COLUMNIST: With a huff and a puff, we’ll bring them back

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo.--Rural western Colorado rang in the new year with a howl.

For the first time in U.S. history, a federally listed endangered species has been re-introduced to the wild by the efforts of a lone state. Wolves in Colorado were not a mandate from Washington, D.C.; Coloradans voted for them.

One week before Christmas, gray wolves were unleashed on a Rocky Mountain mosaic of public lands, pine and aspen forests, private ranches and beloved recreation areas. Wolves now roam within the realm of world-famous ski areas. Some have already wandered through the creeks, peaks and woods near my cabin at the rural edge of Steamboat Springs.

In the 2020 general election, a slim margin of Coloradans--50.91 percent--voted to re-introduce gray wolves to our ecosystem, back to a landscape from which they were exterminated nearly 80 years ago. But in the habitat where wolves will reside on Colorado's less populated, agricultural/recreational Western Slope, the "yes" vote was not resounding.

This is a moment of pride for Colorado.

Wolves maintain an outsize place in the collective imagination. They possess an unusual power to spark deep positive and negative beliefs. Ironically, decades after government-hired exterminators wiped them out, wolves have transformed into a symbol for anti-government sentiment.

In truth, there is nuance in Coloradans' hearts and minds about this rewilding effort. With a new predator on the ground, ranchers understandably fear for their livelihoods, but coalitions of ranchers and hunters contributed mightily to crafting the reintroduction plan.

In fact, local ranchers say they've been preparing for wolves since Yellowstone's re-introduction 29 years ago. And hunters watching scientific data of elk populations in Idaho know that hunts there are more fruitful than ever.

Earth is suffering a biodiversity crisis, and returning wolves to wild places is a good starting point. Trophic cascade, the effect of an apex predator's presence improving habitat quality and species viability all the way down the food chain, is a prime motivation for wolf re-introduction. Colorado stands to be a model for what a state can do to repair its ecosystems.

One month into this grand experiment, what a wonder it was to witness the first public GPS collar tracking map. Based on data from the Northern Rockies, elk will provide about 80 percent of the diet for Colorado wolves. And Colorado has a lot of elk, so wolves are unlikely to damage the elk hunt.

Change is hard. But look what it can spark. The next likely candidate in Colorado's rewilding effort is the wolverine, the world's largest terrestrial weasel.

Changing times on a changing planet.

Jennie Lay is a writer based in Routt County, Colo., and director of the Literary Sojourn festival of authors in Steamboat Springs.

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