Opinion | Tony Jones: Humans are as much a part of the wilderness as wolves

In my last column, I spoke of the danger of wildfires to those who live in the wildland urban interface, which is expanding in Colorado to the point that if you live here, you’re part of it. The Marshall Fire made that all too apparent, but there is other proof of the wildland urban interface expansion that doesn’t involve wildfires: the moose you see when you’re walking or biking along the Blue River in Silverthorne or hiking Rainbow Lake trail in Frisco are evidence of it. And I see it out our back patio on Tenderfoot Mountain, where a local coyote can often be seen nosing around the decks in our subdivision. These increasingly frequent encounters are another example of human expansion in the wildland urban interface.

But we love it, right? That’s one of the reasons we live in Summit County. The wildlife that surrounds us is awesome, but we must never forget it can also be dangerous for humans and wildlife. The videos of a bear crawling along the top of a fence or a mountain lion playing chicken with the family dog with only a sliding glass door between them belies the real threat such encounters represent to man and beast.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. And dangerous encounters where residents or their pets or livestock are harmed seem to be happening much more frequently. It’s happening in the suburbs along the Front Range, where coyotes are getting bolder and snatching pets right from under their owner’s noses or biting kids as they load up into the car to head to soccer practice. This danger also exists in Summit County, and with the passage of Proposition 114 in 2020, the risk of wildlife-human encounters is likely to tick up another notch.

Proposition 114 allows for the restoration of wolves in Colorado. I believe passage of this measure was a well-meaning attempt by voters to rebalance Colorado ecosystems with the reintroduction of an apex predator that once roamed our lands far and wide. However, I also believe those of us who voted for this reintroduction, mostly urban voters, need to take a moment to understand the impact that introducing predators into the state represents to ranchers and others who live in the areas where such introductions are likely to occur.

For example, the issues that Don Gittleson is seeing with wolves on his North Park ranch are potentially just the tip of the iceberg. Not a single wolf has been reintroduced by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, yet Gittleson is already on the front lines of this issue thanks to a pack that wandered into Colorado of its own volition. These wolves are preying on Gittleson’s livestock with regularity, but Colorado law limits what the rancher can do to protect his business.

While we need to understand and not repeat the mistakes of the past, including the extermination of wolves in our state, we also need to enable businesses and individuals to protect themselves and their livelihoods. So yes, let’s do what we can to restore Colorado’s habitats, but let’s also be prepared to make the hard decisions going forward. This may include allowing hazing of wildlife that has become too acclimated to human habitats, relocation of problematic animals where possible and necessary, and lethal control if all else fails.

This may also require changes to laws and regulations that govern such wildlife encounters and will undoubtedly cost taxpayers more as we increase the funding for the state’s Game Damage Program accordingly. This latter effort may provide some assurance to livestock owners that they won’t be left alone on the front lines of the reintroduction.

It seems increasing wolf populations in our state is an inevitability, and hopefully it will help rebalance ecosystems that have suffered from the lack of such predators. But let’s also understand that we can’t go back in time and return our state to some primal epoch. Humans are as much a part of the wilderness now as the wolves are. And as such, human intervention will need to be a part of the balancing act in ensuring that people and wildlife can coexist in the wildland urban interface.


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