Gray wolves expected back in Colorado
The wolves are coming.
Due to recent reintroduction of the northern gray wolf in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, Colorado could see the migration of the large animal for the first time since the 1940s, state wildlife officials said.
“While we don’t have an established population in the state, we’ve had numerous sightings over the last decade due to the increase in number of wolves in surrounding states,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Porras.
“We felt obligated to let the public know about the populations in surrounding states and with that, the distance the wolves can travel. It won’t be long, based on all the facts that we’ve gathered, that a population will be established in the state. We will not relocate wolves into the state because that’s just not something that we’re in agreement with in CPW, but we can’t stop them from migrating in on their own.”
Ranging in population across North America from the Arctic to Mexico and from coast to coast, the last known gray wolves in Colorado were killed by about 1940. Sometimes called “timber wolves” (to distinguish it from the coyote, or prairie wolf), wolves occupy a wide range of habitats. Wolves once fed on Colorado’s vast herds of bison, elk and deer, supplemented by rabbits, rodents and carrion, according to CPW.
When hunters decimated the large mammals that constituted wolves’ staple diet, wolves naturally turned to a new food resource in the developing frontier: livestock. That led to wolves in Colorado being eradicated by shooting, trapping and poisoning.
Growing to as big as 5 feet long, with bushy tails as long as 14 inches, the gray wolf resembles a large dog and can be mistaken for a coyote.
Following the restoration of the gray wolves in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and a subspecies in New Mexico and Arizona by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the last decade, many observers in the CPW believe that we’ll start seeing the migration of wolves — especially male wolves — into the northern and southern parts of the state due to their ability to travel long distances.
According to a press release from Porras, CPW wildlife managers traverse the state each year by land and air to classify big game, but none have observed wolf packs, dens or any other evidence wolves have established a population Colorado.
But “wolves are known to travel long distances and we expect that they will continue to come into the state on their own. We have a duty to let the public know about this possibility to help prevent someone from accidentally killing a wolf,” CPW Director Bob Broscheid said. “Identifying the target and the species you are hunting is critical and a major tenet of safe and ethical hunting. Whether you are a trapper, or an elk hunter, deer hunter, coyote hunter or a landowner protecting livestock from predators, you must be sure of your target before you take any animal.”
While wolves can be a dangerous predatory to livestock, killing a wolf is an illegal taking of a species that is protected by the Endangered Species Act in Colorado. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the agency with jurisdiction over wolves in Colorado — killing a wolf or any endangered species can result in criminal charges, a year in prison and fines up to $100,000 per offense, depending on circumstances and the discretion of federal authorities.
The CPW said various incidents over the past several years confirm that wolves occasionally visit northern Colorado, including a wolf killed in a vehicle collision on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs in 2004. Three years later, two CPW wildlife officers captured video of an animal with strong wolf-like characteristics along the Colorado-Wyoming border, a few miles north of Walden. In 2009, a radio-collared gray wolf was found dead north of Rifle, and in April 2015, a trailcam, again near Walden, captured photos of an animal that appears to be a wolf. The unconfirmed sighting is considered credible.
Also in April 2015, a hunter mistakenly killed what he thought was a coyote near Wolford Mountain Reservoir, north of Kremmling. Following an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, agency biologists positively identified the animal as a gray wolf. Fortunately for the hunter, the USFWS declined to press charges or fine the hunter because they determined that the hunter didn’t kill the wolf intentionally and couldn’t clearly identify that it was or was not a wolf.
Outside of confirmed and unconfirmed visual sightings of wolves in the state over the last decade, there has been multiple reports of scat and tracks resembling wolves, as well as reports of howling in numerous areas of the state.
The main concern — which might not be the right word choice, according to Porras — for wolves migrating back into the state comes from farmers with livestock that could be attacked by said wolves.
“We certainly hear those property owners with livestock,” Porras said. “We understand their concern with wolves moving in, but there are plenty of other predators that should be of concern in this state. If something were to happen to their livestock, CPW would be obligated to compensate for those losses. We want to make that clear to them.”
Wolf supporters believe the CPW is, well, crying wolf.
Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, told the Summit Daily that wolves pose no noteworthy hazard to the livestock industry, and that the killing of farm animals is the rare exception, and techniques already exist to help offset potential issues on private land to responsibly recolonize the state.
“There is no more symbolic voice for the wildlands of Colorado than the howl of the wolf,” said Phillips, who is also a state representative in Montana. “They were an important member of Colorado’s natural history, they could be an important member of the future and they’re important to restoring the natural balance to Colorado. The wolf’s presence would indicate a more complete, a more balanced landscape than not.”
With the increase in sightings, though, Colorado’s Wolf Management Plan drafted in 2004 by a multidisciplinary group from CPW, could go into effect more often than not as potential wolf populations start to pop up.
For those that have sightings to report, whether of a wolf, scat or tracks, you’re encouraged to report the sighting to CPW immediately through its Wolf Sighting Form online.