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The Wolf in Western Colorado

December 04, 2018
Wolf in Wyoming. Wolf in Wyoming.

Wolves are coming. Are we ready for them spiritually or institutionally?

I often think about wolves. They inhabit my imagination when I am in the magnificent high country of Colorado; they also lope across the Great Plains of my mind.

I also find myself considering the appearance of the countryside around my town of Grand Junction, Colorado, before it became wolfless. I picture the area when the Ute people dominated the region, before the arrival of tens of thousands of miners, cattlemen, farmers, and the railroad. Elk and deer herds were flush; wolves and other predators lived in abundance. At one time eleven bands of Utes survived on region’s seasonal bounty—hunting the cool mountains and plateaus in the summer and moving to warmer lower elevations along the river valleys in the winter.

The arrival of whites in the early 1880s changed all of this. Not only were Utes relegated to small reservation land-islands, but many were forced to leave the young state for Utah due to their perceived roles in the so-called Meeker Affair of 1879. By the early 1880s white settlers poured into places like the Uncomphaghre, Gunnison, and Grand Valleys, planting crops, reengineering rivers into irrigation fountainheads, raising herds of sheep and cattle, and planting orchards. These domestic stock were perceived to be endangered by native predators, so early western Colorado settlers began a half-century war against large predatory animals, especially wolves. By the 1920s, the campaign, waged by Anglo-American settlers, bounty hunters, and the US Biological Survey, had pretty well succeeded in its goal of wolf extermination.

Early in 2018, I was asked to review the republication of The Last Stand of the Pack by Arthur H. Carhart for Environmental History. Originally published in 1929, the book tells the story of the last great wolves in Colorado, at a time when the remaining animals were so few that almost all of them had nicknames—such as Digger, Old Whitey, Old Three Toes, the Phantom, and the Green Horn Wolf—as well as interesting reputations. The nine wolves in Carhart’s book are caricatured as super animals, larger than life and endowed with almost human traits. The book demonstrates how several segments of American society regarded these creatures, from confounded but skilled government hunters who admired their wiles and drive to live to early twentieth-century conservationists like Carhart, who portrayed them as creatures of wonder, endowed with an almost mystical aura.

The reissued edition of The Last Stand of the Pack also contains several essays, pro and con, on the possibility of wolf reintroduction in Colorado. What is abundantly clear to me, however, is that while we continue to debate the wolf’s place in modern Colorado, the wolves themselves may determine the answer. Officially, wolves are not welcome in Colorado, yet in recent years a growing number of wolf sightings, real or imagined, have occurred. Historian Andrew Gulliford, the coeditor of the reissue of The Last Stand of the Pack, asserts that with or without state intervention, “wolves are coming back to Colorado. They will get here.”

To bring this story full circle, let’s time-travel back to western Colorado and the Grand Valley before the Anglo-American population tide led to the relocation of the indigenous Ute peoples, the rapid decline of wolf-predator populations, and, as it were, the taming and rationalizing of the region’s resources. How did the Utes regard the wolf? Ute tribal elder Clifford Duncan cited the story of the half-man, half-wolf god Sinauf as evidence of the close kinship indigenous peoples felt for the wolf. According to Duncan, the Ute regarded the wolf not as an enemy or an obstacle but more akin to a brother; the "story of Sinauf, the god who was half man, half wolf, and his brothers Coyote and Wolf has been told many times in tipis and wickiups. According to Ute legend, these powerful animal-people kept the world in balance before humans were created. After Sinauf made people, humans took responsibility to care for the world, and in time they created many stories of their predecessors. These stories became the basis of Ute history and culture and defined the relationship of Ute Indians with all living elements, both spiritually and physically.”

In 1882, following the Meeker Affair, the northern Ute bands were relocated by federal officials to the Uintah reservation in northeastern Utah. The remainder of the Ute people were assigned to small reservations in southwestern Colorado. In recent years, the Northern Utes (Utah) and the Southern Utes (Colorado) seem to be of a divided mind about the return of the wolf. The politics of the Uintah Utes are more closely aligned with  their white rural Utah neighbors, but they also assert their sovereign right to manage any migrating wolves consistent with tribal resource management goals. In 2003, the tribe agreed to work with the state of Utah to draft a wolf management plan but opposed any plans to reintroduce them to the state. The Southern Utes seem more open to celebrating the tribe’s cultural association with the wolf, recently sponsoring the photographic exhibit Living with Wolves at their tribal museum in Ignacio, Colorado. In late November 2018 they supported the Durango Wolf Symposium titled “Is There a Future for Wolves in Colorado?” Perhaps the difference between the Northern and Southern Utes on the wolf reintroduction question boils down to this: wolves have already crossed into Utah from neighboring Idaho and Wyoming and could pose a threat to Uintah Ute cattle and sheep herds. The reintroduced Mexican wolves have not migrated north from Arizona and New Mexico, nor have they had the numerical success of the northern gray wolves. In other words, the Southern Utes have not yet had to face the reality of living with wolves.

I would like to see wolves in Colorado, specifically where I live in western Colorado. I understand the role they can play in keeping ecosystems healthy and providing a natural check on overabundant elk and deer populations. I do not see them as a substantial threat to the hunting experience or to human populations. However, bringing them back officially may be an uphill battle. In May 2018 my county commissioners passed a resolution against wolf reintroduction. Commissioner Scott McInnis proclaimed: “These animals are killers. They have no place in this state.” When all is said and done, whether or not Colorado extends the welcome mat may be beside the point. Wolves are coming. Are we ready for them spiritually or institutionally?

Steven C. Schulte is professor of history at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado, and the author of Wayne Aspinall and the Shaping of the West (2002) and As Precious as Blood: The Western Slope in Colorado’s Water Wars (2016).



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