The last place you might expect to find a wolf is inside a public library, a place that doesn’t even allow pets in the door.
But on an early summer day, Shaya, a so-called “wolf ambassador” was pacing the 4th floor of the downtown library in Pueblo, Colorado, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd.
Shaya, a grayish-white pale-eyed creature, traveled here from the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center about an hour away in Divide. His handler, Michelle Smith, explained he’s mostly wolf, with a touch of domesticated dog. Smith held Shaya on a leash, handed him the occasional piece of beef jerky, and answered questions from a swarm of excited kids.
Shaya may have been the event’s main attraction, but there was a bigger goal there beyond just giving kids a chance to see a wild animal up close. The event was educating potential voters. A table in the corner of the room staffed with volunteers hosted a display of pamphlets about the plight of wolves.
Over the past several decades, gray wolves have been reintroduced to places throughout the Mountain West -- in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. But those programs have been decided on and carried out primarily by government wildlife agencies.
Wildlife advocates in Colorado want to do it differently. They want to bring the question to the ballot box. A group called the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund is working to get an initiative on the state ballot for 2020.
Delia Malone is a Sierra Club ecologist working on the campaign. She said the ballot question is very simple: “Do Coloradans want wolves restored to Colorado?”
More specifically the initiative says it would require the parks and wildlife commission, “after holding statewide hearings and using scientific data, to implement a plan to restore and manage gray wolves.”
Their goal would be to reintroduce them to federal public lands in the mountains west of the Continental Divide by the year 2023.
Gray wolves once roamed across nearly all of the Mountain West. Malone said they disappeared from the greater region in the 1940s after they were targeted for extermination.
Decades later, in 1974, they were officially listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act. But in the most recent decade, after several successful reintroduction programs throughout the Rocky Mountains, Congress removed protection for gray wolf populations in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington.
The Trump administration recently proposed removing gray wolves from the Federal Endangered Species List altogether. Whether or not that’s a good thing, depends on who you ask.
Malone thinks wolves have been demonized unfairly. “There are so many myths that wolves are gonna kill all your livestock, that wolves are kill all the elk and all the deer,” she said. “That hasn’t been proven out scientifically.”
But Blake Henning with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a hunting advocacy group, sees it differently.
“There are places where elk numbers have drastically declined after wolves were put on the landscape,” he said.
If that kind of decline were to happen in Colorado, he said, we wouldn’t just lose elk, we’d lose money.
Colorado has the most elk of any state in the country -- around 280 thousand of them. And that draws a lot of hunters to Colorado. “That’s a significant driver for small towns and has a significant economic impact,” Henning said.
Experts estimate gray wolves would kill around 3% of Colorado’s elk population per year. That’s far fewer than hunters kill annually.
But Henning said it’s not just hunting interests at stake. Ranchers too will suffer the cost.
“And,” he said that would mean, “costs not only just in livestock loss but in man hours managing a herd, dealing with stress on animals.”
The ballot initiative does say that livestock owners would be compensated for any animals killed by wolves. But Henning said that might not repair all the damage done.
And he is skeptical of putting this decision in the hands of regular voters.
“We think the rightful decision maker should be the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Game Commission,” said Henning.
That agency’s stance has so far been clear. It’s funded in large part by hunting and fishing licenses. As recently as 2016 it said it does not support a reintroduction of gray wolves because of potential conflict with the state’s livestock industry and big game like deer and elk.
But veteran wolf biologist, Mike Phillips, balks at that notion. “My gosh,” he said, “there's plenty of deer and elk.”
In 1995, he led the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park and consulted on a simultaneous reintroduction in Idaho. According to Phillips, wolves actually keep elk and deer populations, as well as entire ecosystems, healthier.
“They will hunt frequently enough to cause the deer and elk to behave slightly differently,” he said. “That brings a relief to vegetation and when the vegetation isn’t being pressed so by grazing and browsing deer and elk it begins to change, inevitably making any ecological setting richer and more diverse than it would be otherwise.”
He also said livestock kills are fairly rare.
“If you’re the rancher who just lost a cow the night before you’ve got a problem,” Phillips said. “I understand that. Fortunately, we have very good tools at the ready for resolving or for preventing conflicts from ever arising in the first place.”
He mentioned several nonlethal ways of keeping wolves at a distance, like tying flags to fence posts and regularly monitoring livestock herds.
He said from all our past endeavors with wolf reintroduction in the West, we know how to coexist.
“We know a lot about gray wolves,” Phillips said. “So when we speak about what restoration would look like in Colorado we’re speaking from decades of experience.”
A recent bipartisan poll showed roughly two thirds of Colorado voters support reintroducing gray wolves in the state. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund will start collecting signatures this summer to get their initiative onto next year’s ballot.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that gray wolves were reintroduced by humans to Montana. In fact, they re-colonized in that state naturally via migration from other areas.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.