This article is part of our ongoing series Wolves in Colorado: Science & Stories, a special five-part virtual presentation of the Institute for Science & Policy and Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources, in partnership with the Center for Collaborative Conservation, the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, CSU Extension, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Watch the full recording of the session and explore the episode archive.
In the third episode of our ongoing series about wolf reintroduction in Colorado, the Institute’s Senior Policy Advisor Kristan Uhlenbrock and Center for Collaborative Conservation Director John Sanderson chatted with Bill Fales, a rancher in Colorado’s Crystal River Valley, and Jonathan Proctor, Program Director of the Rockies and Plains Program for Defenders of Wildlife to discuss their hopes and concerns, lingering challenges with Colorado’s land and animals, and a path forward.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Watch the full recording of the session.
JOHN SANDERSON: Part of our mission here at the Center for Collaborative Conservation is to help people figure out how to work through conservation challenges for both nature and people. Our goal is not to tell you how to vote on Proposition 114, but we hope that what you will hear today will help you make an informed decision. I feel honored to welcome our guests tonight, and I'm grateful for their willingness to show up for this important public dialogue. Both of them are leaders in their communities. Both of them are passionate conservationists, and both are skilled at a rare art, and that is the art of being simultaneously candid about what they believe is important, while at the same time being respectful to others who may not hold their views
Bill Fales, our first guest, is a rancher on Colorado's western slope. Almost 50 years ago Bill was living on an island in Maine when he decided to heed Horace Greeley’s advice and head west where he met his wife Marj. Bill and Marj work together taking care of their land and livestock, and they stay involved in their community. Welcome, Bill. And Jonathan Proctor is the director of the Rockies and Plains program for the Defenders of Wildlife. Jonathan's worked on wildlife and conservation for 30 years in the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, and Pacific Northwest, helping to restore and conserve some of the region's most imperiled species, including wolves. Jonathan and his team at Defenders are currently working on Proposition 114 to reintroduce wolves to Colorado, as well as working with landowners to reduce conflicts with wolves, and many other species across the region. Welcome Jonathan.
BILL FALES: Thanks John, and Jonathan, I look forward to talking about wolves with you. I came to this ranch 48 years ago. It's been in my wife's family since 1924. I love ranching because it keeps me outside always. I'm producing food now. I like working on open lands. Our small mountain ranch is dependent on public land grazing to make our operation feasible. But what I’m afraid that some people don't realize is that wildlife is dependent on our private land for a lot of their habitat needs during the year. Knowing how important private land ranchers are for Colorado has led me to work hard for land trusts in Colorado. Every acre we own is under a conservation easement.
My concern with 114 is that the debate over the reintroduction of wolves has been framed as a choice between restoring the balance or being afraid for the safety of our cattle, our pets, and humans. But that's not the question we should be asking. The debate should be: what could we gain by bringing wolves back, or what could we lose. What specific biological outcomes are we hoping for? We need to do the science and it hasn't been done yet. We need that before voting to identify potential problems or positive outcomes to replace the science with a ballot box initiative. I don't think makes any sense. It's just not the way to do wildlife management.
As ranchers, we're facing a lot of challenges today. That’s partly due to our marketing structure, but climate change, drought, development pressures, and a rapidly increasing population. What impact will wolves have on us? Often, the easy answer is to look at Yellowstone. But Colorado is not Yellowstone, and using it to guide us is like going to the orthopedic surgeon when you have a bad heart. It's not logical. Yellowstone's a huge block of public land, and the national park is around five millions of acres of forest service land in Colorado. Our public land is all intermingled with private land. There's no one solid block. And so, that worries me. Ecologically, Yellowstone is mostly conifer forest. I think that historically it was only a maximum of 4-6% aspens and willows, whereas in Colorado, we have millions of acres of aspen trees. It's a totally different ecosystem.
Yellowstone hadn't allowed hunting since 1894, the elk were out of control. But hunting is an important part of Colorado's economy and provides subsistence food for a lot of people. And it's a method, a tool for managing our elk and deer herds. Yellowstone had an overpopulation of elk and they were decimating the landscape. There's no debate about that. Jonathan, I’m sure, would agree on that. But in Colorado, too many elk herds from Glenwood Springs to Aspen have unsustainable cow calf ratios. What I mean by that is CPW - Colorado Parks and Wildlife - their managers, their biologists are aiming to get 45 to 50 cows for every hundred cows. Right now, it's in the low 20s, and they've started a huge, big study right here in the valley trying to find out why. There's a lot of reasons. It's loss of habitat, stress from recreation, and probably too many predators - bears and lions being our main ones.
This morning, I was out irrigating in daylight and there were 12 cow elk in my field. There was not a single calf with them. Last month, when we were riding on our forest permit, we ran into a group of 20, they had one calf. They have to recruit replacements, and they're not getting it done.
Additionally, Montana has a population of a million and a half people. Wyoming has a mere 500,000. Colorado has 5.8 million and is rapidly expanding. You know, they say, bringing back wolves will restore the balance. But I'm not sure what that means. We can't go back to the 1800s. Do we tell people who have moved here since 1800 to go away so we can go back to the balance? You know, we don't have true wilderness, I don't think, in our Colorado public lands. Recreation is a dominant force, forcing the wildlife down on to public lands. I said I had the elk here this morning. We never used to, but there's so much recreation on the public lands that the elk have moved down. And when they move down, the wolves, being classic predator, will follow their prey. I fear there'll be a lot of conflict.
114 doesn't really address financial implications. It says the commission will pay some for some losses, but it doesn't say where that money comes from. Right now, probably because of COVID, the Colorado legislature is dealing with a $3.3 billion deficit, and they've cut money from schools and roads. Where do we cut, and where do wolves fall in that priority? Before voting to reintroduce wolves, I think we need science to identify what ecological problems we have that wolves could fix. And if we identify the problem, are there any other less controversial tools that we could use to fix those problems?
Much as I would like to return to the good old days, we can't turn the clock back. We're moving forward. Bringing wolves back will do some things, but they won't solve our serious climate change problems or drought or huge population growth. You know, the one place that I do see where they might help is in Rocky Mountain National Park, where the elk have overgrazed. But if it's on the Front Range, and the ballot initiative specifically says wolves must be introduced on the West slope. So, I just have a lot of problems with it.
JS: Thanks, Bill, for sharing your perspective. Jonathan, over to you.
JONATHAN PROCTOR: Thank you again for inviting me to speak and like to thank Bill and Marj for the significant amount of conservation work they've done in Colorado over the years. That benefits all of us. I'm Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife. We have about 35,000 members and supporters in Colorado and about 1.8 million nationwide. I manage our staff of seven in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. And we focus in this region on conserving the most imperiled wildlife of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains regions. Some of those species include black footed ferrets, wolverines, native trout, grizzly bears, sage grouse, wild bison, swift fox, and definitely wolves.
Why do we support Proposition 114? Bottom line is: reintroducing wolves to Colorado will help restore the natural balance, and peer reviewed science makes clear that the wolf is a keystone species that is essential to the health of our environment. The last wolf in Colorado was killed in 1945, and the elimination of wolves in Colorado has thrown off the natural balance. It's caused unintended consequences and changes to plants and animals.
Restoring the wolves will improve our environment in many ways. First, restoring wolves is important in its own right and it will increase biodiversity. Wolves are a native, but missing, species to the state. So restoring them for their own right is important, but it will also cause changes throughout the web of life, the process we commonly call trophic cascades.
Just a few examples: it will cause elk to act like elk have always acted in the presence of their main predator, moving around the landscape more than they do in the absence of wolves. That will help reduce the overgrazing of plants by elk in streams and ponds. That improves the habitat for songbirds, beavers, amphibians, fish, all sorts of species. It will also reduce coyote populations, which have dramatically increased in the absence of wolves, and fewer coyotes mean more small mammals, which could in turn can increase raptors and foxes. And finally, many species feed off of wolf kills from the remains. There certainly are a whole lot more we don't even know about.
And I know there's skepticism about the level to which these changes will occur. And I agree. It depends on how many wolves, and over how long a period of time. But there is no doubt from the scientific community that will restoration will in fact cause changes that will trend toward a restored balance. It's just a question of how much. Wolves can be more dense in some areas and far less dense or even absent in other areas, and the changes will depend on those different factors. But the bottom line is this: We owe it to current and future generations to restore Colorado's natural balance by bringing back wolves through a responsible science-based plan, and Coloradans have made clear in polling throughout the last 20 years that there is strong bipartisan statewide support for wolves.
Many people, including myself, have tried over that time to have this conversation with Colorado's politicians and with the politically appointed Wildlife Commission. We've been shut down every time over 20 years. So now, we're taking the politicians out of the picture and we're asking Colorado voters directly if they would like to reintroduce wolves to our state.
I was asked to add personal reasons why this issue matters to me. So I'll just speak a little bit from a personal perspective. I've been working in wildlife and wildlife conservation in the western US since 1990, when I was fresh out of college. I got into this line of work for a reason. Our planet is experiencing a biodiversity crisis. In my lifetime, we've seen tremendous loss in 50 years. We've lost 68% of the Earth's mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians. 68% in just in 50 years. Humans and their livestock now make up 96% of all mammal biomass on Earth. All wild mammals combined are now just 4%. This is a crisis.
But we've also made progress. Here in Colorado, much of the wildlife was killed off in the 1800s and early 1900s. Wolves, beaver, bighorn sheep, lynx, massive herds of bison, even almost all of the elk were eliminated. But we've learned that that was a mistake, and over time we've reintroduced or restored many of these species to Colorado. And, you know, it's something for all Coloradans to be proud of. There are still opportunities for restoring biodiversity and the balance we've lost. And it's time to add the gray wolf back.
Just one other real quick, personal note. I lived in Montana during the wolf reintroduction 25 years ago to the Northern Rockies in Yellowstone, in central Idaho. I was a wilderness ranger on the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park for eight years. I was lucky enough to witness the changes from the reintroduction and yes, that's anecdotal, but it was incredible. From what I personally saw, we can have these benefits here in the southern Rockies as well in the Northern Rockies. With that, I'll stop. Thanks.
KRISTAN UHLENBROCK: In our first episode, we had Dr. Kevin Crooks talk a little bit about the idea of complex ecosystems, how to wolves fit in there. And he did say that he thought that wolves are not likely solely responsible for those massive ecosystem changes that were documented in Yellowstone, based on that reintroduction. It's really unclear how those impacts kind of translate to systems, outside the National Park in and of itself. I'm wondering if you could just reflect a little bit more on that terminology, “the balance of nature.” Given that ecosystems are really complex, there's a lot of uncertainty.
JP: Well first of all, scientists are very confident that we can restore wolves to Colorado. It's very easy. It did not take a lot of effort in either central Idaho or Yellowstone. Merely get some wolves, bring them down, let them out. It didn't even take very many - 15 in each of those two locations for two years, so about 30 wolves per spot. And they planned to release more, but they didn't need to do it. They just needed a few to get packs formed and populations going.
Colorado has more elk than any other state in the country, around 280,000. Other Northern Rockies states have maybe 125,000 or so each. Plus, Colorado has a lot of public lands, and they look different, yes, but there's 17 million acres of public lands in western Colorado ripe for wolf reintroduction. The human density is actually, when you compare the Northern Rockies to the Southern Rockies where the wolves will live, is almost identical. It's about 12 people per square mile. The Southern Rockies is smaller than the Northern Rockies eco-region but maybe it's about two thirds of the size or so. But the human density in that area is the same. So, you know, Boise, Spokane, Idaho Falls…those are not in the area where wolves will live, and nor is Denver, of course. But in that area, the density is about the same.
In addition, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming have low human population, but there's also Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico all having wolf reintroduction, or restoration on their own. And they have equal to, or higher, populations than Colorado. But that's not really what matters. What matters is the density and the habitat and the food source. So, the balance of nature is, yes, a basic term. Absolutely. But, how else do you explain these very complex interactions? Balancing of nature is shorthand. And, yeah, that means different things to different people, but I do want to be clear: it will mean more changes and interactions in areas with more wolves over longer times, and fewer in other areas with fewer wolves or no wolves. So Colorado certainly will not be uniform, just like the Northern Rockies.
BF: A lot of comments on that, Jonathan. I agree completely with you that we are in a biodiversity crisis. I'm just afraid wolves will make them worse, because they'll force the private land ranchers out, and you'll lose that incredibly important habitat. We share the goal, we differ on the tools. You know, you say - and I understand your frustration of working with a Wildlife Commission - but you say we've decided to take the politicians out of the equation, and go directly to the voters. My problem is that is a Wildlife Commission has a huge staff of wildlife biologists and area managers who are on the ground every day. And you're correct: four times, the Wildlife Commission has looked at it with advice from their professional biologists and wildlife managers and four times they have said, it doesn't make sense to bring wolves to Colorado.
I don't know how we figure all the different facts. But you say the population density is similar between the Northern Rockies and here in Colorado. But Yellowstone has 40,000 back country campers a year and 4 million visitors, but most of them go through the campground. Out in the backcountry, they have 40,000 backcountry visitors a year. The Maroon Bells Wilderness, which adjoins our land, is 1/12th the size of Yellowstone. But we have 120,000 day hikers and 27,000 campers. We have a much higher human density. And I think that that will lead to problems. So, you're absolutely right. It doesn't take much to reintroduce wolves. They have large litters and their population grows really fast. And that's what scares me. I agree with you. It's simple, but dealing with the problems, I think, is not so simple.
JS: I want to kind of dive into this shared value that that you have both expressed. An issue that is core here that I know you are both familiar with is compensation. The ballot proposition says specifically that livestock owners will be compensated for losses. I think one of the questions is, should that compensation help alleviate some of the economic challenges that you worry about for private landowners?
BF: Yeah, sure. I think the ballot initiative specifically says for losses of livestock. So I had one problem right off the start. If we have a certified kill, they may pay for it. But they will not pay, as I understand it, for reduced pregnancy rate in our cows, or lower weight gain in all our animals, and we sell by the pound. So, when your calves weigh 15 pounds less, that makes a big difference and there's our profit right there.
Watching the first presentation with Kevin Crooks and Stuart Breck, you know, they showed the process of the professional from Wildlife Services coming out to confirm if this calf had been killed by wolf. The pickup was parked about 30 feet from where the calf was killed in their presentation. I’ve got 50,000 acres of forest service permit. Most of it, it would be illegal to drive to. The other day I was riding and I think I rode for 10 hours and I doubt there was more than 15 minutes where I could see more than 100 feet around me. So we have two problems there. First is to find the dead animal before the bears do and obliterate the evidence. And second, if we've gone to go do some work on the forest, move some cattle fix some fence, whatever it is, we have to abandon and lose an entire day because we have to turn around and ride back out for a couple hours. Go find where we can get cell service, call Fish and Wildlife to come take them back in before the bears decimate the carcass - and they don't last long with our huge bear population. I think in some states, they pay seven times the value of each confirmed kill, because of so many unconfirmed kills as well as reduced weight gain and lower pregnancy rate, and then your cattle act differently when they've been harassed by predators.
JS: Jonathan, can you share a little bit of your experience with compensation programs, what you've seen that works to alleviate conflict, and where you see remaining challenges?
JP: First of all, compensation is not perfect by any means. It does not reflect all impacts. The state of Colorado will determine how it wants to do a compensation program. That will be up to the public, who has the opportunity to weigh in. And we hope that we can have good conversations about how we can do the best job for compensation and conflict prevention to prevent losses in the first place in Colorado, we can do better than any other state, because we have all the knowledge from all these other states to build on. So I look forward to that, whether the ballot initiative passes or not. There are a few wolves - it's questionable how many - in the very far northwest corner of Colorado. Let's start working together now on how to build the best program to address the real and legitimate concerns of ranchers towards impacts from wolves.
Having said that, though, I will say based on the Northern Rockies reintroduction effort, we now have 25 years of data from wildlife agencies, state livestock agencies, the livestock loss boards. They kill on average per year, about 1/100th of 1% of the livestock that live in those counties. If we compare the number of livestock in western Colorado and we assume that the rate will be similar - yes, it's an assumption, but ballpark - we're talking about 40 cattle per year. Yes, it will be very different each year. Some years, zero. Some years, 100. But very few ranchers will ever have a direct loss from wolves. Very few ranchers will even see wolves. It's not like they're super abundant. They roam a very large landscape. But if you're a rancher that has a loss from a wolf, yes, that's real. And that's serious. That's reason number one for the compensation program. Defenders started the compensation program, actually, in 1987 before wolf reintroduction even occurred. And we kept it going until we turned it over to the states in 2012. I used to actually help pay compensation in Montana. We also helped with federal funding so now we have actually federal funding to assist states with compensation and proactive projects. That's where this gets much more interesting and beneficial.
How can we help landowners and livestock owners prevent losses before they happen? There's no silver bullet. But there are techniques that have been shown to be effective. They take more time, money and energy, so groups like ours and many others are pitching in. We have spent collectively millions on both compensation and proactive projects. And Bill, I hear what you're saying: you have remote land and livestock out there and probably there will be losses that we won't know what they're from, whether they're wolves or black bears or mountain lions or whatever. But in other states, they do pay 50% of probable losses. Once again, Colorado can set up the project and the methods that Colorado wants.
But we work with several ranchers around the West and personally I've worked with some ranchers in Montana and Alberta. I feel uncomfortable saying this, because I'm not a rancher, but seeing their operations, visiting with them it’s quite impressive that they live on lands that are so remote. One ranch is right on the edge of Yellowstone and they have more wolves and grizzlies than almost any other place in the lower 48. And through years of trying different techniques and different efforts, they have reduced their losses to all causes, down to a number extremely low compared to the average. And the other ranchers that I've gone to with that, they're just amazed. And they also do low stress livestock handling, so that the livestock are incredibly calm and not prone to scare. In fact, they have video of wolves going right by their herds and there is not even flinching. I’ll admit again that I’m not a rancher. But I am hopeful that we can help continue to experiment, explore, and learn ways to reduce losses, not just to wolves but to the predators we already have in Colorado. Because we absolutely do not want to harm the ranchers in Colorado. That is not our goal. Our goal is to help restore biodiversity and wildlife.
KU: Could you speak to the wolf issue in the context of certain us-versus-them mentalities between urban and rural? Bill was talking about the potential of the increasing population that we already have and is expected to grow with the coming years.
BF: I just want to respond real briefly to Jonathan about some of the avoidance strategies. We've talked to people who go out in daylight and gather their cattle off the river bottoms where there’s woody vegetation and where wolves can sneak up on them and move them out into big open parts. We simply don't have that type of country, we don't have big open parts on our terrain.
JP: I’ve been working with the media for a long time on a lot of different issues and often in the media you get these portrayals that are very black and white, this extreme versus that extreme. And yes, those some people are on those extremes and yes, wolves can mean something far more than just wolves for some people. It can mean control and authority and the use of public lands and whether cattle should be on public lands at all or not and all sorts of things.
But I resist trying to portray it that way because everybody's different and everybody has different opinions. There are some environmentalists that are against restoring wolves and there are some ranchers that are for restoring wolves. There are people in the middle with varying thoughts about this issue. And scientists have different thoughts. Land managers have different thoughts. There's a huge range of perspectives on the issue of the wolf and what it means.
So yes, I think some people put a lot more weight on the wolf than just the wolf, and it's about bigger things. I don't think it has to be. It's not that black and white. It's a very mixed issue. For me, it is about the wolf restoring a native species, restoring biodiversity, and the web of life and the impacts that wolves have all through that web of life. Is it about for me trying to control public lands or eliminate ranching? Absolutely not.
JS: Bill I wonder if you can speak a little bit to the difference of perception if they arrive on their own versus if they're reintroduced.
BF: I'm not sure I can speak for the ag community. To me, a wolf is a wolf. It doesn't really matter if Jonathan brought it down his pickup or if it came down itself. It's still gonna act like a wolf and I don't care. There are definitely kind of legal complications one way or another. But I don't see that as a huge difference. And, you know, I think the ag community may have said that we are against reintroduction because that is something that you can work politically on to prevent or allow. If they come themselves, that's not something that human actions really influence.
I guess for me personally, if they are reintroduced and maim or shred a bunch of my cows, I have someone to blame. If they came by themselves, I can only blame a wolf and that doesn't go very far.
JP: I definitely have heard often that some people who are against wolf reintroduction would accept it more if they did it on their own. I've heard that for years in the Northern Rockies, for example, and this anger that the government brought them. Once again, I think it's overblown by the media that all ranchers think that. I think some do. I think some environmentalists probably think the same. And then there's a lot of in the middle.
But what I will say is the opposition has done polling and they found that their top messaging to convince people to vote no is to say that wolves are already here and that this is a waste of money and time. We don't need to do this. Vote no. They know that that's what the polling has shown. They also know that it is incredibly unlikely that the wolves that are here will lead to a permanent population. They know, as well as we do, and the scientists, that the maybe 3 to 5 wolves in this group in the very northwest corner of Colorado is highly unlikely to lead to a permanent population, because they're related. They are a related group. Three of them were most likely shot this summer, when they crossed back into Wyoming where 85% of the state is open to unlimited killing of wolves. That pack is literally on the border. They are so close to the border that we're talking a few hundred yards, and they go back and forth, so that pack could be eliminated immediately just via shooting in Wyoming.
But even if it's not, we need enough wolves that they can pair up, form packs, have young and lead to a population. That is virtually impossible because of Wyoming's management. In the last 25 years, at least six wolves have made it that we know of and that has not led to a population. As excited as we are about those wolves, and we absolutely want them to stay, the best way we can have them to stay is to reintroduce just a few more to allow for a population.
KU: I'm wondering if you both could speak to common values and how you recommend folks work together in the conservation community.
BF: The first ingredient is honesty. We should be totally honest and also listen to the other side. In listening to some of these other webinars, there have been some statements that wolves are the most studied predator in the world. But I think what's lacking from that is a study specifically to Colorado. And we hear that they’re going to restore the balance, but our elk population is already suffering. They took the moose population from 3000 down to 500 when wolves came back in. We need to identify where thee specific problems are, where the problems of elk overgrazing is. More Colorado specific research is something that we really need.
JP: I absolutely agree, honesty is the first step. You have to have honesty. Colorado State University did put together a two day meeting last year, and 30-some people got together for two days from very different perspectives. Ranchers, environmentalists, tribes, all sorts of different perspectives to talk about this contentious issue. I found that very, very beneficial because it started relationship building, and that there are people who absolutely don't want to do that. Well, okay, fine, but there are a lot of people who do and we can find solutions and ways forward.
Plus, I really do think regardless of the ballot initiative, we have opportunities to move forward together to try to achieve our goals and our needs in mutually beneficial ways. I have seen it in Montana and Alberta and Idaho, with livestock and cattle and sheep and wolves. We have an opportunity to move forward because of these conversations and I hope we do.
JS: If there's one bit of evidence or one bit of advice that you would offer our listeners about what they can do to keep Colorado, as beautiful and as welcoming to nature and wildlife and people as it is, what would it be?
BF: Well, my facetious one is to move away. But that's not very nice, because I would have to, too. I think it would be to educate yourself. I mean, if I look at an ad for an adorable wolf cuc, and that's all I know, I probably vote for 114. I would say to educate yourself to all the facets and all the ramifications of what it might mean. And that would be true on most ballot initiatives. I don't like ballot initiatives because it doesn't give a chance for debate like Jonathan and I are having, or legislative given take. It's just one side that comes together and puts their wish list on it and hires people that stand outside the supermarkets in Denver and gets enough signatures to put it on the ballot. But you eliminate any deliberative process. And so I think that almost all issues are better served by a deliberative legislature. That may be a Pollyanna statement, but I don't think ballot initiatives are the way to move forward.
JP: There are so many threats to the environment, like water diversions, development, all sorts of things. Which is why I'm so appreciative to Bill and Marj for the conservation they've done. I would have to actually say: vote. And I'm not talking about the ballot issue. I'm talking about voting for politicians who care about our environment and wildlife because there are so many issues that we have to face right now. And there are different opinions among politicians, so that's what I would say it's about.
BF: I'd second that. Jonathan. It is really critical to vote this fall.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.