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Wolf-pack report raises doubts, fears

March 2, 2010

[Source: Nancy Lofholm for The Denver Post]

Wolf advocates are celebrating the return of wolves to Colorado after biologists for a recreational ranch northwest of here recently announced a pack may have taken up residence.

But that same prospect has sparked fear in neighboring ranchers and outfitters.

It has also generated a lot of skepticism from ranchers and wildlife experts.

“I have ridden that area and hunted lions in that area, and I have not seen any signs nor have I heard them at night,” said outfitter and ranch hand Brian Bivins, who previously lived in wolf country in Idaho and saw many wolves there.

“I think the biologist lady just wants them to be there.”

That biologist is Cristina Eisenberg, a conservation biologist and author who lives in the wolf country of Montana.

She was hired by the 300-square-mile High Lonesome Ranch where the wolves supposedly live. It is she and her crew who found the 15 samples of suspected wolf scat and several wolf tracks.

It was enough evidence for wolf advocates to put out the proverbial welcome mat for a predator that was killed off in Colorado 70 years ago.

But it has left the skeptics asking if wolves truly have made a home in Colorado again. Or are pro-wolf biologists and a ranch owner who are bent on biodiversity being overly enthusiastic?

Motive questioned

A few neighboring ranchers are even questioning whether it might be a publicity stunt on what they call “a rich man’s play resort” — accusations ranch president, CEO and chairman of the High Lonesome board Paul Vahldiek Jr. denies.

“It isn’t about publicity for me,” said Vahldiek, a Houston trial attorney who owns or co-owns other ranches in Colorado and Texas and an island in the Bahamas. “I’m just kind of the guy who found this out. I didn’t do anything to bring it on.”

Regardless of whether more than the occasional lone wolf has arrived in Colorado, the possibility has prompted strong reactions from disparate sides.

Wolf advocates say wolves will improve the state’s ecological balance and even its economy: Visitors flock to Yellowstone National Park to try to spot the animals.

Those who make their living ranching or guiding hunters see wolves as damaging predators that will change those traditional livelihoods. They know that if a pack gets established on the High Lonesome, they’ll soon have wolves too. Wolves are known to roam hundreds of miles.

And that’s where some of the doubts lie.

“I’d have to see a lot more proof than I’m seeing. If there was a pack up there, you’d darn sure know it,” said Bob Prather, who has lived in the area for a lifetime and daily drives roads near the High Lonesome for an oil and gas company.

Ed Bangs, the national wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he doesn’t believe a full-fledged pack could exist without some sign of depredation on wildlife or livestock. Wolf hair would be found on fences and trees. Wolves would cross paths with humans. And at this time of year — their mating season — they would howl a lot.

The High Lonesome is counting on DNA tests of the scat to prove there are multiple wolves on the ranch. Samples have been sent to a lab in California, and the results are expected this spring. Bangs said that won’t provide irrevocable truth. It may show there are escaped or released wolf hybrids in the area. Or the scat could prove to be from wild wolves that have come and gone.

“Wolves will not let you ignore them for long,” Bangs said. “If there is a wolf pack there, we will know without a doubt.”

Six ranchers and two outfitters who work lands around the High Lonesome say it isn’t inconceivable that wolves would settle down in sparsely populated northwestern Colorado where healthy populations of elk, deer and wild turkeys, a herd of wild horses and a lot of livestock would provide plenty of sustenance.

But except for a few lone wanderers in past years, they haven’t seen any sign of them.

“People don’t understand they are not just big, fluffy animals. They are devastating,” said Joe Latham, a rancher who five years ago moved to Colorado from Wyoming where the state’s 319 wolves are suspected of killing more than 200 cattle and sheep last year.

Tom Latham, a cousin of Joe Latham’s, reiterated that as he checked on wobbly newborn calves on some of his winter range near De Beque.

He’ll soon be moving his herd to summer range within 5 miles of the High Lonesome, and he’s worried, even though he has doubts about the wolf claims.

“You take this 70-pound calf,” he said, pointing to a spindly animal, “and a . . . wolf, and you can see what would happen.”

Strong reactions

That fear of wolves is most apparent in one southern New Mexico county where local officials have built cages at bus stops for children to wait in if wolves are spotted in the area.

But Wendy Keefover-Ring with WildEarth Guardian said those type of reactions are an example of over-the-top, anti-wolf factions trying to make wolves look bad.

Her organization already is heralding the purported return of wolves to Colorado in online announcements that treat it as a done deal.

WildEarth is urging Coloradans to “celebrate their (the wolves’) return to their ancestral homeland.”

“Let’s bring out the welcome mat,” reads a form letter the group is urging wolf advocates to send to Gov. Bill Ritter.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are standing by. They haven’t been invited to the ranch to view any of the possible evidence.

“It (a wolf pack) is probably not likely, given what we know now,” said Al Pfister, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Grand Junction.

Bangs said he has investigated hundreds of other reports of wolf packs that did not pan out. He said the suspicions and angst occurring now over what may or may not be a wolf pack are normal, because wolves always spark high emotions.

“It really has nothing to do with wolves. It has to do with wolves as symbols,” Bangs said. “That symbolism gets so weird.”

Bivins said symbolism aside — and beyond the current High Lonesome hype or truth — Colorado eventually will be wolf country and wolves will be protected here as an endangered species. He just hopes it isn’t now.

“This isn’t just a De Beque or a western Colorado problem. It will affect everyone in the state,” he said. “They will be over the Continental Divide in no time.”


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