Can wolves returning to Colorado actually help the state’s cattle industry, and how much do we really know about the predator’s impacts?
Chris O’Bryan almost seemed to stumble across the idea while talking: “That would be a really interesting thought exercise,” he said after mentioning that there was a possibility wolves in Colorado could actually help the state’s cattle industry.
O’Bryan, a postdoctoral fellow at Australia’s University of Queensland has spent a lot of his career examining the unforeseen impacts of bringing big predators back into an ecosystem. A 2018 study of his published in Nature Ecology and Evolution compiled the effects of leopards in India, red foxes in America and falcons in New Zealand, among others. But even he would admit that the impacts these animals have on their environments can be hard to track.
Bringing wolves back to Colorado — a plan set in motion when a ballot measure ordering such was passed narrowly by Colorado voters in November — has some better known benefits: wolves eat deer, which could both lower the number of deer-auto collisions in the state, as well as help keep deer-assisted diseases like Lyme disease in check. But it was a comparison to dingoes in Australia that made O’Bryan perk up.
“Deer and elk directly compete with domestic herbivores — with cows,” he said. According to O’Bryan’s study, dingoes play a role in controlling populations of red kangaroos, Australia’s most prolific native herbivore and a constant competitor for grazing space with cattle. By killing kangaroos, dingoes have actually made it easier for cattle to eat. Sure, O’Bryan said, the occasional dingo might attack a cow directly, but his study notes the predator has still managed to increase a pasture’s output and profitability.
Could the same thing apply to Colorado’s incoming wolf population? Elk in particular are a major competitor with cattle for grazing space in the state, and also happen to be major food sources for wolves. But O’Bryan says that like so many of these cause-and-effect scenarios, it’s hard to know for sure until we can observe it.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, humans overhunting elk and deer led gray wolves, once prolific statewide, to turn to a new prey: livestock. Consequently, wolves themselves were eradicated from the state by the 1940s. And prior to election day, a wolf’s possible impacts on cattle were precisely one of the larger arguments against returning the predators.
Michael Robinson, a conservationist with the Center for Biological Diversity is skeptical about how the Australian study will apply to Colorado, saying it’s more often cattle that push elk out of grazing land, rather than the other way around.
“It seems fairly obvious to me that livestock tend to displace animals such as elk,” he said. That would mean the elk that wolves are eating are largely deeper in the woods and not at competition with the state’s cattle.
But in reality, whether or not wolves will help or harm cattle in Colorado isn’t something we can answer definitively until the wolves return — a process that isn’t scheduled to begin for another year or two.
According to O’Bryan, so many of the effects of apex predator reintroduction — or any adjustment to the ecosystem — are intertwined and related in obvious or obscure ways, and it’s almost universally impossible to see all the potential factors involved until after it’s already happened. This is called a trophic cascade, the long chain of cause-and-effect that branches and weaves after a change to an ecosystem. In the case of wolves, who sit near the top of the food chain, that cascade is a waterfall, working its way down to the smallest pieces of the environment in multiple different directions. While we can know a lot of the major impacts, especially having seen wolves reintroduced to other Rocky Mountain ecosystems, a lot of the smaller details are simply impossible to notice.
“It’s just like any prediction,” O’Bryan said. “They’re never really right. Predators have a cascading effect on species simply by being in a landscape.”
Robinson agrees at least theoretically: “Do we have a way of knowing everything that is going to happen? The absolute answer is no. But do we have a means of at least predicting the future? Yes.”
According to Robinson, wolves are among the most studied animals on earth, and we have good reason to believe we know at least the major impacts of bringing wolves back to Colorado.
“Are we going to find wolves in Colorado that have six legs and fly? No, we know that pretty definitively,” he said. “Are we going to find wolf impacts on a random ground squirrel that we didn’t expect? Sure. But there’s a lot in between.”
“I don’t think we’re ever going to know every little impact,” said Nancy Warren, the Executive Director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, a wolf advocacy group. “We need to have an umbrella approach,” she said, advocating that we look at the big picture rather than trying to itemize every change. “I’m a believer that wolves have a net beneficial impact on the ecosystem.”
For O’Bryan, picking and choosing impacts isn’t the way to think about predator reintroduction.
“Generally, we know apex predators are important to the health of systems, and when you see ecosystem degradation, you see impacts on human health and well-being,” he said.
For him, almost everything about reintroducing a big predator like the wolf is a net benefit to the system, even if we don’t recognize them yet.
RYAN WICHELNS is a full-time writer based in Ridgway, Colorado. When he isn’t at his desk writing, he’s at his desk planning months-long exploratory mountaineering expeditions in remote ranges. Either that or he’s skiing.