By Jamie Leary

BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) – As Colorado voters prepare to make a decision on the future of gray wolves in the state, a University of Colorado Boulder professor is making sure her students know just how complex the issue is.

“There’s so much more to wolves than just their biology. They are more than just a biological species and in this course we explore that,” said Joanna Lambert, Professor of Ecology.

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Joanna Lambert (credit: CBS)

Lambert’s courses are popular at CU, and one in particular is more relevant than ever.

“A course called ‘Dogs, Wolves and Human Evolution’ and so I’m very interested in the very long and complex history that humans have had with wolves that sort of ultimately culminated in domesticated dogs. I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time teaching students about what happens when you put an apex predator into an ecosystem and the classic case of that is at Yellowstone,” she said.

Lambert spends much of her fieldwork researching wolves in Yellowstone National Park, an area that saw successful reintroduction of wolves 25 years ago. While successful, she points out, Colorado is much different. Lambert wants to make sure her students understand the pros and cons.

“I can’t comment really on the ballot initiative itself, but what I am attempting to teach them is that it’s not black and white. There’s a lot of gray in the middle. Some folks will feel the cost of this a lot more than others.”

Lambert’s class explores the earliest relationships between wolves and humans and how a once thriving U.S. population was eradicated by fear.

(credit: CBS)

CBS4 attended the first of the once a week three hour lecture Monday.

“The northern Rocky (Mountain) area is Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and you’ll hear a lot about the northern Rockies because what is being proposed for Colorado is to hook up the southern Rockies with the northern Rocky population. So your question’s about, you know, how do you figure out if it’s endangered or not… is really relevant here. It’s more than just having an ‘x’ number of animals, those animals need to be interbreed and maintain gene flow,” Lambert told her class.

She’s been teaching the class since 2012. This year is the first she’s reduced it to just over 20 students, who say it’s a popular course.

“Getting to work under her is such a treat. I think she does fantastic science and I think something that’s really important is, when you do fantastic science, is contextualizing it within society, within culture,” said Emily Beam, a second year Ph.D. student.

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Beam has taken multiple courses with Professor Lambert, including fieldwork with Lambert in Yellowstone National Park. It’s thanks to Lambert’s instruction, she understands the complexities of the issue.

(credit: CBS)

“The idea of reintroduction essentially is very complicated because the idea behind it is that we wanna restore balance to an ecosystem that has been unbalanced by human activity theoretically. In practice, that can be very difficult especially with an animal like a wolf which doesn’t always play by rules that we set fourth for it so there’s a lot stake holders that have to be considered if this is going to be done correctly,” Said Beam.

For Lambert, the class is becoming more relevant than ever.

“Human wildlife interactions are increasing continuously and they particularly sort of volatile when it’s an apex predator,” said Lambert.

She said if reintroduction happened, Colorado wouldn’t see numbers like it saw prior to the 1940’s but it would require some adjusting for stakeholders.

“A number of folks are working really hard on coming up with means by which to facilitate coexistence and so that’s what the hope is here. That co-existence can take place,” she said.

Helpful links to make an informed decision before November:

US Fish & Wildlife Services–  wolf fact sheet:

International Wolf Center — learn about wolves

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — gray wolf

National Wildlife Federation — gray wolf information

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World Wildlife Federation — gray wolves

Jamie Leary