You might wonder why western Colorado doesn’t already have a thriving population of wolves, given that the Federal government reintroduced gray wolves in the Northern Rockies over a quarter century ago. Gary Skiba and I embarked on a journey to find out, crossing much of the landscape between the Northern and Southern Rockies, looking for wolf sign—and mostly coming up empty.
This spring, I paddled over 400 miles of the Green River, at about the speed of a dispersing wolf, from the big-predator country of the Wind River Range on the southern side of Greater Yellowstone, across the arid Green River Basin of southwestern Wyoming, into the Uinta Mountains in northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado, through Browns Park and Dinosaur National Monument—passing within a day’s trot of where Colorado’s first wolf pack had been located. A year ago, Gary and I had been among the first—and then for a while the last—people to hear wolves howl in Colorado. By then, someone had already killed three of those pioneering wolves—legally—just across the state line in Wyoming.
Therein lies the answer: it isn’t just the arid Green River Basin and the Red Desert, or even the dangerous barrier formed by I-80 and the transcontinental railroad, a proverbial border wall across the desert. It’s the divide in our minds between wild and domestic. Human societies have so often used wolves as symbols of untamed nature, whether or not that’s considered desirable, and of both the best and worst in ourselves. Literally caught in the crossfire: the real wolves, who are just living their lives.
To Colorado’s north, states responsible for managing wolves have had very liberal wolf killing programs. That’s especially the case in Wyoming, where state policy is to manage wolves as a trophy game species in the northwestern corner of the state, and as vermin to be shot on sight across about 85% of the state. We’re working to change that storyline here in Colorado, laying the groundwork for human-wolf coexistence.
Journalist Paige Blankenbuehler joined me for much of this expedition through the Green River Basin, and you can read her article in the current issue of High Country News.
I encourage you to support the work of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project to restore wolves and promote coexistence, including ground-level work to prevent wolf-livestock conflicts, as well as our efforts to help Colorado develop a policy landscape more favorable to both wolves and the people who will live with them.
Matt Barnes serves a Strategic Advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and is a research associate at the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative. He graciously provided a photo from one of his stops along the Green River for the header image on this article.