DENVER — For thousands of Americans, wolves are the preeminent symbol of all that is wild, free, and majestic. Federal efforts to reintroduce gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park have garnered praise from citizens, wildlife conservationists, and biologists alike. And now the wheels are in motion for returning wolves to regions throughout the nation.
But even as wolf advocates bask in the early success of programs to reestablish the endangered canis lupis in North America, questions remain regarding humans' long-term willingness to tolerate wild creatures in their midst. Increasingly, as population and development make a greater mark on America's wide-open spaces, wilderness is not so isolated a place. And experts say that in coming years, the line between inhabited and wilderness areas will become fainter still.
For wolves, this prediction already heralds trouble. Despite current proposals to reintroduce wolves to the Southwest, Northeast, Pacific West, and southern Rockies, objections loom. Landowners aren't convinced that inviting wolves into their backyards is wise. (Although wolves don't attack humans, they don't grant domestic pets the same courtesy.) Ranchers fear loss of livestock.
And hunting enthusiasts worry that deer and elk populations will dwindle. Even wildlife managers question the necessity of returning wolves to more than a fraction of their historic range.
Wolves roamed much of the continent for thousands of years, but were nearly extinct in the lower 48 states when the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973. The federal government, shifting from a historic policy of posting bounties on wild wolves, abruptly began to protect the species.
Today, there are an estimated 2,000 wolves in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and another 300 in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming - transplanted from Canada, as part of the Yellowstone wolf program. Although many states arguably have the prey base to sustain wolf populations, they have yet to lay out the welcome mat.
"The question is, what is the level of social tolerance for wolves?" asks Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "Wolves could live in a lot of areas, but do people want to deal with all the issues associated with wolves - that wolves kill livestock and pets, that they may conflict with hunting programs, that rangers or ranchers will have to kill some wolves?" Not surprisingly, he adds, "The people who support wolf reintroduction the most are the people who don't have to deal with the problems."
But members of Sinapu - a Colorado organization seeking to return wolves to the southern Rockies - believe the benefits of restoring wolf populations far outweigh the negatives. "We're looking at putting back the pieces of Colorado wildlife," says Rob Edward, program director for the grass-roots group, which takes its name from the Ute word for wolves. "As predators, wolves play a critical role in the ecosystem," translating to stronger gene pools and less overpopulation, he says. "There are all these ripple effects in the ecosystem. If you're doing the right thing for wolves, then you've covered the bases for protection of a number of other species."
Nevertheless, the Colorado Division of Wildlife is no champion of wolf reintroduction. "Although many wildlife managers like the idea of returning species to their natural habitat, it's not necessarily a practical thing to do right now," says Todd Malmsbury, DOW spokesman. Taxpayers have already spent $5 million to return wolves to Yellowstone, he notes. "There are a lot of species we're concerned about in Colorado - even if they're not as 'charismatic' as the wolf. Spending over $5 million on one species is probably not the best bang for our buck."
Wolves do attract revenue, however, says Kent Weber, director of Mission: Wolf, a wolf sanctuary in Colorado's Sangre De Cristo Mountains. "Yellowstone is earning an additional $22 million in annual income from people who come hoping to get a glimpse of wolves."
Still, it's unclear whether Colorado retains enough isolated habitat for wolf recovery. In 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that Colorado wilderness could support as many as 1,000 wolves. But since that time, development has continued to encroach into wilderness areas.
The San Juan Mountains, comprising a wilderness area of 2 million acres, is a case in point: A few years ago, this territory was deemed prime for wolf recovery.
Today, it is prime territory for developers. "Subdivisions are going in there all the time, and prices have more than doubled," says Mr. Malmsbury. The new residents apparently aren't so wildlife savvy, either. Malmsbury tells the story of a woman who recently called the DOW in a panic. "There's a bear in my backyard!" she exclaimed. The ranger who took her call carefully responded, "That's funny, I just got a call from a bear who said, 'There's a house in my front yard.'"
Transplanted city folk aren't the only ones leery of predators. The Colorado Cattleman's Association, the Colorado Wool Growers Association, and the Farm Bureau all oppose reintroducing wolves to the state. "We believe there are enough wolves in other areas," maintains Todd Inglee of the Cattleman's Association.
"We feel it's very unfair of people in the city to say rural areas are a good place to put wolves. That's fine for someone in Denver to say; but our producers here would have to shoulder the burden of that decision." But for Sinapu's Edward, the debate goes deeper than whether wolves should be returned to Colorado soil. "We're talking about restoring an entire ecosystem, and protecting wildlife habitat for the long-term." The real question, he believes, is whether shrinking wilderness areas will be preserved, or developed for human activities - including logging, mining, and cattle grazing. "That's how the battle is shaping up," he says. "It's a battle for the soul of the West"