The line between stewardship and playing God isn’t a particularly fine one, but figuring out where that line belongs is a rite of passage nearly everyone goes through, particularly, perhaps, for those of us who live on Colorado’s West Slope.
As an attempt to draw that line, the Colorado Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative makes a dog’s breakfast of it.
Partly because the initiative gives way to a time when BK Veggie Burgers have obviated cattle ranching and all the hunters have died off, so the only folks who know anything about the backcountry are naturalists cut from the cloth of Steve Irwin, Timothy Treadwell and Chris McCandless.
While it’s true a wolf, like most apex predators, can make you resemble a plate of meatloaf, initiative supporters paint wolf reintroduction as a return to a more pristine state of nature, as if by the very presence of a wolf the sins of all Coloradans against nature would magically disappear, and in their places meadows of sub-alpine grasses and wildflowers would open up where the wolf, along with butterflies, bunnies, and all other native species, would coexist in harmony and balance.
How bucolic. How archetypal. How utterly Garden of Eden. And why not? Genesis 1:28 commands us to have dominion over every living thing upon the earth that moveth.
For some initiative supporters, however, wolf reintroduction is no mere veneration of some mythological past. “This is science,” they insist, specifically “trophic cascade”— the idea that suppressing a trophic level in an ecosystem’s food web re-wires ecological balance.
Food webs? Trophic cascade? Yep. They’re things. Scientific things.
One way trophic cascade happens is when a wolf pack reduces elk in great enough numbers that plants and critters lower down the food chain thrive.
Put another way, fewer elk allow sustainable willows to flourish, and un-elk-munched willows allow beavers to chew them down for dam building, and beaver built dams give otters and muskrats places to swim, and where otters and muskrats play, herons wade. And on and on and on it goes because humans exercised dominion over one of the living things that moveth.
And, it ate a bunch of ungulates.
At least that’s how the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction narrative goes.
But Colorado ain’t Yellowstone.
The wolf that disappeared from Colorado about 80 years ago isn’t around anymore, either as a sub-species or a “geographic adaptation.”
So much for the initiative’s ecological purity.
In case you haven’t noticed, Colorado’s changed a bit since 1940, too. But don’t take my word for it. Open your eyes and look around.
In the 80 years since the wolf disappeared from Colorado, Glenwood’s population has more than tripled, and West Slope county populations grew on average 244%. The huge “natural” ecosystems that existed in the 1940s are now laced with asphalt and ski lifts and dotted with second homes.
Growth. It’s been a Colorado reality for longer than I’ve been around, and when it comes to wildlife of every kind, we lament habitat loss and the sad realities that come with it.
But not when it comes to wolf reintroduction. No sir, Colorado needs wolves because “science,” and, of course, “to awaken a spiritual respect for nature.”
No ecologically conscientious person would introduce wolves to a Colorado increasingly constrained by growth.
Ironically, wolves are already here — bleed-overs from reintroduction programs in other states — and Gov. Polis has welcomed them even though wolves may care less about politics than they do about state borders and gun-free zones.
Colorado stands as much a chance at responsibly managing wolf migration, territorial expansion, reproductive practices and dietary preferences as we do in micro-managing trophic cascade in ecosystems bisected by I-70.
This makes playing God folly, so next November, when you cast a ballot about one of the living things that moveth, do an honorable job of it: Vote “No”on the Colorado Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative this November.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com