In my 22 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—what employees affectionately call “the Service”— wolves and wolf reintroduction were a source of constant pride, a sense of accomplishment, sheer frustration, and social and political turmoil.
Releasing wolves to the northern Rockies was like shaking a bottle of champagne and popping the cork. We knew they would do well as long as people could resist killing them. They flourished, and have since been delisted in most areas of the west. Mexican wolves were harder. Down to a founder population of seven, assistance from Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited facilities was crucial to success.
Around 2015-16, the Service’s Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program was in trouble: enclosed within four states with hostile governments—Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. They were suing the Service in federal court, threatening to block further wolf releases and the northern expansion of its range.
A game-changer was needed.
I suggested to Mike Phillips, who directs the Turner Endangered Species Fund, that the environmental community design a grassroots campaign to build support in the range states. I suggested beginning in Colorado, based on its changing politics and approachable then-governor, John Hickenlooper.
Well, little did I know that Mike actually took me seriously. They began a grass-roots organization and campaign—The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, a 501(c)(3) organization, and the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund (RMWAF), a 501(c)(4) organization. Their goal:
To improve public understanding of gray wolf behavior and ecology, and … secure a voter mandate for restoring the species to the Western Slope of Colorado.
Last year, it blossomed into an effort to get wolf reintroduction onto the 2020 ballot in Colorado. And a leader in that effort was Darlene Kobobel, director at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center, an AZA member facility. Suddenly, wolves seemed to have a chance, but they needed 125,000 signatures from registered voters in Colorado by December 2019.
The effort got off to a great start, aided by an aggressive campaign at another AZA member facility. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., collected nearly 15,000 signatures. By October, however, the effort had run out of funds to support the paid “circulators” who were gathering signatures and needed $350,000 to get to the finish line.
Bob Chastain and his board put $50,000 on the table, challenging AZA and its members to match to get to a total of $100,000. ABQ BioPark Zoo in Albuquerque, N.M.; Alexandria Zoo in Alexandria, La.; Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio; Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide, Colo.; Little Rock Zoo in Little Rock, Ark.; Pueblo Zoo in Pueblo, Colo.; and Saginaw Children’s Zoo in Saginaw, Mich., answered the call, and we delivered $100,000 to support the home stretch run.
It worked. On 6 January 2020, the Colorado Secretary of State certified the necessary number of valid signatures had been gathered.
Wolf reintroduction will be put before the state’s citizens on the November 2020 Colorado general election ballot. If successful, it will be the first time that reintroduction of an endangered species will have been directed through direct vote of the people. Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be instructed to develop, after public input, a science-based plan for reintroducing wolves to western Colorado by 2023.
Polls indicate that more than two-thirds of Coloradans support wolf reintroduction, but no one is taking that for granted. I’m certain that Bob Chastain and his team at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo are not. Certainly not Darlene Kobobel and her team at Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center. Mike Phillips and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and RMWAF are not. And AZA will not!
When we talk about “conservation,” we usually talk or think about “field conservation.” But as a result of this campaign—putting people “in the field” to collect signatures—the citizens of Colorado now have the opportunity to decide whether wolves will have a place and role in that state. That is conservation.
Some day in the near future, when you have the opportunity to stand in western Colorado and hear wolves howling, I can guarantee it will give you goosebumps. Because it’s not just that there will be wolves in Colorado. Those wolves will be the biological keystone reconnecting wolf populations from Mexico to the Arctic. And when that day arrives, each one of those 100,000 dollars will seem like a bargain, and everyone who worked to gain those 210,000 signatures will be a conservation hero.
Driving social change is a long-term and often controversial proposition. Efforts like this Colorado ballot initiative show that the AZA community is learning how to do it better, by building a reputation as organizations and thought leaders willing to take calculated risk and engage the public in purposeful dialogue.
Back in 1995, when the Service uncorked a biological champagne bottle and released those first wolves into Yellowstone National Park and into northern Idaho, the biology and ecology of wolf recovery was well studied and understood. We were confident in our biological assessments and they proved remarkably accurate. The sociology, however, was largely unexplored, and therefore we were unprepared for the onslaught to come. Wolves, already hobbled by historical mythologies, became an inadvertent but potent symbol for federal government “overreach.”
In November, the citizens of Colorado will speak, and hopefully will howl their support for return of wolves to their place in the ecosystem. What a spectacular social turnaround that will represent. And AZA and its members can be proud for playing a big part in driving this important social change.
Keep your fingers crossed, and make sure to watch on election night 2020!
Photo Credit: Mexican Grey Wolf. Credit: Michelle Steinmyer/The Endangered Wolf Center