In Colorado, we have 12 streams named Wolf Creek, yet officially, we have no wolves in our state.
A reprint of a rare book helps to explain the loss of Colorado’s wolves, and the Durango Wolf Symposium at Fort Lewis College will provide diverse perspectives on wolf ecology. Join us on campus Nov. 29 for the two-day event.
Arthur Carhart’s book, “The Last Stand of the Pack” (1929), describes in grim detail the struggle to pursue and kill the last Colorado wolves ranging in the wild in the 1920s. Across the West, the same predator mania continued. The frontier had officially ended in 1890, and the last vestiges of wilderness had to be cleansed of their large predators, especially the feared, gray timber wolves, which may once have numbered in the thousands in Colorado.
“The Last Stand of the Pack” is now back in print, published by the University Press of Colorado in a critical edition edited by me and Tom Wolf. All of Carhart’s original words are there, and we added new essays on the eco-possibilities of wolf re-introduction.
HHHThe Bureau of Biological Survey claimed to have killed Colorado’s last wolf in 1935. Scholar Michael Robinson believed the date was 1945 in Conejos County. Either way, it has been decades since Colorado’s mountains have heard the full-throated howls of a wolf pack on a moonlit night, but that may be changing. Single wolves are returning to their former habitat and a breeding pair may meet in the next decade.
With raw words, sparing no blood, Carhart described the last wolves killed in Colorado. This was nature writing at its best. Carhart made clear the economic losses suffered by ranchers and their visceral animosity toward wolves. Always on the run, harassing livestock because of the depletion in game, the last wolves had names like Old Lefty from Eagle County, the Phantom Wolf near Fruita, the Greenhorn Wolf south of Pueblo, the Unaweep Wolf from Unaweep Canyon, Big Foot at DeBeque, Old Whitey near Trinidad and Rags the Digger at Cathedral Bluffs in Rio Blanco County.
Wolves harassed livestock because wild game populations had dramatically dropped. Most of Colorado’s elk had been shot and killed by market hunters, who were paid 10 cents a pound for elk, deer and antelope. Today’s elk herds evolved from elk transplanted from Montana and Wyoming. The state’s elk herds are doing fine, but there are rising fears of chronic wasting disease. How to combat the disease? Introduce gray wolves to cull the weak, the young and the sick. Wolves can help restore our Colorado ecosystems. As a deer and elk hunter, I want wolves back.
No one knows how wolves will fit into the Colorado landscape, but many of us are waiting to find out. A survey conducted by Colorado State University found that 73 percent of Coloradans, most living on the Front Range, support wolves in Colorado, and 20 percent do not. Obviously, that 20 percent includes ranchers who have a different perspective, but that’s all the more reason to begin a dialogue on wolves.
HHHSo if wolves are coming back to Colorado, coming down from Yellowstone National Park only to be killed along Interstate 70, why not help them out? Why not reintroduce wolves?
Three times, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission has passed resolutions opposing reintroduction of wolves to the state. They did it in 1982, 1989 and 2016. Perhaps it’s time to revisit that important decision. If wolves arrive on their own, we’ll have to live with where they appear. If wolves are introduced, there can be more flexibility on where they live and certainly more planning.
Wolf reintroduction into Colorado will take time and patience. Folks who would never normally speak to each other – because they wear different hats, different footwear, drive different vehicles and support different causes – will have to sit at the same table and share their values, their thoughts, their hopes for their families, as well as their future.
With 5.5 million people, Colorado is essentially an urban state with suburban sprawl on the Front Range and less than 250,000 people on the Western Slope where wolves would be introduced. Why not restore our full complement? We’ll probably never have grizzly bears back in Colorado. They take too much territory and live at elevations that we do, but wolves – I think we could adjust. I think we could learn to accommodate ourselves to another top-tier predator besides ourselves. But I admit, as a Colorado wildlife biologist told me, “More hearts have to be won.”
HHHWolves are part of our Western wildlife heritage. Learning to live again with them in the Rocky Mountains may be one of our most important 21st-century lessons in ecology and humility. We killed wolves with poisons, traps and guns. Arthur Carhart came to realize the pervasive power of industrialized death.
A year after publishing “The Last Stand of the Pack,” Carhart questioned co-author Stanley P. Young whether exterminating wolves “to please squawking stockmen” could be justified. “Isn’t it a just consideration that the cats and wolves and coyotes have a damn sight better basic right to live in the hills and have use of that part of the world as their own than the domestic livestock of the stockmen?” he asserted. Carhart, father of the wilderness idea, wanted wild creatures in wild places.
What would Carhart think of wolves returning to Colorado? As a wilderness advocate, a “wilderness prophet” in the words of author Tom Wolf, Carhart surely would have seen the connection between wild landscapes and canis lupus. As a hunter and a sportsman interested in healthy big-game populations, he probably could have come to learn what Lewis and Clark understood and what Aldo Leopold tried to teach – that wolves have their place. I hunt wildlife, and I agree – wolves belong.
At the Durango Wolf Symposium, guest speakers will include Michael Philips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, and Carter Niemeyer, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services employee who personally went to Canada to bring wolves to Yellowstone. We’ll host other experts, including local rancher Tom Compton, who believes, “The development of sound public policy requires careful consideration of all aspects of an issue, paying particular attention to the potential for unintended consequences.”
Northern Rockies rancher Joe Engelhart manages a large cattle operation where there are active predators. He will give a talk called “Ranching with Wolves and Other Predators: A True-Life Story.” “There is nothing to be learned or gained from a dead wolf, but we can learn a great deal about sharing the landscape with them by first being willing to understand them,” he says.
University of Colorado-Denver professor Diana Tomback will speak at the symposia. She argues, “There are compelling practical reasons for restoring the gray wolf to Colorado. The ‘balance of nature’ is not just a poetic catch phrase; it refers to a real ecological state.”
HHHI tell my FLC students that wolves are coming home to Colorado. Hopefully, in my lifetime; certainly, in theirs. We need them back. We need to hear their howls on moonlit nights deep in the Weminuche Wilderness or high on the Flattops on Colorado’s Western Slope. Gray shadows should leave paw prints in snow beneath dark trees. Maybe wolves will even return to their old haunts where Carhart wrote about them in Unaweep Canyon, on the Book Cliffs, along Huerfano Creek, beside the Purgatoire.
Wolf recovery in Colorado will be a grand experiment. I wish Arthur Carhart were alive to write about it. He’d love to record the cycle of ecological change and humans foregoing hubris for humility. “The Last Stand of the Pack” is a valuable historical account. Now in the 21st century, we should turn a new page and allow a top-tier predator to bring balance back to our ecosystems.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.