Miles Blumhardt, Fort Collins Coloradoan
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have confirmed they have additional evidence that a group of wolves is now residing in northwest Colorado. The Coloradoan
Now that a pack of wolves has been confirmed in Colorado for the first time in decades, could the state also have its first breeding pair?
Answering that question could have ramifications for a ballot initiative and legislative bill that calls for reintroducing wolves, predators that have been absent from the state since the 1940s (aside from sporadic reports of wandering lone individuals).
Both measures require the state to establish a sustainable wolf population. However, wording in the bill allows the state to cancel reintroduction efforts if the gray wolf already has a self-sustaining population.
“There is some trickiness and uncertainty for the ballot initiative and legislation (if the pack does produce young in Colorado), but you need a couple of packs successfully producing a couple of years to call it a population,” said Eric Odell, Colorado Parks and Wildlife species conservation program manager.
Now that a pack has been reported in the state for the first time in 80 years, the start of that self-sustaining population may already be happening.
Currently, neither Colorado Parks and Wildlife nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is actively monitoring the pack, which was discovered in the northwest corner of the state earlier this month.
Odell said the agency has game cameras set up in the area but is not conducting intensive monitoring of the pack in Moffat County. As of Wednesday, no images had been captured. He said the agency also continues to monitor reports of wolf activity in the area.
A gray wolf is shown in the file photo from the northern Rocky Mountains. A wolf pack has been confirmed in the northwest corner of Colorado. (Photo: Gary Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
He said the agency has not asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the required permits to trap and collar animals in the pack to help determine if there are breeding adults.
If the pack was captured and tracking collars applied, it would identify if there is a breeding pair of adults, allow biologists to locate a possible den site and help determine if the pair produces young in the state this spring.
Joe Szuszwalak, U.S.Fish and Wildlife spokesperson in Lakewood, said the agency is working with CPW and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services to monitor the wolves to the extent resources allow.
“Currently, there is no plan to trap and collar the wolves, but that’s not to say that wouldn’t happen in the future,” he said.Get the NoCo Asks newsletter in your inbox.
He said information gathered on the pack will be provided to the public and livestock producers to mitigate any sort of risk the wolves might present.
Carbondale rancher Bill Fales said he would like to see the pack more closely monitored.
“I think we need to know if they are breeding and what they are eating, and the sooner we know that information, the better,” said Fales, while checking calves at his ranch Friday.
Rob Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, which is spearheading the ballot initiative, said more closely monitoring the pack may not be needed until later.
“It is conceivable in the future that there will be a closer eye paid to them because it will play into discussions of what we do going forward with reintroduction or augmentation of the wolf population,” he said.
What biologists do know about the pack
Odell said district wildlife mangers used spotting scopes to locate six wolves from more than a mile away on March 4. The pack was spotted several miles south of where the animals were initially seen in January in Moffat County.
He said no tracking collars were seen on any of the wolves verified by CPW employees. He said genetic evidence collected from the pack’s scat samples near an elk kill indicated three females and one male and that the animals are siblings. Their age is unknown.
He said it is unknown if the other wolves in the pack are parents of the siblings. If that is the case, it would indicate a breeding pair but would still leave unanswered whether the parents produced the siblings in Colorado.
Wolves generally breed in January and February and give birth in April and May. Wolf packs are usually made up of parents and their pups from the previous several years.
“You can connect the dots and make an educated guess based on the genetics that there has been reproduction in the past, maybe even last spring,” he said. “But that could have taken place in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, who knows.”’
Edward said it is likely if there are adults in the pack and they do produce young in the state this spring, given the current monitoring of game cameras and the local’s interest in the wolves, they will be seen.
“The more we know what is going on with wolves in our state, the better off everybody is,” Edward said.
Currently, wolves in Colorado are federally endangered species and are managed by USFWS. Odell said the state would ultimately prefer to manage wolves. That would only happen if the state could establish sustained self-populating packs.
If the state would succeed in that, it could prompt USFWS to delist the wolf and hand management to Colorado, like the agency did in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho after successful reintroduction programs in the mid-1990s established sustained populations.
The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund-backed ballot initiative, which voters will see on the November ballot, states that the wolf reintroduction management plan must include establishing and maintaining a self-sustaining population. The initiative states reintroduction must start before 2024.
The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail), calls for cancellation of reintroduction efforts if wolves have already secured a self-sustaining population in Colorado. That bill is stuck in its initial committee, as the legislature is suspended due to the coronavirus.