Wilderness abounds in the rugged San Juans, but what’s missing is the call of the wild

All they need is wolves: wilderness abounds in the rugged San Juans, but what’s missing is the call of the wild

Gregory McNamee

AN ALPINIST’S DREAM AND AN ACROPHOBE’S NIGHTmare, the serrated ridgelines and bald granite peaks of southwestern Colorado s San Juan Mountains are spectacular even by the high standards of this mountainous state. From where I stand, on the shoulder of 13,000-foot pyramid-shaped Engineer Mountain, the panorama takes in 50 miles. I see reddish-walled glacial valleys, lakes, and tall canyons below me, and, everywhere, off on the horizon and close at hand, more mountains–hundreds of peaks in all, a baker’s dozen of which rise above the 14,000-foot mark. This little-explored country, nearly 90 miles long by 50 miles wide, includes some 1.3 million acres of designated wilderness and roadless areas–one of the largest tracts of wild land in the United States. “I’ve lived around here for 26 years,” says Durango-based fishing guide and author Steven Meyers, “and there are big parts that even I haven’t gotten into yet.”

I move higher up Engineer Mountain, picking my way across a field of weather-broken stone to find a view of country even farther off: the towering mass of Mesa Verde, laced with the cliff dwellings left behind by its prehistoric inhabitants; the volcanic pinnacles of northern New Mexico, holy mountains of the Navajo. Lightning plays among the peaks, drawing closer to where I stand, offering just one of the many ways to find trouble at these high altitudes. I look around for the fastest path to lower ground, one that will skirt the sheer drop-offs that, from time to time, claim incautious skiers from the nearby Durango Mountain Resort. Only the day before, a friend of mine, exploring a neighboring summit, found trouble another way: He climbed a ridge as far up as he could along a path that grew ever narrower until, in time, he discovered himself on a knife-edge of rock with nothing but thin air on all sides. An experienced climber, he lay on his back and waited for the ensuing dizziness to pass, swore he’d consult the topographic maps more closely before going into unfamiliar terrain next time, and inched his way back down to less precipitous ground.

I take no such risks today. As the lightning draws closer, heralding the arrival of a black-walled rainstorm, I trundle down Engineer Mountain to the comparative safety of Electra Lake, one of the many crystalline bodies of water that dot the San Juans. On this side of the peak, for the moment at least, it’s a gorgeous late-summer weekday. The mountain’s roof-of-the-world vastness has yielded to a more intimate scale: streams full of caddis flies, flowing with good trout water, the air alive with hummingbirds and magpies. Although the nearby highway to Silverton, Ouray, and points north is crowded with traffic, I have the lakeshore pretty much to myself. It is almost always so.

Yet despite these mountains’ seeming wildness, the San Juans are incomplete. Over the years, game species, such as moose and bighorn sheep, and other creatures, such as badgers and river otters, were killed in appalling numbers. Crucial predators, including lynx, wolverine, grizzly, and–perhaps the most misunderstood icon of wilderness–the gray wolf are long gone. With the arrival of ranchers and bounty hunters here in the 19th century came a protracted campaign against grizzly bears, mountain lions, and lynx.

The fortunes of wild species began to change in recent decades, when restoration programs returned moose and bighorn sheep to the San Juans. Other animals are slowly coming back, too. A colony of otters flourishes on the Piedra River near Pagosa Springs. Fox and black bear numbers are on the rise, partly because of better management of hunting. There are so many bears, in fact, that they are spilling out of the mountains and visiting the human-populated low-lands in search of easy food.

That leaves the top predators. Concern over restrictions on habitat use and human-bear conflicts makes grizzly reintroduction seem particularly out of reach for now. The wolf, however, could return to its hallowed, howling place in the San Juans, if a hardy band of activists calling itself the Southern Rockies Wolf Restoration Project has its way.

Of all the San Juans’ residents, no creature was pursued more vigorously than the wolf. Canis lupus was targeted by hunters for its prized fur and for preying on elk and deer, but mainly by ranchers for its habit of besetting flocks and herds that were left to wander unprotected. The ranchers’ war on wildlife, augmented by a federal predator-control program that enlisted bounty hunters and even the U.S. Army, took its toll. In the 19th century, by some estimates, between 1,000 and 2,000 wolves inhabited the southern Rockies. By the 1920s, almost every wolf pack in the region had been annihilated, leaving a few isolated individuals to struggle for survival. The last of the San Juan lobos–the last wild wolf in Colorado–was killed in 1945, felled by a government wildlife officer within sight of a herd of cattle.

The effort to return the wolves was launched in 1992, when Colorado representative David Skaggs sponsored legislation directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study the feasibility of wolf reintroduction in the western part of the state. Staff biologists dutifully gathered information on potential release sites throughout the region, but the agency itself was unenthusiastic. The Colorado effort was set aside when the agency turned its attention to a joint federal-state project to return the Mexican gray wolf to the Mogollon Rim of Arizona. (The fate of that population remains uncertain, plagued by illegal killings and, most recently, a government plan to trap a family of seven wolves that had strayed out of the reintroduction area.) In the five years following, the Fish and Wildlife Service did little to move wolf reintroduction in Colorado forward, arguing that the return of the animal to Arizona and also to the Yellowstone area is sufficient to ensure the species’ survival. This March, the agency downgraded the gray wolf from “endangered” to “threatened” in most states, a step toward dropping all federal protections; for now, wolves in the Southwest (including southern Colorado) retain strict protections.

The Southern Rockies Wolf Restoration Project–a coalition of groups that includes the Sierra Club, the Turner Endangered Species Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, and Colorado-based Sinapu (Ute for “wolves”)–argues that Colorado should join Yellowstone and Arizona as a home for reintroduced wolves. Theirs is not just a romantic notion: Without top-of-the-chain predators like wolves, populations of deer and coyote go unchecked, imperiling numerous species farther down the food chain. Thus far, the coalition’s efforts have been well-received. In polls commissioned by environmental groups, two-thirds of voters in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico favored reintroducing the wolf to the region.

MARK PEARSON SIPS FROM A BOTTLE OF WATER, unfolds a topographic map, and points to the hills paralleling U.S. 160, along which we are traveling toward the headwaters of the San Juan River. It is to those hills, he hopes, that wolves will eventually be returned. The soft-spoken Colorado native, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance (and former chair of the Sierra Club’s Wildlands Campaign Committee), is certain that time is on the animal’s side. “We face some opposition, even though the majority wants to see the wolf back in the wild,” he says. “So we’re talking with a lot of people to establish an even broader consensus that wolves are appropriate in the southern Rockies. Once we do that, the specifics for the reintroduction will follow.”

One proposal for returning wolves to the San Juans would involve bringing a population of once-captive animals into the southern Rockies by way of Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch. The media entrepreneur has supported reintroduction efforts in Montana and Wyoming, and has developed a “captive facility” for rearing wolves on his land. The ranch straddles the border of Colorado and New Mexico a couple of hundred miles southeast of the San Juans, and it affords ready access, through the valleys of the Rio Grande and its tributaries, into the high country of the Continental Divide. A release there, undertaken by scientists from the private and public sectors, would follow the model used by scientists in the Mogollon release, which hopes to “seed” wolves throughout the highlands of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Given room to roam, the Vermejo Park Ranch wolves and their descendants could disperse throughout the southern Rockies, eventually attaining their historical numbers.

Another scenario foresees Colorado state wildlife officials working with federal agencies to release transported wolves directly into the San Juans. This “hard release” (as distinct from the gradual, “soft release” approach, which first acclimates animals in holding pens) is somewhat risky for the pioneer generation of wolves, but offers an ironic symmetry: The insertion point would likely be near the spot where the last wild Colorado wolf was killed nearly 60 years ago.

Whatever approach (or combination of approaches) is followed, reintroduction is sure to face continued opposition. The most vocal foes will be ranchers in the area, a couple of whom, rumor has it, have threatened to shoot on sight any wolf that enters their property. For the moment, they have local law on their side: Colorado Revised Statute 35-40-107, enacted in 1893, provides for the payment of a $2 bounty on any wolf killed.

While it is true that those ranchers–some of whom run their herds and flocks deep into the San Juan National Forest and its wilderness areas–stand to lose animals to predators, a Defenders of Wildlife fund will compensate them for losses. (Where wolves and livestock coexist, only a small percentage of livestock losses are attributable to wolves; most cows and sheep die of disease, weather, attacks by dogs, or abandonment.) Defenders of Wildlife has also established what it calls a “proactive fund” to help ranchers pay for electric fences, guard dogs, and other means of protecting their herds. Such funds address many of the objections raised by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, whose president, area rancher Tom Compton, told the Denver Post, “If the public makes a decision to bring back wolves, then they need to step up and pay for it.” Compensation was also instrumental in reducing livestock-industry opposition to the Arizona reintroduction program. As early as 1991, the Arizona Wool Producers Association announced that its membership would not oppose reintroduction if livestock producers were reimbursed, and the state’s Cattle Growers’ Association and Farm Bureau quickly followed suit. Between 1987 and 1999, Defenders of Wildlife’s fund reimbursed Arizona ranchers $2,618 for predation by reintroduced Mexican wolves. “We’re replacing `shoot, shovel, and shut up’ with `prevent and pay,'” says Hank Fisher, the organization’s northern Rockies representative.

EVENTUALLY, WOLVES and other wildlife will face a problem even more vexing than irate ranchers: the growth of the human population. Development is gnawing away at the mountains’ edges, as oncetiny towns like Durango and Pagosa Springs acquire more and more part- and full-time residents, lured to the area by its natural beauty and clement weather. Throughout the region, backroads now lead to RV encampments and clearcuts awaiting their full measure of vacation homes. While the center of the San Juans remains a place where few people venture, its periphery bustles. Recent insults include Bush administration efforts to boost production of the southern San Juan Basin’s deposits of coalbed methane, the third-largest store of this fuel in the United States. Developments are filling the scenic bottomlands along the San Juan, Animas, and Piedra Rivers, blocking the migration routes along which elk and deer–and the animals that feed on them–travel through the mountains. Mark Pearson notes that, as always, “the biggest threat to wolves are people.”

Pearson guides me off the highway, and we nurse my battered truck along a steep dirt road that climbs from the valley floor up a rock-walled canyon. The road opens onto a spot on the east fork of the San Juan River below Wolf Creek Pass, just barely on the Pacific side of the Continental Divide. Here, born in springs and streams higher up, the San Juan River flows into a broad, marshy valley that, come autumn, will be full of elk and deer that have moved down from the higher elevations. Now, in the heat of summer, it is the province of butterflies, dragonflies, mice, and garter snakes, remarkable for its silence and few signs of human presence.

We walk up a trail to a series of waterfalls that cuts through ponderosa pine and aspen. From the highest cascade, we take in a view of the valley as it rises to meet a scalloped, weathered crest called the Clamshell. “Nice, isn’t it?” Pearson asks me with quiet understatement.

And so it will remain, at least for now. An isolated, privately owned in-holding surrounded by national forest and wilderness lands, the valley was slated to become the site for the $130 million, 2,880-acre Piano Creek development, a resort for the very rich, complete with an 80,000-square-foot lodge, private ski runs, and 5,000-square-foot homes that would be occupied an average of three weeks a year. But when developers applied for permits to dredge and drain wetlands along the river for a golf course, outraged citizens deluged local officials with over 800 public comments, and the permit request was withdrawn. Opposition to the Piano Creek project was so strong, in fact, that one investor pulled his money out and donated it to environmental groups.

AN ECOSYSTEM WITHOUT ITS FULL complement of wildlife can never be healthy. With each species–the moose, the peregrine falcon, the river otter, the lynx–the San Juans come a step closer to their natural balance, to their condition of a time before non-Native settlers arrived. The wolf is an essential component of that balance, its predation an essential process.

“You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she will ever hurry back,” wrote the Roman poet Horace. Wolves could even return to the San Juans on their own, given the opportunity. That scenario has not figured in the official literature. But Yellowstone wolves have already begun to populate the Wind River Range in west-central Wyoming, drifting southward; descendants of the Mogollon wolves may one day extend their territory northward. The San Juans stand at midpoint. If relentless attacks on wolves and their habitat could somehow be stopped, their howls could pierce the air along the entire length of the Rockies.

On the shoulder of Engineer Mountain, gazing out over the miles, I think of what this country will be like when Canis lupus takes its place here, someday soon. The view from the high ground includes endless chains of towering mountains, running from horizon to horizon. But it also includes hope: hope that here we can begin to put things right, that here we can help to make this land complete.


Reintroducing the gray wolf to the southern Rockies will not just help a federally endangered species recover, it will also help restore balance to the mountains’ ecosystem. Since the last Colorado wolf was killed in 1945, the southern Rockies have been missing a pivotal predator in the wilderness food chain. A “keystone” species, the wolf keeps coyotes in check, thereby increasing populations of coyote prey like deer and ground squirrels. The effect snowballs, allowing smaller predators like foxes, hawks, owls, and pine martens to flourish. Wolves provide other ecological benefits, too: They keep deer and elk on the move, preventing them from overgrazing; vegetation remains lush and the soil intact.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has established a plan to recover the wolf in the northern Rockies, but it continues to ignore the role the southern Rockies could play. The agency has downgraded the animal’s “endangered” status to “threatened” in most states, imperiling future federal involvement in reintroduction efforts.

The most recent polls show that roughly two-thirds of Colorado residents favor wolf reintroduction. The Sierra Club-sponsored Southern Rockies Wolf Restoration Project, a coalition of regional and national wolf advocates, scientists, and conservation groups, is building support for recovery efforts, mapping habitat, and educating the public about the canid’s role in the Rockies ecosystem.

* MORE INFORMATION GO tO www.rockywolf.org, send an e-mail to tina.arapkiles@sierraclub.org, or write the Southern Rockies Wolf Restoration Project, 2260 Baseline Rd., Suite 105, Boulder, CO 80302.

* EXPLORE You can howl with the wolves, or at least with fellow Sierra Club members, on a backpack trip in the rugged San Juans. Enjoy the Uncompahgre Wilderness from July 21 to 26, taking in vistas of deep valleys and towering peaks, while keeping an eye out for elk, deer, and other wildlife. Or hike North America’s backbone along the Continental Divide Trail from August 11 to 16, including a walk across Snow Mesa, one of the finest examples of alpine tundra in North America. Or, if you’re “fit and 50-plus,” you can loop through the San Juans August 3 through 9 and climb 13,723-foot Conejos Peak. For more information, go to www.sierraclub.org/outings/national, or contact Sierra Club Outings at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105; (415) 977-5522.

GREGORY McNAMEE is author of In the Presence of Wolves (Crown, 1995) and Blue Mountains Far Away (Lyons Press, 2000) and editor of The Mountain World (Sierra Club Books, 2000), among many other books.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Sierra Magazine

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