Published: Feb. 24, 2021 By

Banner image: A white wolf walks through the trees, as seen through a fence. (Credit: Dan Stahler, National Park Service) 

In November 2020, Colorado citizens voted on Proposition 114: a ballot initiative to reintroduce gray wolves to the state by the end of 2023. Out of 3.1 million votes cast, it passed by a margin of 57,000. This means gray wolves will soon officially reside in Colorado for the first time since the 1940s, when they were eradicated from the state. 

Joanna Lambert, professor of environmental studies, served as a science advisor on the ballot initiative. She studies wild animals in remote places such as coyotes in Yellowstone National Park and also how wild animals adapt to human dominated landscapes. CU Boulder Today spoke with Lambert about what Proposition 114 could mean in the next few years for Colorado. 

What did the ballot initiative set into motion? 

Proposition 114 calls for gray wolves to be restored and managed in Colorado using the best scientific data possible. It includes a mandate for statewide hearings and public input . It also provides for assistance to livestock owners for preventing and resolving conflict with wolves, including paying fair compensation for any losses that they incur due to wolves. There are a number of elements that are still in discussion, but the timeline explicitly stated in the ballot itself is that we would have “paws on the ground” no later than December 31 of 2023. 

Who is in charge of this process? 

All of this is now within the hands of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Biologists and scientists on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff will be carrying out the science and making decisions about things like which wolves will be reintroduced and where they'll go. 

How might other animals in Colorado be affected by wolves? 

Overall, chances are the ecological impact of wolves on Colorado’s current animals will be less extreme than often gets discussed. Wolves are predators, and certainly they will consume deer and perhaps moose. They also will eat rabbits and rodents—and even beaver. Of those animals that they are preying on a lot such as elk and deer, we'll see a shift from what we call naive prey behavior, to behavior that's more savvy of how to live with predators in a system. There is some suggestion that in areas where there are wolves, the total number of coyotes might be lowered in number, but that would certainly need to be monitored carefully. 

Can humans live alongside wolves? 

Until very recently, humans lived alongside wolves. First Nation peoples and Indigenous populations living in North America lived with wolves for over 10,000 years. And in Europe and Asia, this history would have gone back well over 60,000 years. It's only in the 1800s and into the 1900s that we saw a very organized and dedicated campaign to extirpate wolves and other predators  in the US. In the course of killing wolves and other predators, like mountain lion and grizzlies, humans lost their knowledge of how to coexist with those large-bodied predators. But I think we can gain that knowledge back. 

Joanna Lambert

Joanna Lambert in Yellowstone National Park, where she annually conducts field work. (Credit: Melanie Hill) 

Will living with wolves get easier over time? 

We have good data demonstrating that the longer that people have lived with wolves in their landscapes, the more accustomed and less fearful they are of those wolves. Humans become habituated to living with wolves, and the longer wolves have been around in a landscape, the more knowledge people have gained on how best to cope with those animals. 

A big part of living with wolves is recognizing that there are diverse social and cultural meanings of wolves to various people. I think we need to engage in compassion and understand that there are some individuals that feel very differently about wolves than other groups of individuals. 

What tools can we use to coexist with less conflict? 

We have a diverse toolkit for how to live with wolves and other predators. Hazing and scare devices work well, such as lights, loud noises and even the use of robotic dogs that bark loudly. Small ribbons called fladry can be hung on fencing – these flap around in the wind and spook the animals. 

Range riders can be successful in reducing conflict. These individuals spend their time in the back country (typically on horseback) surveilling livestock and and wolves, and then running interference if needed. Work done in the Northern Rockies suggests that many folks that have livestock are keen to know more details about where the wolves are at any given time so they can figure out how to move their livestock animals.

One of the best tools in our toolkit is the use of guard dogs, which have been used for hundreds of years in Europe. These are large dogs that are fierce towards wolves and coyotes but are very good with children and family members. 

This conversation was edited for clarity and brevity. Hear Lambert speak more at length about this subject on a recent recording of her talk from the CU on the Weekend lecture series