There’s an overpopulation of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. As more elk are born, more elk need to eat. This can result in something called “overgrazing,” meaning that as the elk eat what they need to survive, there’s less and less left over for other species in the area, leaving these other species without adequate food. Possible solution? Wolves.

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Wolf - OutThere Colorado

In January of 2013, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Rocky Mountain National Park, allowing them to continue their selective culling of elk in the park. The lawsuit resulting in this decision was brought on by WildEarth Guardians who argued that the Park Service must consider the use of natural predators in the planning stages of their elk population management plan. The judge stated that without the support of other agencies, with the potential threat to nearby human populations, and the deleterious effect on the expediency of achieving the overall goal of elk population control, the reintroduction of wolves into the ecosystem wasn’t feasible. For now, wolf reintroduction is on hold in Rocky Mountain.

In contrast, Yellowstone National Park made the decision in 1995 to bring back the wolf in attempt to solve the issue of prey overpopulation. This program resulted in what many consider to be a great success, bringing down the numbers of overpopulated species while allowing those impacted by the overpopulation to recover and thrive.

But if wolves are reintroduced, how can officials ensure that these wolves won’t target humans visiting the park, especially in some of the more isolated areas? One widely covered incident at Yellowstone might provide insight into this potential problem: in 2012, a hiker encountered a wolf on the trail leading to a chain of events that eventually led the hiker to escaping into the Yellowstone River. The hiker claims that the wolf was acting aggressively, so they pepper-sprayed the animal and ran, leading to their aquatic escape. However, as this event was investigated by park officials, they determined that the wolf was simply guarding young inside of her nearby den and would have likely left the human alone after showing its aggression as a warning. Wolves are pack animals, unlikely to attack when they’re by themselves unless they feel cornered.

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Wolf Howl - OutTHere Colorado

One study from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research that was conducted in 2002 regarding the 20th century determined that only 20 to 30 wolf attacks occurred in North America over the previous 100 years, resulting in three deaths. Most of these wolf attacks were in isolated areas prior to the invention of many things that keep humans safe in the outdoors today, including effective pepper-spray.

Another big concern that comes with reintroduction is based in fears that the wrong species of wolf may be picked for the park. In the case of Yellowstone National Park, Mackenzie Valley Wolves (canis lupus occidentalis) from Canada were reintroduced, according to former United States Fish and Wildlife Services Chief of National Wildlife Refuge Operations Jim Beers. This Canadian subspecies was larger than the previously native Northern Rocky Mountain wolves (canis lupus irremotus). As a result, there’s been concern that these wolves have been overly successful in controlling prey populations due to their additional size advantage and more aggressive behavior, causing a larger drop in prey numbers than was originally anticipated. There’s fear that something similar may happen in Rocky Mountain National Park; some reports indicate that interbreeding between the two subspecies have resulted in the traits of the larger Canadian variation presenting more apparently than the formerly native Northern Rocky Mountain wolf.

So, should wolves be reintroduced into Rocky Mountain National Park? Is there a way to help preserve park wildlife by bringing back a predator that has been absent for decades? The last wild Colorado wolf is thought to have been killed in 1943, though sitings are reported every once and while from extremely unpopulated areas. What impacts would bringing them back have? Would the pros outweigh the cons? 

Affectionate Grey Wolves - OutThere Colorado

 

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