This winter, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project has launched public awareness campaign meant to familiarize Coloradans with wolves and garner enthusiasm for reintroducing wolves in the state. They’ve teamed up with the nonprofit Living with Wolves to bring a photo exhibition to a unique setting in Aspen.
The Aspen airport is bustling with families after a holiday weekend. As parents shepherd their kids and luggage through ticketing and security, they are under the watchful eyes of wolf families. Just inside the doorway, travelers are greeted by a large photo of two siblings playing.
“The photograph that’s on the left there really demonstrates the solidarity and the bonding in the wolf family,” said Delia Malone with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which brought the Living with Wolves exhibit to Aspen.
It’s a collection of dozens of photographs from Jim and Jamie Dutcher, who lived alongside Idaho’s Sawtooth wolf pack for 6 years in the 1990s.
"They were able to photograph wolves in natural situations interacting the way wolves normally interact," Malone said.
This, according to the Dutchers, is why the exhibit features so many intimate photos of the pack, playing, hunting, and protecting their young. Jamie Dutcher explained it’s not that different from our own family lives.
"They really are individuals, but they belong to the family,” she said. “The family is everything to them.”
For Jim Dutcher, this became clear after one of the weaker wolves — the omega in the pack — was killed by a mountain lion.
“They’re such a family. They stopped playing for six weeks after this wolf died. Their howling changed. They no longer howled together in an excited rally, but they howled in kind of a searching way as if they hoped for this omega to come back,” he explained.
The Dutchers hope the exhibit captures the complex social behavior that they saw in the wolf pack, to untangle the facts about wolves from the myths.
“I think I want people to feel a kinship, a similarity,” Jamie Dutcher said. “We hope it develops more than just a tolerance, but a real acceptance and understanding.”
Their ultimate goal is to restore wolves to Colorado. Diana Tomback is a forest ecologist with the University of Colorado-Denver. She works with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project on efforts to reintroduce wolves to this ecosystem. Tomback acknowledged that part of this process means reckoning with the past, when ranchers drove wolves out of the Central Rockies. But it’s not only about ethics.
"It's time to make it right, but also to recover the benefits we gained from the apex predator,” Tomback said.
Studies of other areas where wolves have been reintroduced show benefits throughout the ecosystem. Malone said Colorado is in the midst of a crisis in which we are losing multiple species. For example, elk herds are overpopulating parts of the state, especially in Rocky Mountain National Park, where they have overgrazed near rivers and streams and caused beavers to move out of the area.
"Wolves change that dynamic,” Malone said. “They actually restore biological diversity, they enhance biological diversity."
Malone said having wolves back in the picture would restore balance between predator and prey, like elk. That would lead to a trophic cascade, a ripple effect of positive changes from the top of the food chain all the way to the dirt.
"If we return the wolf, we move the elk,” she said. “We get a more natural elk behavior, the beaver return, the streams recover, wildlife recovers, vegetation recovers, vegetation stores carbon, the soils store carbon. So we start getting this huge cascade, a positive cascade of effects.”
Efforts to restore wolves often face opposition from ranching communities, as wolves have a reputation for eating livestock. That’s actually pretty rare; the numbers of livestock lost to wolves are far less than those lost to disease, bad weather and other predators, like coyotes.
"If that's your sheep or those are your cattle that are lost, that's big," Malone said. But there are ways to prevent these losses, so that returning wolves could benefit everyone. "We can have ranching, we can have wolves, we can have a healthier ecosystem.”
People at the airport have time to learn how. As they stand in line, waiting for their flights, they’re presented with information explaining the reality of conflicts between predators and cattle — and dispelling some common myths.
"Here we get a huge gamut of people that normally wouldn't go to a museum, so we get that exposure to a greater cross-section of the public,” Malone said.
Holiday travel is its own kind of wilderness, and this morning, hundreds of families at the tail end of their vacations negotiate the landscape. But Malone sees a similarity between these families and the wolf pack.
"They stay together as a family, they do everything as a family,” she said of wolves. “That's so admirable."
Malone thinks if visitors take a moment to engage with the exhibit, they just might find a common thread with wolves. So someday, those families can return home to the Colorado mountains.