I’ve often joked with my wolf-supporting friends that there must be an easier creature for us to advocate for than the most vilified animal on Earth. Why didn’t I stick with whales? Everybody loves whales! Wolves are . . . more complicated.

I attribute my choice to Defenders of Wildlife. Or rather, the Defenders magazine my dad subscribed to back in the 1970s which introduced me to the fascinating, inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking world of wolves.

Clint McKnight's Wolf Illustration
Image Credit
Illustration by Clint McKnight
Clint McKnight's illustration of a wolf.

That was long ago and far away in Los Angeles. I learned then that if I cared about whales and wolves, it was my responsibility to get involved. So, I started by making small donations to similar nonprofit organizations, and over time I began writing letters in support of laws to protect wild creatures and wild places.

In the 90s, I had the good fortune of working as a National Park Ranger in a landscape of dinosaur bones, teaching visitors about the mass extinction of 65 million years ago. I also joined other wildlife activists in Washington, D.C., supporting the Endangered Species Act to prevent future extinctions from occurring on our watch.  

Today, I find myself in Colorado at one of the most thrilling and historic moments for wildlife conservation in my lifetime: the return of the gray wolf to the Southern Rockies.  

2015.08.24 - Gray Wolf in the Grass - Minnesota - Maureen Ravnik
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Maureen Ravnik

In my hometown of Durango, I’m part of a small coalition of activists dedicated to the successful restoration of wolves by finding common ground between those who value wolves and those who despise them. It’s no easy task. The degree of fear and loathing by many ranchers and hunters toward Canis lupus is well known.  

At our county fair last summer, my colleagues and I sat at a table under a banner reading “Wolves. People. Coexistence.” not far from another table for the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. For five days, we listened to the concerns of the agricultural community, and while there were some flinty stares and harsh passing remarks, most folks were very polite. Through it all, we offered information about conflict avoidance and organizations helping ranchers adapt to the coming reality of “paws on the ground.”

Our goal was to show that wolf advocates are reasonable people who understand the concerns of “the other side” and there are ways to work together. No matter the degree of discontent expressed, I made it a point to listen with compassion, and concluded each conversation with a handshake. I believe we succeeded in demonstrating that wolf advocates are not crazy, and that we care about the sustainability of both wolves and ranching families. I believe we made a positive impression.  

2020.10.15 - Gray wolf caught on camera trap sniffing - Northwest Colorado - Defenders of Wildlife
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Gray wolf caught on camera trap in Northwest Colorado.

In the months following, Coloradans saw this debate between pro and anti-wolf camps intensify as the state prepared to reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope and the Cattleman’s Association and Gunnison County Stockgrowers’ Association filed a last-minute lawsuit to prevent it. Thanks in part to Defenders of Wildlife’s action in court, aligned with state and federal agencies, the reintroduction was not delayed, and the lawsuit was dropped. Another lawsuit challenging the reintroduction, filed by another group, is ongoing.  

Today as I write, there are 10 reintroduced wolves on the ground in Colorado, with more to come next winter. The challenge now is to stay engaged. We are at yet another crucial point in the restoration: dispelling false narratives and sensationalist journalism. Just because the most outlandish quotes make for interesting sound bites does not mean they are an accurate representation of the situation. Ranching is not being “destroyed” and elk herds are not being “decimated.” It’s nonsense. And it’s advocates like me and my colleagues who can help to offer science-based information to maintain public and political favor.  

Wenaha Pack gray wolf pups, Oregon
Image Credit

There will inevitably be bumps in the road ahead, though many Coloradans are working very hard to minimize conflict. My focus now is on keeping positive messaging about wolves in the public eye: stories, letters to the editor, and opinion columns. And here’s the message I’m trying to convey in each of these:

Why wolves? Because wolves belong! Because we have a responsibility to coexist with the other occupants of this rare planet. Because wolves will help make ecosystems healthier. Because restoring wolves to Colorado offers a firm rebuke to the worldwide loss of wild things in an age of Anthropocene extinction.  

I learned these lessons a long time ago when both my dad and Defenders taught me a fundamental truth: that wildlife matters, all wildlife matters. 

This blog was written by wolf and wildlife advocate, Clint McKnight. 


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