Wolf spotted in RMNP
Report is credible, biologist contends
BY DOUGLAS CROWL
A wolf could be living in, or at least visiting, Rocky Mountain National Park, according to a biologist who investigated a sighting there earlier this month.
On Dec. 4, experienced park volunteers saw a black canine emerge from the trees at Moraine Park, lift its leg to urinate and then dart away once the animal noticed it had company, said biologist Jeff Conner, a natural resource specialist for Rocky Mountain National Park.
The sighting lasted 30 or 40 seconds, a good amount of time at the volunteers’ vantage point of 200 feet, to see and describe an animal, he said.
Conner investigated the claim the next day. He found the animal’s tracks, and using the volunteer’s description of the animal, he decided that it could have been a wolf.
“There’s an animal out there, and we don’t know exactly what it is, but we called the report credible,” he said.
The tracks showed it was not a mountain lion, coyote, bear or a domestic dog, which leaves a wolf or a wolf hybrid – a cross between a domestic dog and wolf, Conner said.
Researchers from the Denver Zoo studying mountain lions in the park are now also watching out for signs of wolves, Conner said.
“We’ve been kind of anticipating something like this happening,” he said.
That’s because of a possible wolf sighting near Walden in February 2006 that was caught on film and showed a black canine south of the Wyoming border, considered pretty good evidence that animal was visiting the state, Conner said.
In 2004, the Colorado Division of Wildlife also confirmed that a collared wolf from Wyoming, also black, was killed on Interstate 70.
After poking around and asking local wildlife managers this month, Conner also learned of a handful of unsubstantiated wolf sightings this year in or around Rocky Mountain National Park, including the Indian Peaks Wilderness just south of the park and Lyons Gulch, on U.S. Highway 36, west of Lyons.
“We get wolf sightings all the time, but the hard thing is confirming them,” said Tyler Baskfield, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Friday was the first Baskfield heard of the Dec. 4 sighting in the park, so he couldn’t comment on it. But the division is preparing for wolves – it recently finished a wolf management plan for Colorado if or when the animal returns – after the animal was wiped out during the early part of the 20th century.
Rocky Mountain National Park officials recently considered introducing wolves into the park to manage the elk population. But that alternative was all but scrapped when park officials introduced its Elk and Vegetation Management Plan on Dec. 11, six days after Conner deemed the wolf sighting credible.
The plan describes how park officials will cull the elk population in and around the park.
Conner said officials didn’t intend to keep the sighting quiet, but he acknowledged there was no effort to publicize it, either.
With the Walden sighting less than two years ago, it makes sense that a wolf could be roaming through Rocky Mountain National Park, said Rob Edwards, director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu, a Boulder-based organization dedicated to restoring predators to Colorado.
“It could be the same animal (as the one near Walden), it could be a new one; it’s hard to say. But individual wolves will be making forays into Colorado from time to time,” he said.
But Edwards doesn’t believe the wolf packs in and around Yellowstone National Park, where they were introduced in the 1990s, will ever migrate very far into southern Wyoming because of lack of food.
He also doesn’t believe that wolves visiting Colorado will ever stay and establish packs here because there’s little evidence of wolves traveling great distances with a pack or even with other animals, said Edwards, who advocates for wolf reintroduction.
They make the trips alone in search of another mate, which they won’t find in Colorado, he said.
Baskfield said Edwards’ take on wolf migration is opinion, not fact.
“I’ve heard arguments on both sides of that issue,” he said. “Even experts debate that.”