With no movement on policy after years of advocacy to federal and state agencies, supporters of the gray wolf are taking a last stand in Colorado and asking the people to for vote for the predators.

Nearly 25 years after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park amidst a frenzy of controversy, wolf advocates in Colorado continues the fight to reintroduce them here with a tactic that hasn’t been tried elsewhere: Take the question of reintroduction directly to the people on the 2020 ballot. And they think they can win the vote.

“Over the past two decades, poll after poll we’ve conducted statewide has shown strong support—over 60 percent of people— for the reintroduction of wolves. That includes people who live in western Colorado, Republicans, and Democrats—a majority of them, too,” said Rob Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, the political organization gathering signatures this fall to get an initiative to reintroduce gray wolves onto the Colorado ballot. “We know we have the numbers.”

The proposed initiative calls for the state to take steps to begin reintroducing the gray wolf by the end of 2023 on public lands west of the Continental Divide. It requires the state to hold hearings and develop and use a “science-based plan” for reintroduction, and to create a compensation fund for livestock producers who lose animals to depredation. Supporters have until Dec. 13, 2019, to gather more than 124,000 valid signatures to get wolves onto the 2020 ballot.

Gray wolves once numbered in the thousands in Colorado, but government-funded trapping and killing of apex predators, including wolves, throughout the West in the early decades of the 20th century eliminated Canis lupus in the Rockies south of the Canadian border. Though one occasionally wanders through from Wyoming, Colorado hasn’t had documented resident wolves since the early 1940s.

Wildlife biologists say gray wolves are a keystone species whose absence has set ecosystems from the Flattops to Wolf Creek Pass off kilter. The most visible side effect is an overabundance of another animal that once had to be reintroduced to Colorado—the elk. As hunters trawled the mountains and canyons to eradicate wolves and collect government bounties in the early 1900s, Colorado’s elk population was also in danger of disappearing from overhunting. So in 1916, the state brought in 50 elk from Wyoming to “re-establish dwindling herds,” according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife records.

In 2017, CPW reported that Colorado had more than 280,000 elk and, in 2018, it estimated a deer population of 430,000. Wildlife biologists say that’s more than enough prey for both wolves and hunters. They also argue that it could be good for herds that suffer bouts of chronic wasting disease, because wolves cull weak and sick elk and deer.

“Where people don’t kill a lot of wolves, one thing defines their population dynamic: the abundance of food,” said biologist Mike Phillips, who was a project leader for the Yellowstone reintroduction and now serves as a Montana state Senator (D-Bozeman). “It ain’t complicated. There is a boatload of deer and elk in western Colorado.”

But, he added, “Wolves are always about more than just wolves.”

A Political Hot Potato

Phillips and Edward, along with many wildlife biologists and ecologists, have been pushing for wolves in Colorado for years. The state is a gap in the wolf’s range, which extends from Wyoming north to the Arctic and from New Mexico and Arizona southward. Phillips and other supporters are pushing for wolves in Colorado in part to help boost the genetic diversity of the southwest’s meager population of Mexican gray wolves. It would also give loners wandering down from Wyoming looking for love the opportunity to find a pack to join or to start anew.

But the Department of the Interior views the success of reintroductions in the northern Rockies and the Great Lakes region as enough. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, starting in the late 1990s, but Phillips, who was also involved with that effort, said it became clear the agency wasn’t planning on reintroducing wolves in Colorado.

Advocates can’t wait for it to be legislated because politicians won’t touch it, Edward said. “It’s a political hot potato.”

“The politicians are still very cautious of what they do or don’t say about wolves,” said Delia Malone, an ecologist who serves as the wildlife committee chair for the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter. “I’ve seen a shift in the underlying foundation of how people think about science and how people think about taking care of our natural resources. I’ve seen a shift from the concept of dominating the Earth and being conquerors and harnessing all we have into stewardship and caretaking. But the specific willingness to step out there and say yes, we need wolves—I think it might be frightening for some. I can hear and I can feel the change, but the specific phrase, ‘I support wolves,’ I think is a difficult one for many politicians to make.”

With advocacy stymied elsewhere for years, it’s hard to look past the timing of the fresh push for a ballot initiative. A blue wave swept over Colorado in the 2018 election, with Democrats claiming victories across statewide races. But, as the University of Colorado Boulder’s 2018 Colorado Political Climate Survey pointed out, the state’s voters refuse to be pigeonholed. For example, Colorado voters gave Democrats a sweep but they also shot down a rule that would have created bigger setbacks on fracking operations.

Wolf advocates say neither the blue wave nor the steady stream of people moving to the Front Range are factors in the ballot proposal. Edward reiterated that the polling shows that wolves have widespread, bipartisan support across the state, and that advocates have tried all other routes to reintroduction. “It’s happening now because we’ve made sure that we exhausted all other options,” he said.

The first poll advocates cite goes back to the 1990s, when Edward first became involved with fighting for wolves at Sinapu, a Boulder-based nonprofit that advocated for large predators in the West, including gray wolves. (Sinapu merged with Forest Guardians to form Wild Earth Guardians in 2008.) In the meantime, various organizations have run more surveys, and they’ve shown consistent support for wolves, he said.

“The conversation always shapes itself in a Front Range-Western Slope conflict, but our polling data doesn’t support that with this particular issue,” said John Murtaugh, Rockies and Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Sixty-one percent support it on the Western Slope, 68 percent of support from voters with hunters in the household, 64 percent from those who derive their income from ranching or farming.”

Defenders has played a critical role in reintroducing wolves elsewhere in the U.S., including easing the financial sting ranchers felt when they lost livestock. Over the 22 years after the first wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone, Defenders’ compensation fund paid out more than $1.3 million to livestock producers who lost animals to depredation. In 2009, when the federal government started its own compensation fund, the organization switched tactics. It now offers ranchers free workshops and assistance for nonlethal coexistence programs.

In March, Murtaugh was in Walden for a workshop on deterrence practices, which include using range riders since wolves are people-averse, reigniting the herding instinct in cattle and using electrified fence and fladry, lines of brightly colored ribbons or flags that ripple in the breeze and seem to keep wolves at bay.

Walden is the county seat of Jackson County, where a collared Wyoming wolf was caught on video in July. A number of people have seen wolves in Jackson County and other northern counties over the years, including Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

“There are wolves. Ranchers see wolves,” Fankhauser said, even if the association’s members don’t always report them.

A decade ago, one of its members called in a wolf on his ranch in northern Colorado, close to the Wyoming border. “He was feeding cattle on a tractor, and he’d routinely seen a wolf on his feed grounds in the winter, and he sent us a video,” Fankhauser said. “So I went up and saw the wolf.”

Howl at the Vote

The Cattlemen’s Association is opposed to the proposed initiative, and it was involved in the Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission of multiple interest groups that recommended against reintroducing wolves in 2004. (CPW reiterated its recommendations in 2016.) “My suspicion is that voters would trust heavily wildlife officials and trust what they had to say,” if they knew they’d already made a call about wolves, Fankhauser said.

But he worried the simplicity of the ballot language, which contains no nuance about the complexities of reintroducing wolves, would make it seem like a good idea to many voters. “It’ll go to the ballot. It’ll be a yes or no question. There will be little information,” Fankhauser said.

Young voters turned out in surprisingly high numbers for the 2018 election in Colorado. They could be a factor in getting wolves onto the ballot—and whether the wolf gets the vote. Murtaugh said young voters tend to vote on behalf of the environment, but zeroing in on one demographic wouldn’t be helpful for this issue. “I think we do have a lot of opportunity there, that could open up a lot in the future. But with these things, you have to have broad strategies.”

Malone, the Sierra Club ecologist, also teaches at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs and said her students give her hope. “They’re involved, they’re engaged, they’re determined to change this around. And they’re anxious to get out there and vote.

“I believe if we can get it before voters, the wolf is going to win.”