Who is afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Reintroduction of Wolves to Colorado.

This November Colorado voters will consider approving and funding the reintroduction of Grey Wolves into Colorado, with the goal of having a self-sustaining Gray Wolf population in the state.

Wolves, of course, are some of the most controversial animals on the planet; old northern European fairytales are rife with frightening lupine references.  Wolves remain largely mis-understood. Their packs, hierarchy and behavior continue to be studied.  The question is what, if any, are the consequences of a wolf reintroduction plan in Colorado?

In light of its significance, I’d like to evaluate the facts and history and consider what may be the unintended consequences of this vote, if it passes.

Colorado Wildlife has reported regular wolf sightings over the last few years. The wolves seem to be naturally coming back to Colorado.

One case study to consider: some years ago, elk over-population did serious damage to vegetation in Yellowstone National Park. The reintroduction of wolves and/ or the increase of their population appears to have controlled the elk population and its subsequent impact on the vegetation.

In east San Miguel County, we have a lot of elk and therefore elk damage to vegetation. Could the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado and ultimately the San Juans stop this damage to the vegetation and better balance the ecosystem?

When I moved to Telluride in 1975 elk sightings were few. I consulted Jack Pera, a well-known regional wildlife expert and photographer who owned and operated Timberline Hardware, and asked him where I might spot some of these then elusive animals. In 1990 a wildlife study was done on the elk population on the north side of the San Miguel Valley and Deep Creek Mesa, from above town to Grayhead. In 1990 the elk population was estimated at between 120-150. Fast forward 30 years and that population has increased 10-fold. Why? The reason is simple: few predators and plenty of feed. When the large ranches were in operation—including the Aldasoro Brothers, the Adams and the Alexanders families—they grazed sheep and cattle not only on their substantial holdings but also on all the national forest surrounding their holdings through a permit system. Food was scarce, and high up the mountain, the few elk had to compete with the 5000 plus sheep and hundreds of cattle for food. Alleyoop grazed cattle on the valley floor, thus eliminating food for elk in that location.

That, of course, all changed with the success of the ski area and the subsequent impact of more homes and development. With the approval and inception of several developments Mountain Village, West Meadows, Aldasoro, Lawson Hill etc. a dog prohibition was instituted to counteract the perceived threat to wildlife. Commercial ranching was reduced dramatically, subsequently increasing the feed for deer and elk, causing the elk population to explode. The positive effects are that elk and deer are commonplace and coyotes, bear and mountain lion have become more numerous as well. However, this was an unintended and unexpected consequence of development.

The question that comes logically to mind is: what was it like before the white man showed up and the eco system was supposedly in balance?

Well, we are fortunate because Franklin Rhoda, a member, together with A.D. Wilson (Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak), of the Hayden survey of the territories (then Colorado), kept very good records and Rhoda in his journal made the following entries when describing our area:

“After crossing the canon of the creek above mentioned we came out on a pretty smooth area, covered with scattering timber and fine grass. One thing very peculiar about this particular part of the country is the deathlike stillness that almost oppresses one in passing through it. There is the finest growth of grass I have ever seen in Colorado, with beautiful little groves of pine and quaky asp scattered about, which one would expect to be filled of game. The old trail and the very antiquated appearance of the carvings on the trees, and the absence of all tracks, old or new, indicated that the Indians had abandoned this route long since. With all these conditions, so favorable to animal life, we did not hear a bird twitter in the thickets, and saw neither deer, elk, nor antelope, nor even a single track of one of those animals. In all other parts of the country little squirrels and chipmunks were seen in abundance; but here, if they existed at all, they kept themselves close. We made camp on the large east fork of San Miguel (now the San Miguel itself), just across the stream from station 32 on the map. The next day, September 9, we made station 32, on a low hill on the north side of the creek (on Deep Creek Mesa), which from its width might more properly be called a river (again the San Miguel). Above this for several miles the stream -bed is very flat and covered with willows (the Telluride Valley Floor), while the stream itself winds like a great snake. A short distance below our station the stream plunges down very abruptly into the canon of the San Miguel (Keystone Gorge), which, above and below this junction, cuts down from 800 to 1,000 feet into the sandstone which here makes its appearance. Leaving station 32 on our way to Mount Sneffels, we followed the trail a short distance, and then, turned off to the right, with great difficulty succeeded in descending to the bed of the creek flowing from the northeast (probably Deep Creek).  In this vicinity we saw a band of six gray wolves, the first we have seen during the season.”

“Ascent of Mount Sneffels. The weird stillness of high altitudes, only served to heighten the appearance of desolation about us, and gave one the idea that all nature was dead… We reached the pass at last… The claw-marks on the rocks, on either side of the summit of the pass, showed that the grizzly had been before us. We gave up all hope of ever beating the bear climbing mountains. Several times before, when, after terribly difficult and dangerous climbs, we had secretly chuckled over our having outwitted Bruin at last, some of the tribe had suddenly jumped up not far from us and taken to their heels over the loose rocks. Mountain sheep we had beaten in fair competition, but the bear was “one too many for us”.

Rhoda leaves us with this question: was this band of Gray wolves and perhaps others, along with the grizzlies responsible for the lack of wildlife in our area in 1874? Would the reintroduction of wolves decimate the elk, deer and other wildlife? I guess if this November’s ballot initiative is approved, we will leave it to our grandchildren to figure out if this was a prudent move.

Again, the law of unintended consequences could have its effect.

Dirk DePagter

Black and white photo on men shoveling snow

Telluride Skiing History

Up Hill Ski Tows in the Telluride Region As remembered by Billy Mahoney Sr.

1935-1945 Skiing behind cars was very popular in Telluride during these years. All the roads were dirt and not plowed very well. The town put a stop to this once the war was over and people began to buy cars and more traffic was on the streets; and so it goes.

1937 Gus Sands and Tony Thornton built a 300 foot rope tow above the beaver pond (west of town park) on the North facing slope. The tow went up to a large Quaky tree below Bear Creek Road. It was powered by a Brad-Stratton Engine.

1938-1939 Bruce Palmer and a group of boys hauled a motor up the hill to build a tow they needed some pulleys and a cable, but Bruce Palmer ended up getting a rope tow that was made in Sweden and set it up at Grizzly Gulch also known as the Kids Hill. This tow was about 400 feet long. The gasoline engine is now in the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame.

1940 Bob Mahoney and Ed Goldsworthy used a 1927 Nash car as a portable rope tow at the beaver pond area near the Town Park. We also used it at the Broomtail on Turkey Creek Mesa and what is now called West Meadows and up on Lizard Head Pass.

1941 Bob, Ed Pete Peterson, Billy and Pat Mahoney and others built a Rope Tow at the ballpark (off what is known as Firecracker Hill) using a Model A Engine. This Rope Tow burned up in 1942.

1946-1952 Bob, Ed, Pete and others built a new rope tow where the other one had burned up. They used a V-8 Ford engine that came from Pete’s parents who owned the Peterson Garage.

1950 Art Peterson developed what is now the Skyline Guest Ranch. Pete, Ed and Bob set up a rope tow there to be used by the guests and the kids that wanted to ski in 1957.

1953 A new rope tow was set up on Firecracker Hill by the local kids and Melvin Punk Porterfield, and was used until 1956.

1956 The Idarado Mining Company built a new electric powered rope tow for the local kids. Bob Hilander, the mines general manager; Dutch Wunderlich the shop foreman Jimmy Bonato, the lathe operator and Arvo Thompson, and Dick Stevens who set it up on the hill. It was operated from 1956 to about 1963 at the ball park. Bob Hilander designed a patch with two crossed crutches and a casted ankle. The name of the Ski-Hi club was the club name there were about 100 members, mostly kids. The lift was open on weekends a season pass was $5.00

1963 The Idarado rope tow was moved from the ballpark to Grizzly Gulch in 1963 this rope tow was about 1200 feet long. At this time we found that it was too steep for the small kids to use. In the summer of 1964 Dick Swerdfeger, Bucky Schuler, Sr Mahoney, Ned Walker, the Rice boys, Bill Mahoney Jr, Johnny Stevens, Arvo Thompson and others built a rope tow for the beginners to use. We then realigned the 1200 foot tow, at this time we removed the beginner tow. Now all the kids could use the one tow. The club was run by volunteer parents, we operated the ski area until 1969. At this time Joe Zoline had purchased the land. We asked Joe Zoline if he would let us operate the area. He said we could if we got insurance and get the Colorado Tramway Board to approve the operation. We found that the cost was to prohibitive so we closed the area down.

The Road to a Ski Area
As remembered by Billy Mahoney Sr.

1940 The U.S.  Forest Service worked on a plan for a Winter sports area at Trout Lake. The property considered belonged to the Western Colorado Power Co and C.N. Fairlamb and there were talks of a trade for some Electra Lake property. As a result of the war the trade and winter sports area didn’t happen.
1958 A group here in Telluride formed what was called the Telluride Ski Inc. We obtained options on the land where the present day ski area is today. The Telluride Elks Club came up with $12000 to help obtain the land options. Stock was sold to the citizens of Telluride but unwise expenditures of funds by manager bankrupted the company.

1964 The recreation planning committee of City of Telluride sent a profile for a double chairlift to Sterns Roger Corporation. This lift was to be built from the old Depot up to Camels Garden. Pete Peterson, Bill Mahoney and Ed Goldsworthy were on the City Council, Donald O’Rourke was the city planner. We tried to get the whole city council to get a small business loan, we needed $70960 to get this done, but the Mayor and other the other members of the city council would not go along with this deal. The Mayor would not sign the agreement.

1965 The ski area on Dallas Divide was a popular place to ski. It was opened in 1960 by a group of Montrose and Norwood people. They built a t-bar and lodge. Some of the group were Jerry Hodges, Steve Wall, Tessman and the Clines. They hired Jerry Pesman t conduct a ski school. The Area was opened until 1973. They had to close because of the Colorado Tramway Board.

1964 Joern Gerdts, Jerry Pesman and Billy Mahoney Sr. tried to promote a ski area again. Gerdts got a story in Ski magazine that helped some. Gerdts was coming back from California he was sitting with Joe Zoline they got talking about skiing in Aspen where they both lived. Gerdts told him about a great place for a ski area this was 1968. Then in September Joe Zoline came to Telluride and picked up the options on the land.

In 1969-1970-1971 We ran snow cat skiing to promote the development of a ski area. We got the permits from the U.S. Forest Service to develop a ski area. Then in 1972 we built five double chair lifts and skiing became a big deal here in Telluride.

Some of the Early Ski Run names in 1970

  • Bushwacker – This name came about in the late 1940’s the young skiers called skiing thru the trees BUSHWACKING.
  • Mammoth – Name came about because it was the most open area to ski in the early days.
  • Spiral Stairs – Named after the spiral stair case that went from the surface to 4 level of the Tomboy Mine. The stairs at the Tomboy spiraled 5 times from the surface to number 4 level.
  • Telluride Plunge – Name taken from a mining claim located in Savage Basin in the year 1870.
  • See For Ever – Name taken from mining claim located on the Three Needles Mountain in Bridal Veil Basin elevation 13481 from this mountain you can See For Ever.
  • Pick and Gad – Named after the Pick and Gad cat house, you could pick a lady for the evening and talk all night among other things.
  • Misty Maiden – Name of a girl that worked in the red light district her name was Misty.

True Stories of the Ski Area
Accounts by Sr. Mahoney

This happened in June 1970, I had just hired a fellow to help me cut some test trails for the proposed ski area. I never ask him what kind of work he had done in the past. We had just started lunch, this guys name was Ed. He turned to me and said I think we may need to get some uppers and downers to help me do this kind of work. I didn’t understand what he was saying, he told me when he worked for a newspaper back east he used these uppers and downers. He went on to say it gets your mind off your work, he said one time at this newspaper he thought he was a needle on a musical record. I didn’t know what to say I thought to my self what the hell have I hired maybe I better let this guy go, but you know he really became a good worker. I don’t think he used these uppers or downers.

This happened in 1972 Joe Zoline sent in a landscape architect that was from California he was to help lay out the cutting of the ski trails. Well one day he said to me what are those trails up on gold hill, well I said to him those trails are made by geese that are flying South, he said oh! I then explained to him that geese can’t fly over 10000 elevation. Gold Hill is over 12000 elevation so they land at the 10000 elevation walk up over the top and down to the 10000 elevation and fly away. Later that evening he was down at the Sheridan Bar, having a beer with the crew. He politely said to the guys sitting at the bar did you know that geese can’t fly above 10000 elevation.
In 1972this same architect asked me a few weeks later what do you do if a bear came by. I told him do not climb a tree as bears are good tree climbers, he then asked what about a small tree. I told him these bears around here will shake the tree until you fall out. He then asked what one should do, I then told him to lay as flat as flat as he can and play dead. A few weeks later I came upon this guy who was laying flat on the ground. I asked him what he was doing, he said he was practicing being dead.

In 1970 Ed and I needed to obtain a certification under the National Ski Patrol to run our snow cat skiing. I got it all set up with the ski patrol from Grand Junction to get our certification. We got all set up to go through necessary routine. I was first I went through the routine with no problem, when Ed was to bring the toboggan down it turned upside down with one of the patrol guys. Ed let go of the rope, now as Ed passed the toboggan he was looking back to see what had happened he ran face first into a small tree and was knocked cuckoo. The guy in the toboggan was ok, well I thought this was it, no certification. The ski patrolman said I never saw anything like this, he gave us our certification. By the way we didn’t have any accidents that winter.