In his “biologist’s perspective on wolf restoration,” Mike Phillips argues that “coexisting with wolves in western Colorado is a straightforward affair.” That’s not surprising, because he’s not just a biologist but also a Montana state senator, where he has been actively promoting wolf reintroduction. He also works for the Turner Endangered Species Fund, a private company whose mission is to “protect imperiled species with an emphasis on the nearly 2 million acres owned by Ted Turner.” He has co-authored “Awaking Spirits,” which promotes the restoration of wolves throughout the southern Rockies, linking wolf populations in New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Phillips also wears two hats at the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (“RMWP”), being not just an advisor but also its director, according to Tides Center, the San Francisco-based “fiscal sponsor” of RMWP. In other words, Phillips has made a career of promoting wolf reintroduction; he knows more about it than almost anyone else.
But at the core of Phillip’s mission lies a profound fallacy. His contention that “re-establishing the wolf is a step toward restoring an important part of Colorado’s natural balance” begs the question whether that balance needs to be “restored.” Phillips assumes that it does because wolves were here until they were eliminated in the first half of the 20th century.
In the 21st century there is a new ecological balance in western Colorado. Our cattle, sheep, deer and elk populations are not “out of balance.” They do not need wolves to thrive. And Colorado’s ranchers and hunters do not need wolves to prosper. Phillips can point to no scientific reports that western Colorado needs a “trophic cascade that promotes ecosystem health.” He has lots of studies of what’s happened elsewhere, in places like Yellowstone (where, unlike Colorado, there is no hunting), but he has no study, not one, that shows that western Colorado’s current ecological balance is unhealthy because there are no wolves here.
All Phillips and other wolf advocates have as their motivational bedrock is an unscientific, idealized conservationist’s dream of restoring Colorado’s “native species as originally arranged by nature.” Which arrangement is that? The one that existed before there were cattle ranches, sheep ranches, potato farms and residential subdivisions? The one that existed when there were only Ute Indians living here? The one that existed when the Maroon Bells were a sea bottom and Mt. Sopris didn’t yet exist?
Phillip’s dream of “restoring all native species as originally arranged by nature” is an unscientific fantasy. It has a nice biblical ring to it, but it’s bogus. It’s a feel-good exercise for city-dwellers and others who wouldn’t have to deal with the damage and pain wolves would inflict if they were brought back.
Instead of RMWP, maybe Phillips should start the Rocky Mountain Beaver Project. Beavers don’t prey on sheep, cattle, deer or elk, and they are great riparian restoration engineers. The name might not have the sizzle that nonprofit fundraisers like, but it might actually do some good. I’d even buy one of their T-shirts.