By Jennie Lay
A pair of bison casually watches as the Druid wolf pack passes by in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley. Photo by Mile High Travel/iStock.com
Wolves were made for walking. That’s just what they do.
“And they cover enormous distances,” says Aaron Bott, a sixth-generation farmer/rancher and wildlife biologist who studies wolves in the intermountain West.
After wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995, they meandered into bordering states. Then they sauntered farther afield. Eventually, lone wolves started popping up in Northwest Colorado.
“Since we reintroduced wolves into the Northern Rockies, we’ve had wolves come down through Utah, through Colorado, through California, into Oregon and into Washington, even one wolf probably making it an all the way down to Texas,” Bott says.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife officials verified a black wolf caught on video in February 2007 in North Park; a gray one from Montana poisoned in February 2009 near Rifle; a black one from Wyoming camera-trapped and radio-transmitting in April 2015 in North Park, then a gray one shot near Kremmling that same month; and a single male wolf from Wyoming’s Snake River Pack, known as 1084-M, surfaced during the summer of 2019 in Jackson County, just over the Park Range from Steamboat Springs. As of June, CPW pilots were continuing to follow 1084’s movements and communicating regularly with private landowners in the area.
Still, Colorado lacked a confirmed pack with a sustainable presence. Until now.
They’re (kind of) back
In January, barely a month after a wolf reintroduction initiative made the cut for Colorado’s November statewide ballot, wildlife officers confirmed an eyewitness account from hunters who had seen a pack of wolves (and caught two on video) last fall. On that winter day, the biologists were roused by distinct wolf howls as they investigated a scavenged elk carcass near Irish Canyon in northern Moffat County. Peering through binoculars, they spent 20 minutes observing six wolves that were about two miles away. When they moved in for a closer look the wolves had moved on, but they found large paw tracks in the snow measuring up to 5.5 inches.
Again, in March, wildlife officers encountered the wolf pack in action, spotting six wolves just a few miles farther south of the scenic and environmentally sensitive canyon filled with ancient petroglyphs.
Gov. Jared Polis addressed the historic sightings in a manner that reflects a growing sentiment among citizens in this deep purple state: many people want to live with wolves again. In May, a Colorado State University poll indicated 84% of Coloradans would vote yes on reintroduction. “While lone wolves have visited our state periodically including last fall, this is very likely the first pack to call our state home since the 1930s. I am honored to welcome our canine friends back to Colorado after their long absence,” Polis said.
But the gray wolf’s arrival isn’t new news to Routt County ranchers and hunting outfitters. Fourth-generation cattle rancher Adonna Allen says they’ve expected wolves in Northwest Colorado for a long time—really, ever since the Yellowstone reintroduction 25 years ago. “They’re coming. They’re here. And we can deal with that. We’re preparing to deal with it,” she says.
While Allen is not opposed to wolves’ natural migration, “having a reintroduction forced upon us by a ballot initiative is untenable,” she says. “The hard part of the ballot initiative is that it’s decided statewide, but the burden will fall upon the residents in Northwest Colorado.”
ESA & Colorado’s wolf initiative
Currently, wolves are protected in Colorado under the federal Endangered Species Act, which puts all aspects of wolf management under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whether wolves are released here or happen to wander across the state line. In fact, in 1974 wolves were among the first species to receive ESA protection.
On March 6, 2019, acting Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt announced a proposal to remove ESA protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48, transferring authority for their management to the states. The proposed rule will undoubtedly be litigated, as indicated by an immediate statement from Earthjustice attorney Drew Caputo: “Wolf recovery is still underway in the U.S. with wolves just starting to reappear in places…where they had been hunted to extinction….This delisting proposal is not just bad science and bad policy—it’s also illegal. If the Trump administration finalizes it, we’ll see them in court.”
Meanwhile, momentum for wolf recovery is moving at high-speed toward the 2020 election in Colorado. Initiative 107, titled “Restoration of Grey Wolves,”will be on the November 3 ballot.
Michael Phillips, a conservation biologist who is a Montana state senator and director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, addressed a group of conservation professionals in Boulder during the fall signature campaign to get 107 on the ballot. He touts western Colorado’s 17 million acres of public land and the state’s 700,000 deer and elk as a critical piece of a conservation puzzle. He gets excited about making a continental connection—re-linking wolves from Mexico to Alaska. Wolves are the missing voice, he proclaims, and once Coloradans embrace an honest assessment of the environment it will only require a little accommodation.
“Why does wolf restoration struggle? It’s the mythical wolf,” Phillips explains. “The real wolf is hard to see through the mythical haze. The myth is as wrong as it is strong. And we are trying to kill it.”
Phillips judges Colorado’s carrying capacity for wolves to be greater than any other state, expertise he gleaned working as field coordinator for the red wolf recovery program and the founding project leader for wolf restoration to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He reassures the crowd that thanks to work that’s been done in other states, we know how to restore grey wolves in a way that is cost effective.
Historic loss & environmental gain
Wolves are highly social creatures, native to Colorado. They dominated the landscape until they were hunted and trapped out of existence. As many as 2 million gray wolves once roamed the western U.S. along with bison, elk, deer, moose and pronghorn. Manifest Destiny pushed European settlers with imported sheep and cattle into their range, destroying vast herds of native wildlife along the way. This put ranchers in competition with hungry wolves. A government-sanctioned program of wolf extermination hit full force in the early 1900s, and American wolves were scarce by the 1920s.
The howl was silenced in Colorado with the last known wolf kill near the New Mexico border in 1945.
“Colorado has a lot of fantastic terrain. The topography along with its large game herds makes it a very suitable state for wolves to roam once again,” says Bott, who did his graduate research with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. “Even with the large human population in Colorado, there are still a lot of public lands that wolf populations could sustainably live on.”
We associate wolves with wilderness, but wolves don’t necessarily require wilderness, he says. Many European countries have a higher human population than some of our western states do, and yet they have more wolves. “It’s very feasible for wolves to overlap their range with ours,” Bott says.
Trophic cascade, the effect of a top predator’s presence improving habitat quality and species viability all the way down the food chain, is often cited as a prime motivation for wolf reintroduction. Bott says the phenomenon is highly sensationalized, especially in the popular media.
“It’s more complicated than people make it. There is this idea that there is a landscape of fear and that wolves are superheroes,” he says, calling the discussion oversimplified and controversial. Wolves are large predators, and large predators are essential to having healthy ecosystems, but it’s more than just the wolf. “You have cougars and you have bears and all of these animals are pulling a lot of weight and they are doing a lot of good for the environment.”
Ultimately, don’t expect to see the dramatic landscape changes that happened in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley all over Colorado, but “to restore an apex predator to a landscape that has been without them, is going to be ecologically wonderful,” Bott says.
Ranching with predators
So now we have confirmed wolves who arrived naturally in Colorado, including a single pack. And, if it passes, Initiative 107 will require the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to create and carry out a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves by the end of 2023, too. Colorado’s state legislature would be required to fund the reintroduction program, and the commission must pay fair compensation to livestock owners for any losses caused by wolves.
Gray wolves would be reintroduced west of the Continental Divide in a location yet to be determined. “I would very strongly argue that habitat fragmentation and loss is the number one threat to megafauna species, if not all species, of wildlife in America, particularly in the intermountain West. That’s something that we have to consider because wolves are highly adaptable and they can disperse great distances, and they have the capacity of living in our backyard. It’s really up to our levels of tolerance where we allow wolves, where can we have wolves, and what areas are and aren’t appropriate for wolves to live,” Bott says.
In other words, there’s a rift between the ecological carrying capacity and social carrying capacity for wolves. Bott’s family settled in Utah in the 1840s, and he’s deeply engrained with multi-generational farmers, ranchers and hunters. “I definitely understand and respect the complexities of coexisting with large carnivores,” he says.
Bott studies the human dimension of carnivore management and conservation, including wolves in remote areas, wolves that are protected in some places and not tolerated in others, and how these attitudes affect the overall wolf population, behaviors and dynamics.
He points out that while there is science to help deter wolves, livestock safety is never 100% guaranteed. “Wolf depredation on livestock is not astronomical, but if it’s happening to you as an individual, it’s very personal. Ranching is a lifestyle. I think a lot of urbanites don’t realize it’s a lifestyle that people choose.” He compares it to his friends who live in vans to rock climb, or ski bums.
“Not to necessarily compare those livelihoods, but a rancher does what he or she does because they love it. Not because they’re going to get rich. And so, if there is any depredation that they could have prevented, they’re going to feel sore about that. They’re going to be bitter about that. And sometimes it helps to reimburse the rancher for the loss. But sometimes that bitterness doesn’t go away,” Bott says.
One perennial predicament is that livestock is grazed on vast tracks of Colorado’s public land. Finding and documenting predation while the evidence is viable is challenging. By contrast, ranchers in Europe, where wolves and bears have always been present, have learned to adapt to predators, and they ranch differently. “But change is hard, especially if you live in a place where not but a generation or two ago, your family systematically uprooted those problems, and now someone else is reinstating them against your wishes,” Bott says. “I think it’s going to take a lot of patience for everyone. I think it’s going to take a lot of discussion, and I think it’s going to also take a lot of time.”
On Allen’s ranch, Long Winter Livestock, Adonna and her husband Troy have already shifted how they run their operation. They’ve educating themselves and preparing for years. “We’re in a community where there are a lot of multi-generational families. A lot of the ranchers here weren’t surprised. They look with a really long-term perspective, thinking about how they can get their ranch to the next generation,” Adonna says.
The Allens are keeping their cows closer to the house when they’re calving, and herd patrol is a priority. They check on cows more often these days, especially at night. They’ve installed game cameras to watch what’s prowling and a large commercial-grade spotlight to scope the herd from their deck. Spotlights are mounted on both the ATV and Troy’s saddle. “Wolves are smart and cunning. And it doesn’t take a lot to outsmart a cow,” Adonna says. “It’s best to keep our approach and patrols fresh, to not be repetitive and do the same things over and over again…. We have to be creative and change it up so the wolves have to stay on their toes.”
Lure of the watch
Pro naturalist Colby Brokvist has spent five years as a wolf guide, leading people to find Canis lupus with Natural Habitat Adventures, the conservation travel partner to World Wildlife Fund. He knows a lot about what it’s like to be in the presence of wolves—and how hard it is to actually see one, let alone the small chance of casually bumping in to one. Yellowstone, with its strict protections and abundant prey, makes it one of the world’s best places for wolf watching. This makes the search seem easier, but it is singularly unique. In truth, wolves are wary of people, they moveA around, and they have large territories. They look out for each other, communicate a lot, and know where to go and not to go.
“They don’t want to be disturbed. You have to really put in a lot of time,” Brokvist advises. “For the average person to just go out and find a wolf is extremely difficult. We have all kinds of scopes and equipment that help us, but mostly it’s local knowledge that allows us to find the wolves that are there.” In other words, you’re going to have poor luck going into the woods and just trying to find wolves without some long-distance-viewing tools and heavy wildlife tracking experience. Chance encounters, like the one hunters had in Moffatt County had last fall, are fleeting.
In the Northern Rockies, wolf watching coexists with hunting, but wildlife viewing is documented to bring in significantly more income to states, if not all individuals. Of course, not everyone benefits monetarily from wolf dollars—as big game hunters and ranchers will attest.
This begs a question: Might a healthy wolf population herald a new tourism opportunity for a corner of Colorado that’s being hit by falling oil prices, closing coal mines and shuttering power plants? After all, a culture of hunting and recreation, with a deep knowledge of the landscape, runs deep in this region.
Brokvist says yes: “The trick with Colorado wolves is that we don’t really know their patterns right now. There’s one pack. We don’t know how they’re going to do. It’d be risky to set up a whole tourism industry around that. Another challenge is whether the wolves are protected, because only then is it safe that people knew where they are. Everything is complicated with a lot of layers, but that is one big potential opportunity that nobody really brings up.”
Jean Lawrence is a veteran Steamboat Springs-based wildlife biologist who also guides wolf watching trips for Nat Hab in Yellowstone. One of her more poignant wolf experiences happened close to home, when she spotted two wolves near Coalmont, at the back door of the Zirkel Wilderness, in spring 2019. She was out searching for a sage grouse lek with local cowboy Ray Heid. It was pre-dawn and even with her well-trained eye and her high-powered Swarovski scope, “they were spooky,” she says. The pair ran off quickly, but she understands why they might elicit fear, and sometimes they’re mistakenly shot.
“You need optics. You definitely need optics,” she says. “You’re typically looking at wolves that are one or two miles away.”
Lawrence knows her Coalmont experience is unusual for Colorado. She says Yellowstone is exceptional wolf watching because it’s protected, wide-open and there’s a high density of prey. By contrast, here in Northwest Colorado, our wilderness areas are forested, which is going to make wolf watching trickier, but ultimately it may be better for wolf safety and security.
“I’ve had people cry,” Lawrence says, sharing the emotional reactions she has witnessed to wolf and other wildlife encounters. She says people often come to see wolves and are surprised at what else they discover. It’s an ecosystem, and she leads with that wholistic approach. “You need all the components to make it whole. I think that’s what people see. Especially near a carcass, when all the wolves’ behaviors of hierarchy come into play.”
November 2020: the definitive vote
One way to view November’s election is that it’s the most inclusive approach possible—the will of the people instead of the long arm of the federal government coming in and mandating wolves.
“We already know they’re coming. How do we make the best of the situation?” Allen asks. She hopes Colorado’s voters will consider her perspective when casting votes this fall.
“I think it’s a viable debate on whether or not we should be hands-on or hands-off,” Bott says, noting that one pack’s appearance is by no means a recovered population. “Frankly, if we’re hands-off and just wait for them to come down, how many decades are we going to have to wait? But if you manually bring them in, you’re really going to piss off a lot of people who already hate the state and the federal government.”
Lawrence and Brokvist tend to agree. They both point out that unmarred wilderness, solitude, clean air, healthy forests and clean water are things people in Colorado already believe in. We all know these are scarce and precious resources, and that makes our connection to wolves that much closer.
“We idealize the American West …There’s no other place in the world that looks like it, but we’ve over civilized it,” Brokvist argues. He says the things we celebrate about the West are watered down at this point—until you get into these areas that have wolves. Because wolves don’t show up just anywhere. They’re looking for prey and they need room to roam. They thrive in whole ecosystems where timber resources and clean water come from, and the food chain thrives.
“If you have wolves moving in and they’re able to make it, you know that forest is healthy,” Brokvist says. “That’s an indication that we’re being good stewards of the American West…and I know that those are the really special spots.”
ROUTT COUNTY’S HISTORY OF THE HOWL
Northwest Colorado’s Last Wolf?
Tucked among the tissue paper and fur in a white box at the back of the Armory, a typewritten label at the Museum of Northwest Colorado claims to identify “one of the last Colorado gray wolves” shot in Northwest Colorado. The wolf was killed by Le Roy Shockey around 1916, “in the vicinity of Hayden.” Today, the pelt with a toothless top half of a head, meaty nose, glassy eyes and tattered ear bits, lies in state inside the archive of the Craig museum.
In the early 20th century era when Shockey was hunting wolves in Routt County, big predator hunts tended to be newsworthy events—sometimes a headline, but always landing at least on the equivalent of the neighborhood gossip column. Indeed, that same year, the Nov. 24 1916 Routt County Sentinel reported in its chatty “Among Our Neighbors” report: “A gray wolf passed through Williams Park Saturday, being seen by Mrs. Elmer Yoast while on her way to her father’s ranch.”
While the gray wolf extermination effort was in full swing by 1916 and Shockey’s kill rightly claims to be “one of the last” in the region, it probably wasn’t the last wolf witnessed in Routt County. The Steamboat Pilot reported in 1921 that the U.S. Forest Service was still mapping wolf habitat locally and around the state, and the U.S. Biological Survey was employing “three wolf hunters of proven ability” to exterminate the remaining canines. And in the April 27, 1921 edition of the Steamboat Pilot announced in its “Foidel Canyon” news that “H.E. Stickles of Twentymile Park has just trapped the largest gray wolf in this county. He shows marks of having been trapped and shot before. This is the largest wolf of a pack of three that has traveled in this country for years causing great loss to stock. In capturing this big dog we may have split the pack and others will leave this section.”
Finally, 19 years after Shockey’s kill, on May 10, 1935, the Craig Empire Courier reported the last Wyoming wolf died barely over the Routt County border near Encampment. It ate poisoned bait.
Inside the museum, the light gray pelt measures just under 5 feet long—not terribly large by Canis lupus standards. The century-old fur is thick and slightly wiry—perhaps softer than one might expect from an apex predator. The wolf came to the museum as part of its revered Cowboy and Gunfighter Collection, which includes chaps, spurs, saddles, gun leather, guns and other remnants of the West.
The taxidermy work was done by Denver furrier Jack C. Miles, who was well-known for his craftmanship—likely the reason this skin was preserved among the collector’s items, according to Paul Knowles, the museum’s assistant director. Miles was an early Western furrier who opened his Jack C. Miles Fur Factory in 1900 on 16th Street in Denver. His vintage mink coats are featured online by enthusiasts to this day. Additional auctioned ephemera indicates that famed bison hunter and showman William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody signed and sealed a testimonial saying Miles was the best taxidermist he ever used.
Ultimately, this wolf skin hung on the wall of the Old Shawnee Hotel near Bailey during the years that Shockey managed the establishment. Courtesy of a gun collector, the pelt now resides like an outlaw among the saddles, spurs and firearms of some of the West’s historic gunslingers.
THE 2020 VOTE
Initiative #107: Restoration of Grey Wolves
Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes concerning the restoration of gray wolves through their reintroduction on designated lands in Colorado located west of the continental divide, and, in connection therewith, requiring the Colorado parks and wildlife commission, after holding statewide hearings and using scientific data, to implement a plan to restore and manage gray wolves; prohibiting the commission from imposing any land, water, or resource use restrictions on private landowners to further the plan; and requiring the commission to fairly compensate owners for losses of livestock caused by gray wolves?