Though elk numbers are alarmingly low in the San Juan Mountains, I am an elk hunter who welcomes the return of wolves to Colorado.
Why would I want to compete for elk meat with another top-tier predator? Some years, I see no wild game and the only thing I cut up with my hunting knife is an orange.
Why would I willingly welcome more competition with elk numbers drastically diminished by habitat fragmentation, disruption by mountain bikers, ATV riders, backcountry skiers and hikers of all sorts? Everyone in Durango plays on public lands. People move here for our outdoor opportunities. Climbers, hikers, bikers and skiers are everywhere in the mountains at all times of the year. Elk, which are private animals preferring quiet meadows and south-facing winter hillsides, are constantly disturbed.
Why add wolves to the mix when there are already hunters galore seeking elk? The 2020 Colorado Big Game Hunting Brochure lists no fewer than six hunting seasons for elk. Archery begins Sept. 2 and goes through Sept. 30. Originally celebrated as using “primitive” technology, now highly mechanized aluminum bows have rifle-like sights and are deadly accurate at many yards. Muzzleloader season goes from Sept. 12 to Sept. 20 and those single-shot rifles are now precision, not primitive, weapons.
First rifle season, with a shell in the chamber and two in the magazine, extends from Oct. 10 to Oct. 14. Elk get a few days off, then second rifle season is from Oct. 24 to Nov. 1. Third rifle season is from Nov. 7 to Nov. 13, and my favorite season, because of climate change, is fourth rifle season, which is also the shortest season, from Nov. 18 Nov. 22, when out-of-state hunters have left and, hopefully, there’s snow on the ground for the sleds I use to pack out meat.
No wonder in our region that there are only 20 elk calves that survive to adulthood born from 100 cow elk. Statistically, at least half the calves should live, not a mere 20%. There is too much stress. Our advanced technologies for hunting and outdoor recreation mean that we are constantly in the backcountry. Elk have no respite. So it is time for wolves. It is time for natural big-game management.
We spent the 20th century manipulating nature. By 1910, commercial hunting had killed all the elk in Colorado. We reintroduced them from Wyoming in 1916 with no legal elk hunting season until 1929. Now in the 21st century, we need to restore an ecological balance.
Why did we kill Colorado’s wolves? Because they were like us – smart, cunning, family-oriented with uncles helping to raise cubs and males and females mating for life. It is not easy to live with a top-tier predator. Their ecological role in diverse ecosystems was not understood. Teddy Roosevelt, who loved to hunt elk, labeled wolves “beasts of waste and desolation.” He did not understand that predators have a role in nature and that they trim prey species like elk and deer to fit the range.
One of the nation’s first ecologists, forester Aldo Leopold, shot a wolf from an Arizona rimrock and later regretted it. In a famous essay titled “Thinking Like a Mountain” from A Sand County Almanac, he wrote, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf ... We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain ... I thought that fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would be a hunter’s paradise.”
He was wrong. Leopold lived long enough to change his views about predators and to become the first writer and proponent of game management, authoring an introductory textbook and teaching classes at the University of Wisconsin. Leopold scholar Susan Flader wrote, “The wolf, as one of the large carnivores, belonged at the very apex of the biotic pyramid ... it became Leopold’s symbol of the pyramid itself ... of land health.” Leopold’s ideas evolved.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is a conflicted agency. On the one hand, its goal is to preserve and protect our state’s wildlife heritage and to encourage programs for watchable wildlife; on the other hand, administrators insist on killing predators when no scientific rationale or extensive peer-reviewed studies prove fewer predators will mean more elk or deer. Ecology is more complicated than that.
As a hunter, I value my time outdoors with friends, getting up before dawn, waiting for first light, trying to spot big game moving in the shadows and waiting for sunrise and a positive identification of the right species and the right sex. I prefer to hunt cow elk because of their flavorful meat. I am not a trophy hunter.
Hunting for me is being outside scanning, looking, using binoculars to scout ridges and developing the patience it takes to wait all day, moving from location to location with my mind empty and my heart open for the gift of wild game. Do I want to share my hunts with wolves? Yes. I want a complete, intact ecosystem. Landscape is as important to me as big game. We have much to learn from wolves, and we have failed to learn their eco-lessons.
This year, CPW is mandating that deer hunters cut off the heads of deer they kill in 89 game-management units across the state. Why? To test for chronic wasting disease. We are required to submit deer heads to a “CPW submission site for testing.” Wolves hunt sick and diseased animals. That is their ecosystem role, and they make prey herds healthier.
CPW has a wolf management plan. It is 16 years out of date, and few staff members have read it. Six or seven times, the plan calls for wolf education, but CPW has yet to have a single education session related to wolf facts and ecology, despite CPW’s mission to “educate and inspire current and future generations to serve as active stewards of Colorado’s natural resources.”
This November, Proposition 114, the Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative, aims to scientifically reintroduce wolves into our state. More than 70% of Coloradans favor the initiative, and as a hunter, I do, too. It is time to restore nature and to allow wolves to play their role in what Leopold called the centuries-old “evolutionary drama.” Will wolves pursue the same elk I hunt? Possibly, but they’ll also make me a better hunter, more wary, more cautious, more connected to the outdoors.
I support Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Its dedicated staff members do a great job with a diminishing budget. After all, there are fewer and fewer hunters. Nobody wants to work as hard as we do for elk hunts, which are marathon events that stretch from dawn to dark as we field-dress our game and pack it out.
Do I want to hear wolf howls when my rifle rests against a tree and I have only a knife in hand, elk carcass disassembled and lying on pine needles? Yes. I seek an intact, wild landscape as part of our state’s precious wildlife heritage. If for a few years, elk numbers remain low, I’ll take that risk, because I believe wolves belong.
Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at email@example.com.