Wolves- Natural Migration or Reintroduction?: The 2020 Colorado Ballot Measure

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post. Wright Dickinson stops to make lunch after working on his family’s ranch near Cold Springs Mountain on June 30, 2020. Dickinson is hoping Colorado voters will turn down a plan to reintroduce wolves in Colorado. (Dickinson doesn’t look very “corporate” to me).
The interesting twist of wolves in Colorado, is that they’re coming back on their own, but mostly urban voters want more to be reintroduced. So the two positions are 1) more or less “natural” wolf migration versus 2) human-managed reintroduction of wolves.

Bruce Finley wrote what I think is a thoughtful, fair, well-balanced article in the Denver Post yesterday, worth reading in its entirety.

State wildlife biologists would be required to install wolves on public land west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023, enough to ensure wolf survival, with public input and compensation for ranchers who lose livestock. The wording of the ballot measure enshrines proponents’ view that wolves were “an essential part of the wild habitat of Colorado” before extermination and must be restored to bring back “a critical balance in nature.”

The idea of “balance of nature” is an idea without scientific basis, as we have discussed many times. And again, we may think about what used to be niche theory in ecology that says that other species will step in to the niche.. say mountain lions and coyotes. I certainly can’t tell that the Great Plains “need” bison to “restore a critical balance.”

A voter-driven re-introduction of wolves through direct democracy in Colorado would mark an unprecedented assertion of rising urban demands for ecological integrity with a full mix of species inhabiting public land.

The problem is that the arrival of wolves on their own, let alone artificially installing more, complicates human existence because the federal government still protects wolves as an endangered species. Ranchers legally cannot kill or harass a wolf, even if it’s attacking a calf, without risking jail time and a $100,000 fine. Blocking ranchers from fulfilling an ingrained moral duty creates “a helpless feeling,” Dickinson said. “You are powerless to react.”

Beyond operational disruptions, ranchers and local leaders confide they’re bothered most at a deeper level by what they see as an urban attack on agriculture akin to twisting a stick in the eye.

“What have we got left?” former Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck said. “Tourism and recreation? We can’t hang our hat on that.”

I remember when John Hickenlooper was the Mayor of Denver and we had an early Colorado Roadless public meeting at which he spoke. I remember his speech- the rest of Colorado seemed to him an uninhabited landscape whose highest and best use was providing a backdrop and playground to bring businesses to Denver. It was almost as if the landscape were uninhabited and the proper role of the individuals were as a service industry to people from the metro area. I remarked to Rick Cables, the Regional Forester, that Hick sounded remarkably colonialist to me. Now, Hick changed gracefully (IMHO) when he became Governor, to considering the views of all Coloradans and treating them with respect. But the concept that “we know better than you do what you should do with the land you live in, and we are willing to impose our vision through the force of government” may well feel the same (colonialist) to folks in NW Colorado.

Here are some thoughts of from Senator Kerry Donovan D- Vail:

Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, got involved trying to broker a compromise. A Democrat representing people in mountain counties who works as a small-scale rancher raising highland cattle and whose family has refused to sell out to developers, Donovan sees the storm over wolves as destructive.

She introduced legislation that would delay wolf reintroduction until 2025, ensure sufficient funding and better address agricultural community concerns about compensation and provisions for protecting livestock. But amid lawmakers’ focus on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, she sidelined her measure once it was accepted for mark-up.

Seeking shade as the sun beat down recently at her ranch, Donovan winced at the rankling of ranchers and other rural residents.

“The problem is when everything around you also seems to be shifting, you reach your breaking point. And the wolf is a pretty good villain,” she said.

Ranchers see second homes that mostly sit vacant multiplying across mountain valleys. These bring city folks interested in shopping, dining and organized recreational activities. The newcomers often lack patience for sheep and cattle herding that forces temporary road closures. Land prices spike, increasing temptations to sell out. Then come restrictions on using pesticides and water, and requirements to inspect and monitor monitoring of livestock, she said.

“Everything just stacks up,” she said. “And then you see we are going to take a ballot initiative where people in the Front Range population centers are going to vote on introducing a predator — an apex predator — into your backyard. Not their backyard.”

Yet Colorado needs cooperation to preserve open natural landscapes, Donovan said. While she was inclined to vote for wolf reintroduction, she’s also planning to lead hard conversations about saving nature, including predators, in the face of development.

Front Range residents increasingly flee their densifying cities seeking solace in mountain valleys. “Maybe Denver shouldn’t be saying, ‘Hey, come to the great outdoors. Live here and go there.’ Denver should be saying, ‘Come to the great outdoors. Live here,’ ” Donovan said.

That would require expanding greenspace inside cities. “Taking back the South Platte River? That’s something we should be really investing in — making the Platte a functioning ecosystem.” And urban planners could convert streets to parks, expand greenbelt trails and plant more gardens.

My thoughts.. everyone agrees (?) that lethal force should be used as a last resort.
everyone agrees that wolves are coming back on their own.
And yet there is still a controversy, part of it sounds like it’s about urban colonialism, and the rest about generalized federal land rancher dislike- just the latest skirmish in trying to drive them out.. cattle-free by 2033?

If voters order more wolves, some ranchers warn, they will jeopardize cooperation to preserve open landscapes that city dwellers increasingly covet with population growth and development jam-packing Denver and transforming mountain valleys.

“This will destroy the very real conservation partnership in Colorado between the thoughtful conservation community and agriculture,” Dickinson said. “Colorado has come a long way in my lifetime, away from the ‘Cattle-Free by ’93’ idea that livestock are not integral and beneficial to public lands. Conservation in Colorado will only be successful with a true partnership with agriculture. Why do we want to risk that relationship?

5 thoughts on “Wolves- Natural Migration or Reintroduction?: The 2020 Colorado Ballot Measure”

  1. “Dickinson doesn’t look very ‘corporate’ to me.”

    Well, looks can be deceiving Sharon. This is what 10 minutes of googling turned up.

    Vermillion Ranch Limited Partners (owned by Dickinson) has gotten almost $1 million in just Farm Subsidies from the federal government. See here.

    For whatever it’s worth, in this 2004 Denver Post article it says:

    A clash of philosophies between a powerful rancher and a national wildlife refuge is headed for a showdown in dusty northwestern Colorado.

    At the center of the dispute is T. Wright Dickinson, former Moffat County commissioner and vocal proponent of county efforts to gain control of federal lands.

    For 10 years each spring, federal officials say, cattle owned by the Dickinson family have grazed on Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge.

    The 12,150-acre refuge was established in 1963 along the Green River’s muddy meanders to provide nesting areas for ducks and songbirds.

    The refuge officially banned grazing in 1994 – but Browns Park managers continued to allow Dickinson’s cattle access to the river from their surrounding grazing leases despite complaints from environmentalists.

    Last October, refuge manager Jerry Rodriguez built a 13-mile fence to limit cattle to designated watering areas and keep them out of the important river meadows.

    Enter the Colorado State Land Board, which gave the Dickinsons a temporary grazing permit for an unfenced state parcel inside Browns Park that the refuge had leased as wildlife habitat for 30 years.

    Almost as soon as the cows were released, they were again down in the refuge’s river bottoms, officials said…..

    The Dickinsons are one of Western Colorado’s most powerful clans. Vermillion Ranch leases 160,254 acres from the Bureau of Land Management and in Colorado and Utah – and more in Wyoming. The family also owns private land inside the refuge’s eastern end. They also lease an additional 13,778 acres of state land board land from Rave.

    • My point was that it was a family, however well connected. And Dickinson apparently has a history of public service, including GOCO. And if having rich powerful people around (driving cars, using water, encroaching on wildlife habitat) is a bad thing, why not cancel all federal ski area permits?

      And Dickinson gets legal farm subsidies from the Feds… WEG also received legal Corona Virus loans from the feds.. so shouldn’t every organization and family be able to apply for and receive $ from government programs?

      Are you saying that Dickinson ranches are “corporate” because they are incorporated as legal entities?

  2. See also: Exposing America’s Billionaire Welfare Ranchers

    Here are some snips:

    Fifteen years ago, two percent of public lands ranchers controlled fifty percent of permitted grazing acreage, according to John Horning of WildEarth Guardians.

    Today, Horning says, that elite group of mega-rich owners has consolidated its hold on federal grazing property even further through grazing leases attached to the larger-than life ranches they inherit or buy outright.

    The .01 percenters. They are the nation’s biggest welfare ranchers, according to numerous environmental and policy groups; and it’s time they brought some attention to themselves, and the federal grazing program they’re exploiting to waste as much as $1 billion a year of taxpayer money while causing long-term damage to one of the public’s most treasured assets.

    Along with that comes all kinds of perks paid for by taxpayers: the USDA’s wildlife services, which killed four million endangered and predator species in 2013 to help livestock operators. The costly and wildly ineffective Wild Horses and Burros Program which operates to the benefit of welfare ranchers. Numerous programs that work to undo the grazing damage that welfare livestock causes. And let’s not forget the bank loans that an estimated 45% of public lands ranchers obtain, using their grazing leases as collateral, and which heighten the value of their primary ranching property.

    Only 2.7 percent of the nation’s ranchers hold such leases. That’s a lot of costly benefits flowing to a small segment of the livestock industry. That two percent of them hold more than fifty percent of the acreage under that program? Never mind that two of the recipients love to attack all welfare programs that benefit the bottom tier of the economic pyramid. It’s the antithesis of rugged independence. It’s undemocratic, too….

    Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News, in 1999, spent nine months collecting information on 26,000 grazing leases in order to write a comprehensive article (“Cash Cows”) on the money pit that was the federal grazing program at that time. Many of the same players then are still in the game, but the process of keeping tabs using real records is so arduous that no environmental groups do it.

    T. Wright Dickinson

    Though not on any Forbes list, the Dickinson family is a large public lands rancher, with grazing permits estimated at more than a half million acres of CO, UT and WY public lands under its LLC, Vermillion Ranches. Dickinson is a former County commissioner and proponent of county efforts to gain control of federal lands, according to the Denver Post.

  3. Sorry.. I don’t think John Horning is necessarily a person I would trust to come up with good numbers on a topic of such concern to WEG.

    I know cows are “aesthetically debased,”(back to Laurenco’s comment) but cows were on those lands before they were federalized. If you want to kick people (and animals) out, that’s fine but you don’t have to demonize the people/families.

    Speaking as one of millions of “welfare recreationists”.

    Or is the real problem their political views.. or the fact that their associations with a certain political party has been an obstacle to their removal? I remember when ranchers from where I worked in Oregon were invited to President Reagan’s inaugural festivities..

  4. I think there’s a bit too much “fulfilling an ingrained moral duty” running around right now. When government should probably be talking about “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” Just try to make it a fully informed decision based on the real costs and benefits. (Opponents’ arguments also seem to be ignoring the fact that they are going to end up with wolves regardless.)

    Which, by the way, the “balance of nature” is one. It’s too bad that when the public and politicians use this phrase some scientists get hung up on that, when the point is that there are major ecological benefits of returning ecosystem drivers like wolves and bison to the systems they evolved with. To your comment about the latter, read “Improving prairie landscapes.”

    I don’t think the concept is “we know better than you do what you should do with the land you live in.” It’s “we have a different opinion about what is important to us, and you do not have veto rights over public decisions based on where you live.”


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