Experts on Camera

Dr. Joanna Lambert: Gray wolf reintroduction

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Gray wolves will be reintroduced to Colorado beginning this December, following recent approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is the latest effort in a decades-long push to protect wolf populations in several states in the Rocky Mountain region, including Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico.

On Friday, December 8, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Joanna Lambert, a professor in the Environmental Studies Program and director of the American Canid Project, both at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She’s also a senior science adviser to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, and she spoke about topics including: the biodiversity extinction crisis and the value of reintroductions as part of re-wildling campaigns; how gray wolf populations have changed in different parts of the United States and their effects on ecosystems; the results of previous U.S. wolf reintroductions, especially in Yellowstone National Park; why the Colorado wolf restoration campaign is unique and why Colorado was chosen as the site for reintroduction; how wolves in the American West are adapting to a human-dominated world; and how to coexist with gray wolves on the landscape, especially where there are livestock.

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JOANNA LAMBERT: My name is Joanna Lambert. I’m a Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, where I am the principal investigator of the American Canid Project. So, I’ve been working with wild species around the world in very remote places of the planet. My most current research investigates how particular species namely in wild canids, gray wolves and coyotes, are adapting to the presence of humans on landscapes.


Interview with SciLine

When gray wolf populations are protected, how does that affect ecosystems?


JOANNA LAMBERT: The effects of predators in landscapes is perhaps best understood in terms of what happens when we don’t have them. And unfortunately, we have a lot of information on that because apex predators and predators in general, are the category of animals, at least vertebrate animals, that we are losing the most in landscapes around the planet. The species that have gone missing are these large-bodied apex predators. What we know about what happens when we put species back into a system—a lot of that does come from the excellent science coming out of Yellowstone National Park. And we know that there are cascading effects on both population numbers and the behavior of their prey species. Prey species then are impacted, in some areas of where those predators, are by reductions in total numbers, right, and also shifts in how they’re using different micro habitats. And overarchingly, in those areas where we have an apex predator like wolves and their prey species, which might have become without those prey species very high in total numbers. What we find is that when those numbers decrease slightly, that the vegetation that they are consuming rebounds. So, in certain areas of Yellowstone, where we have key species like willow and aspen and cottonwood, now that there are fewer elk in those areas, we see that there’s some rebounding of that vegetation, which then provides areas for nesting for certain bird species. It provides certain ideal conditions for beavers to set up their dams and can shift kind of the hydrology of those rivers and streams. This is very localized, right. So, I do want to note that chances are with the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado, that is a huge area, over 22 million acres, for example of public lands, and there aren’t going to be that many wolves—probably 30 or 50 will be reintroduced over the years. So, those effects are going to be extremely dilute right and the effects on vegetation and total numbers of elk are going to be very localized in certain micro habitats.

What details can you share about the Colorado gray wolf reintroduction beginning this month?


JOANNA LAMBERT: Those wolves will be darted and immobilized by experts—expert marksman and biologists—from helicopter, they will be netted and then immobilized, and then brought on to small planes and brought both by plane and eventually by vehicle to the regions of where they will be released. And those animals will all be radio collared and monitored carefully over subsequent months and years. So, right now we’re getting close to literally what we’ve been calling “paws on the ground,” and that will be taking place over the next, probably the next month or so. Although again, I’m not privy to the exact timeline. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be bringing in 10 wolves during this particular season.

What is special about the imminent wolf reintroduction in Colorado?


JOANNA LAMBERT: This will be the first time that an endangered species will be managed and reintroduced into a former range by an entity other then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, right? This is going to be managed and is currently being managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. So, that is one of the aspects of this that is so truly historical and groundbreaking—that this is not a federal level initiative. This was the result of a law that went into place as of November in 2020.

How have gray wolf populations changed in the United States historically and recently?


JOANNA LAMBERT: The best estimates for the total number of wolves roaming the North American continent before the arrival of Western settlers from Western Europe over 400 plus years ago, is that there were upwards of maybe one to 2 million gray wolves on this continent. And that, of course, is an extrapolation and a best guesstimate of what we have. By the time we get to the mid 1960s, so maybe 60 years ago, there were only about maybe 200 to 400 breeding pairs of gray wolves living in the lower 48, and this is largely a consequence of a very, very concerted effort on the part of multiple entities all the way from local to regional to state and federal legislative jurisdictions for controlling predator numbers. And it was extremely effective through hunting, through shooting, through trapping, through poisons, the numbers of gray wolves just absolutely plummeted throughout the 20th century so that we only have a handful by the time that the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973, and indeed it is because of that, that gray wolves were one of the very, very first mammal species to be put onto the endangered species list in 1974. Now, what we’re looking at, after that legislation of the Endangered Species Act and federal protections, is that the numbers of gray wolves have indeed increased throughout the United States, but are largely held up in two populations. One is in that upper Midwest region, with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, where there are probably something about 4500 wolves. In the Northern Rockies, and that includes the states of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Eastern Oregon, and then Eastern Washington, we probably have somewhere between maybe 2500 to 3500 wolves and those wolves and those wolf populations now that are in the Northern Rockies are a consequence, mainly from the reintroductions that took place in Idaho and in Yellowstone in the mid 1990s.

What can you tell us about the effects of the gray wolf reintroductions in Idaho and Yellowstone in the mid 1990s?


JOANNA LAMBERT: Those two reintroductions include the one that is arguably one of the most successful conservation initiatives ever, and that is the reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996, and into central Idaho during those same years. That, as I noted, has been wildly successful even perhaps more than the institution’s who were involved ever expected, and that was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and on the part of Yellowstone, of course, the National Park Service. So, that those wolves going into Yellowstone, for example, numbered only about 31 animals between those two years going into the park and now we’re looking at a total maximum population in the whole region of the Northern Rockies, upwards of maybe about 3000 wolves. There has been another reintroduction of gray wolves that took place in the southern portion of the United States in Arizona and New Mexico. That is with a highly endangered subspecies known as the Mexican gray wolf, right and is viewed as kind of a distinct entity by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. There are currently about 241 Mexican gray wolves, which is actually quite a large number based on the total numbers of Mexican gray wolves that went in initially that was a very small founding population of seven animals.

How can humans coexist with gray wolves?


JOANNA LAMBERT: It’s important to keep in mind I think that up until maybe 80 years ago, humans have been coexisting and living alongside gray wolves for 1000s of years, we do have the knowledge on how to coexist with predators in landscapes. So, we are now at a point where that information and that knowledge has to be relearned. And the good news is that we have a number of excellent, what we might call conflict reduction or coexistence mechanisms for making that work. For those individuals that are making their living off of working landscapes as livestock producers, that can include any number of scare devices or hazing tactics that can be used in those landscapes with both livestock and predators. It can include range riders that are working to make sure that they know where the wolves are, and where the livestock are. Differences in how animals are herded up and how they are moving and using landscapes. So, there are a lot of devices and tactics that those who are living in landscapes with predators can use, and it’s going to take some time, right? Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be overseeing a lot of those conversations, a lot of those trainings, as will be a number of nonprofits.

How does this reintroduction fit into the global extinction crisis?


JOANNA LAMBERT: All of this has to be understood within the bigger picture of what is going on on planet Earth, right? We are living in the sixth extinction, as it’s been called. We are enduring a biodiversity extinction crisis. We are on the verge of losing upwards of a million species in the next couple of decades. There are conservation biologists and practitioners around the world that are doing absolutely everything that they can to offset this massive extinction that we are on the verge of. Reintroductions of species that used to be in an area but have subsequently been removed in one way or another, is one of the tools in our toolbox of conservation that we can use to redress the conservation, the biodiversity extinction crisis that we’re living in.

How are reporters doing covering wolf reintroduction issues?

[Posted December 8, 2023 | Download video]