For millions of years, the gray wolf, alongside the American plains bison, reigned supreme as a keystone feature of the western United States.
With bison numbering in the tens of millions — and wolves in numbers as high as two million — the ecology of the region revolved around these two species, with the wolf serving as the shepherd of the buffalo, elk, deer, moose, and American pronghorn.
As recently as 150 years ago, the gray wolf existed throughout the contiguous United States, except for the southeastern US, which was the territory of the red wolf. The gray wolf brought balance to ecosystems and helped maintain a healthy landscape.
But things were changing. Once the European settlers arrived, the gray wolf found itself edged out by a new economic force — ranching.
As settlers moved westward, the once-wild lands were cultivated for large sheep and cattle ranching operations. Even the mighty bison, numbering in the tens of millions, was brought to the brink of extinction. With their native prey nearly eliminated, wolves desperately turned to the rancher's cattle and sheep. Livestock owners responded swiftly, successfully lobbying state and local stockmen’s associations to set bounties on wolves and employ full-time field agents to shoot, rope, trap, gas, stomp, and strangle wolves.
In 1915, Congress passed a law that provided for the extermination of wolves on federal lands, even in national parks.
As Barry Lopez wrote in his seminal book Of Wolves and Men, "The wolf was not the cattlemen’s only problem. There was weather to contend with, disease, rustling, fluctuating beef prices, the hazards of the trail drives, and the cost of running such enormous operations. But more and more the cattlemen blamed any economic shortfall on the wolf... The wolf became an object of pathological hatred." By the 1920’s, wolves were scarce. The last to survive took on mythical status, with some even given names – like Colorado’s Rags, Whitey and Left – and a place in Western folklore.
By 1940, the gray wolf had become extinct in Colorado, removed from the landscape they called home for millions of years.
We think it's time we bring the missing howl back to our state.
Want to learn more about the gray wolf? Check out our second e-book, A Grand Opportunity.