wools will be reintroduced to Colorado. And given the landscape and giving the, given the really healthy elk and deer populations, we will likely see wolves here very soon. Host 00:01:24 How soon is very soon? Guest 00:01:25 Well, the reintroductions won't happen until the end of this year, 2023. And depending on how quickly they move and disperse, I would say within a year. Host 00:01:38 Where are the wolves coming from? Guest 00:01:41 Well, that is yet to be determined, but somewhere from the Northern Rockies, there are ongoing discussions about exactly which state, likely either Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho. And given that most of, well, all of those states aren't hugely tolerant of wolves, they should be, uh, jumping for joy to actually get rid of some of them, and we would be delighted to take them. Host 00:02:10 Are your fellow Coloradoans jumping for joy <laugh> to receive the wolves? Guest 00:02:15 Uh, it depends on who you ask. Uh, if you were paying attention to the 2020 campaign, the state is about the, or at least the population in the state is about evenly divided. We won the campaign to reintroduce wolves to Colorado, really just by a few 10,000 people. So not everyone is thrilled. And where I live on the West Slope, I live in, uh, the, the county that we're in is Pitkin County and one of the only few counties that whose, whose vote was the majority to reintroduce wolves, most counties on the west slope. The vote was, um, not necessarily overwhelming, but at least the majority of the people in the county did not in, in the other counties, did not vote to reelect wolves. Host 00:03:15 In terms of why the western slope may be more divided on wolf free introduction, what would account for that? Guest 00:03:25 Well, Colorado's West Slope is primarily number one. It's primarily composed of public land versus the front range, which is primarily private land. And on those public lands upwards, depending on the county that you're looking at, and depending on the, the management district, whether it's BLM or forest service, the majority, well over 80% of those public lands are used for livestock grazing. And the practice in the west and in Colorado for livestock grazing is primarily to turn your livestock out onto the public lands in the late spring as Bri Greenup occurs. And, uh, basically leave them fairly unsupervised throughout the summer season and then come back in, oh, depending on the weather, September, late September, to collect them and bring them back to private lands where they're, they are then fed, uh, the hay that's been growing on those private lands during the summer. So most of Colorado's west slope has livestock grazing. If livestock are not supervised, which the vast majority are not, then they are vulnerable to predation by our native carnivores. Right now, mountain lions, coyotes, bears all take livestock that are unsupervised. Host 00:05:01 Are, are there alternatives to leaving livestock unsupervised on, on the landscape? Are there alternative management methods? Guest 00:05:09 Absolutely. And that's key to preventing losses to carnivores, not only wolves. We lose a tremendous number of livestock to the carnivores that already are on the landscape. So prevention methods, you know, the simplest, most straightforward prevention method is to have humans present in the form of range riders. Wolves have learned to be fearful of us, and when we are present, they avoid us. So having a range rider with your cattle, having a herder with your sheep, livestock guardian dogs all are very effective in preventing losses to wolves, bears, lions, coyotes. So if we take a step back a hundred or so years, the primary reason for the almost complete extrication of our native carnivores was that the, was the recognition that if they didn't, if there were no carnivores on the landscape, then there would be no need for cowboys or cowgirls or herders, and the ranchers could just turn their livestock out and let them graze at will. Guest 00:06:34 Well, that resulted in the loss of almost all wolves from the lower 48 and the extrication of the loss of almost all lions. Coyotes were more resilient and almost all bears, which have made us something of a comeback. But still our carnivore populations are vastly below what historic levels were with science. We recognize that those carnivores have an essential value, uh, an important need to restoring the rest of biological diversity. So there is a compromise and a compromise that works, that is implementing appropriate livestock coexistence measures which have been proven to be successful in preventing losses to carnivores. Host 00:07:32 And maybe you can speak a little bit more to what happened to the ecosystems as the spectrum of predators disappeared. Guest 00:07:43 Sure, of course. And we're just beginning to recognize that because the historic view was that, and you know, kind of our guru of conservation biology, although Leopold even was complicit in this notion that no carnivores was beneficial because no carnivores meant huge deer populations and huge elk populations. And what he came to recognize is that the deer populations and elk populations and bighorn are all in need of healthy carnivore populations. So what we began to see was the explosion of elk and deer populations, which of course is what the hunting community wanted to see, because with expanding deer and elk populations, their hunting opportunities also expanded. But the landscape didn't have the same view. The landscapes, the vegetation, the plants, the soils, the foundation of the ecosystem did not have the same view as the human hunting population. What we see on the landscape when elk and deer and bighorn and pronghorn populations are excessive is we see the degradation of plants. We see the loss of soils, we see streams being down cut because that streamside vegetation is absolutely essential to stable streams. And when we see the streams being down cut, what we see is the surrounding uplands, uh, start to become dried out and degraded. We see the loss of vegetation, we see the loss of other animal species, the birds, the insects, the fish that would've been, would've been in those streams. We see a downward spiral of degradation Host 00:10:00 Given the benefits of large carnivores to providing healthy ecosystems, ensuring healthy, healthy ecosystems. How does Colorado plan to help livestock producers and hunters balance the needs of restoration with their livelihoods and recreational practices? Guest 00:10:23 That's a really important question. Important and the essence of how we steward the native biological diversity on the landscape. And I really don't like to use the concept, don't like to go into the concept of managing wildlife. Really the only living critter that we can manage is ourselves livestock. We can manage livestock, we can't manage wildlife. They are trying to do the best that we can. I think that we need to change the paradigm of management to one of stewardship taken care of. If we look at how Colorado currently views and manages or stewards our native carnivores, we take a view that carnivores must be managed. In other words, they must be killed to keep their populations in check. And if we use that same paradigm for wolf stewardship, we'll not succeed. We need to step back and say that for wolves to have any effect in Colorado regarding restoration of biological diversity and restoration of ecosystem processes, we need to have a robust population of wolves. Guest 00:12:01 They need to be well distributed across the landscape and those that population must be intact, family groups must be protected. It's the family group, the family social structure of wolves that makes them an effective ecosystem engineer. It makes them an effective ecosystem. Keystone species, wolves are not adept by themselves as individuals at taking down elk. They need their family. And what we've seen in the northern rocky states, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, sometimes Washington and Oregon, is that those family groups have been disrupted and disturbed by human persecution, hunting and trapping and breaking up those family groups. Those family groups are essential for wolves to be successful in Colorado. Currently in Colorado, what we see is that cougars are hunted, coyotes are killed, bears are hunted. And if we can continue that, that viewpoint, that carnivores need to be managed, that their populations need to be controlled by us, we will fail Carnivores, you know, from from the time they evolved tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago, managed themselves. They take care of, and wolves are especially good at keeping their populations in balance with the available food resource. They don't need us to manage their populations for them. That is a fundamental misunderstanding, uh, in the current Colorado Wolf management plan. Host 00:14:11 Can you talk about that more in terms of how Colorado's plan relies on lethal control of wolves and why that is ineffective based on other, other states and, and other re reintroduction cases? Guest 00:14:28 Well, I need to step back to the original language in Proposition one 14. Uh, now, state statute 33 2 1 0 5 8, 1 of the primary reasons stated in that proposition for reintroducing bowls was to restore a natural balance and again, for that natural balance to be restored, which we know when we, when we look at places where wolves are protected from human hunting and trapping, uh, Yellowstone National Park, Algonquin National Park, Denali, places where wolves are protected, we see the effect that they can have. No, Colorado is not Yellowstone National Park, but it could be, and that is the vision that we had, that wolves would be protected in Colorado from the human persecution. For that to happen, wolf families must be intact. We must have a robust population of wolves. Currently, the, the, the final management plan states that when wolves reach a population of 55 0 and cons, poor consecutive years, wolves will be downgraded from endangered to a listing of threatened. Guest 00:15:56 When there are only 150 wolves in Colorado for two consecutive years, they will be removed from protective status or 200 wolves in Colorado, uh, anywhere, not well dispersed anywhere in Colorado for any time period, even if there's 200 wolves in one year, then they will be removed from protected status. What the science tells us is that there must be at least 750 wolves for there to be a self-sustaining, genetically viable population in Colorado. So removing wolves from protected status when there's only 150 wolves in Colorado almost assures that we will never reach a sufficiently robust population that is effective in restoring and natural ecological balance. Host 00:16:59 How did this plan get approved? Why is this the plan that Colorado is moving forward with based on a, a lot of available science? This doesn't sound like the best available science, Guest 00:17:11 This is not the best available science and contrary to prop one 14, uh, which directs that best available science be used to steward our wolf population, it is a huge question. How did this happen? I I just wanna back up and say also that prop one 14 directs that wolves are stewarded as a nongame species. In other words, they are not to be considered included in the hunting as mountain lions are. The final management plan does not, uh, clearly state that wolves will be managed as a non-game species in perpetuity. It states that when wolves are delisted, when protections are removed at just 150 wolves or 200, that that consideration for hunting can be reconsidered. So there is not a, not a definitive response to Proposition one 14, which folks that voted for Prop one 14 specifically stated that wolves would not be managed, that their desire was that wolves be not managed as a, not as a game species in Colorado. Guest 00:18:38 So how did this happen? How did we get from this really good statute to the implementation? Well, as in most western states, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the, the bureaucracy that manages wolves manages our wildlife and they undertook a to develop a management plan that was based on developing what's called the Stakeholder advisory group, which was a group of folks that they appointed that was to be representative of the population, their Colorado population. And they appointed a technical working group that was comprised of supposed to be comprised of biologists that were knowledgeable about, uh, wolf biology and wolf ecology from the northern rocky states. Again, those people were appointed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. So what we ended up with in the stakeholder advisory group was a group of citizens heavily weighted towards the livestock and hunting interests. So there were many, uh, on the technical working group that were and are supportive of lethal management of wolves. Guest 00:20:08 Interestingly enough, the technical working group meetings were not open to the public. They were held privately. And so there was no public input to those meetings. I believe that if different members of the livestock industry had been chosen, and if different members of the hunting industry had been chosen, there could have been a better outcome. Not every rancher is has one perspective. Not every hunter has this singular perspective that carnivores need to be managed. Not every livestock producer has the perspective that the only good wolf is a dead wolf. The members that were chosen by CPW in my opinion after listening for hours and hours and many of these meetings, was that the members that were chosen, that were selected were very narrow in their view. It didn't have to be that way. So the, the foundation for the draft and final wolf management plan was heavily weighted towards the livestock and hunting industries in Colorado. Host 00:21:37 Do lethal controls serve their interests? Does that approach towards wolf stewardship serve the interest of the livestock and hunting communities? Guest 00:21:48 Really interesting question. In fact, lethal control in the science has been shown to be ineffective. Typically, the ones that we remove, the typically the ones that are killed are the adults in the family. And those adults, because the adults are out there first, they're the head, they're, they're out there with their family groups and they're first in line. And of course those are the ones that hunters wanna shoot because they're the biggest and they're the the boldest. And what ends up happening is that the young are left behind. And those young haven't often yet learned how to hunt natural prey like elk. Not only is the physical aspect of the family needed, the learning is lost. The young often turn to taking down livestock, which are much easier. So maintaining the family group, maintaining the physical presence of the adults, maintaining the learning that is passed on from generation to generation of wolf families is essential in preventing livestock depredations by wolves because they learn how to take down native prey. Guest 00:23:17 They don't learn how to take down or turn to livestock. In fact, kind of interesting, there's a lot of science out there that documents that wolves prefer native elk and deer over cow cattle. I think a really illustrative story about wolf learning and the incredible essential value of maintaining wolf families is with Gordon Haber, who has passed away. He was a wolf biologist up in Denali and he documents, um, the pack of rolls that had learned how to hunt doll. She, when that pack of wolves was lost to trappers who had set their traps just outside of Denali National Park, that learning of how to hunt doll sheep was also lost. So what these wolves would do in brief is doll sheep, if like our bighorn in Colorado live on steep mountain slopes that is generally free of vegetation, it's shunra of vegetation, so low vegetation and they're pretty impervious to wolf hunting because they can see the wolves coming towards them because there's very little vegetation. Guest 00:24:44 So they get to higher ground up on the rocks where the wolves can't get to them. So how in the world are wolves going to make a living off of hunting doll sheep? Well, as Gordon Haber describes it, what the wolves would do would the family would split up and half of the family would run up the hill towards dol sheet. The other half of the family would go to around the mountain and go to the base of the mountain on the other side. And as the w as the wolves on one side would be running up, the doll sheep would run up the mountain and down the other side where the other half of the wolf family would be waiting for them. This habit of hunting doll sheep was passed on from generation to generation for several numerous generations. With the trapping out of that family of wolves, that learning of how to hunt doll sheep and survive was lost. And um, as far as I know, that behavior has not been, um, regained in the wolves of Denali. Host 00:25:59 Super fascinating story as well as just a beautiful example of natural intelligence and evolutionary uh, behavior. Guest 00:26:11 In about 1940 or so, Adolf Uri was hired by, uh, I'm not sure what the Alaska game and fish department was called in the 1940s, but they hired Adolf Uri to go out and proof that wolves were having a harmful impact on dol sheep to try to justify wiping out wolves in Alaska. And what he came back with instead was that wolves were having a salutary impact on the doll sheep population by removing the sick and the weak, just as they do on elk populations and as they did on bison populations when we still had b bison roaming in the west. Host 00:27:01 How would you hope to see the wolf management or stewardship plan in Colorado improve or improved and where would you hope to see Colorado's wolf population and relationship with humans on the landscape in the next five or 10 years? Guest 00:27:25 Thank you for that question. As working ecologist, as field ecologist, I'm the almost every day for five months out, and I've witnessed for the last 25 to 30 years that our relationship with the natural world has not been one of stewardship. And that is my hope, my vision for Colorado is that we can have a restorative relationship with the natural world that we can and we know how to coexist. Importantly, one of the factors that's missing from the Wolf Management plan in my view, is the requirement for implementation of coexistence strategies. There is no requirement for livestock producers on public land to implement known effective coexistence strategies. We know it can be done, we know how to do it. It's much easier in the short run to turn your cows out and just let them graze the streamside vegetation, the grasses to oblivion. The idea that that is conservation is disputed, is undermined by the dramatic decline in our native biological diversity in our birds, in our wildlife. Guest 00:29:10 I was just out in the western tier counties for the last 10 days and all we see is a sea of cheatgrass where once there were thousands of prong horde, now there's one or two. And that is a direct legacy of inappropriate livestock grazing. It can happen differently. We can graze livestock differently to support biological diversity, but it can't happen the way it's happening now. It has to be different. We can implement these coexistent strategies so that gray wolves and mountain lions and coyotes can all be on the landscape in thriving robust populations along with livestock, but not the way livestock cows and sheep are now managed in Colorado. There is a lot of peer pressure to do it the old way. There is on the other hand, um, and there, there is money dollars appropriated by the general assembly in Colorado and by, uh, various statutes that have been passed that provide the funding for the implementation of these practices, which initially will be more expensive absolutely. But there is huge support for, from the environmental community and from the legislature. The Colorado legislature, the funding is there. I think the, the hurdle is that first rancher that steps out and is an example to the rest that doesn't continue with the historic. We've always done it this way. Why change now sort of behavior. So getting that first rancher to change and to be vocal about that change, I believe is going to be the biggest step. And I think after that others will realize that this benefits everyone. Host 00:31:40 It seems like actually a healthy landscape can support a bigger wolf population. That the richness of the landscape can be measured by how many wolves it can keep healthy. That a landscape with 50 wolves, a population of 50 wolves is not nearly able to carry the same kind of value as one that has 700 wolves, let's say. Guest 00:32:10 That's a great way to look at evaluating just how healthy the landscape is. Conversely, in the Colorado Wolf current final management plan, c PW uses the number of ungulates as a measure of ecosystem health and even says in the management plan that if the elk population is seen to decline in a certain data analysis unit and wolves are, and I'm using the word that they use, suspected of causing that decline, then wolves can be lethally managed, in other words, killed the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which is about the same area as the west slope of Colorado. The greater Yellowstone supports a total of about, I'm, I'm gonna say about 350,000 deer and elk and it supports about 500 wolves Colorado. The west slope of Colorado has 309,000 elk and about 400,000 deer. And the management plan wants to take protections away from wolves when there's only 150 wolves. Guest 00:33:49 If we look at the various elk management units in Colorado, about half of them, they are over the capacity of the area to support those elk. One of the reasons given for the decline in deer is the overabundance of elk. So elk are not a good surrogate for the health of landscape, in fact, quite the opposite. Whereas wolves, because they do balance their populations with the resources available, are a good surrogate for healthy landscapes. So if we can get a wolf population a minimum of seven 50 wolves, we can start to see some recovery of our land and of the balance between the ungulates and the vegetation. What Host 00:34:47 Can your fellow coloradoans who care about these issues do to help or get involved? Guest 00:34:53 I think everyone or most folks know what's going on. Um, the slaughter of carnivores up in the Northern Rockies, legislators seem to be, um, going down this path of rejecting the science and embracing anecdote. So in Colorado we need to have ongoing and I hope everyone becomes involved. We continue to outreach to all age people with regard to the science, the science and the education of that. Uh, not just to schools, but to legislators and getting involved in the legislation, uh, ensuring that we don't end up with bad bills in our Colorado statutes is essential. Host 00:35:49 Thank you so much for all your efforts. Thank you for sharing your stories and your insights as well as your wisdom. Guest 00:35:58 You know, it was a pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity to engage people and to keep them engaged in a new vision of our relationship with the natural world, particularly with wolves, particularly with their families and maintaining their protection. I look forward to the day when everyone can hear wolves howl through the rocky mountains of Colorado. Host 00:36:33 I can hear it. I can hear it now. Me too. It's coming. It's Guest 00:36:36 Gone. Host 00:36:42 Thanks for listening to our interview with Field Ecologist Delia Malone and thanks to Delia for making time to speak with us. This is for the Wild Ones brought to you by the International Wildlife Coexistence Network. On our next episode, we try to crack the code on some barnyard crimes that are often wrongly blamed on the usual suspects of large carnivores like mountain lions, wolves, or bears. And we'll also dig into common misperceptions around coexistence practices.

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