By: Tim Kroening
As many of you know, a federally endangered Mexican gray wolf escaped from the privately owned Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center (CWWC) in Divide on Nov. 11. It eluded capture for a month until federal officials trapped it in Divide.
Ever since, I have received many questions and heard rumors about the escaped wolf. Hopefully, I can answer some of those questions and replace rumors with facts.
In North America, we have two species of wolves: the Gray wolf, which is most common, and the more rare Red wolf, which is found in pockets of the southeastern U.S.
The Mexican wolf is a distinct subspecies of the Gray wolf and is found in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico. We have no known packs of wolves in Colorado. Still, any wolf here is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
That listing means they are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), superseding the authority of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which otherwise manages wildlife in the state.
Because USFWS has full responsibility and authority for managing wolves, the federal agency took the lead in efforts to find and recapture the escaped Mexican wolf.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was involved because the CWWC in Divide participates in a Species Survival Program, commonly known as a captive Mexican wolf breeding program. The CWWC became an AZA-certified institution in 2007 and became a member of the captive wolf breeding program in 2008.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services also helped in the recapture effort. And CPW (that would be me) played a supporting role.
Generally, gray wolves weigh about 90-120 pounds. The largest recorded was 175 pounds, which was one huge wolf! The Mexican wolf is the runt among Gray wolf subspecies, averaging just 60-80 pounds.
The Mexican wolf once was common from Mexico north into southern Arizona and New Mexico. Its historic range does not include Colorado. The wolves are capable of traveling long distances, but there is no evidence that populations of the subspecies ever occurred here.
Wolves are monogamous and mate for life. They burrow dens into the banks of creeks and rivers, where the female will have 6 to 10 pups in March after a nine-week gestation period. The male provides food for the nursing mother. A pair may have a hunting territory of 10 square miles.
By the 1970s, Mexican wolves were all but eliminated from the wild. In 1977, the USFWS initiated efforts to conserve the species and by 1998, Mexican wolves were released into the wild for the first time in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which straddles the Arizona/New Mexico border.
Why was there a Mexican wolf in Divide?
The escaped wolf was brought to Colorado from California as part of the captive-breeding program. CPW was not notified and had no knowledge that the wolf was entering the state (along with two siblings). The wolves were never intended to be released into the wild.
Where was the escaped wolf captured?
It was recaptured in Divide late on Dec. 11, thanks to tips from local residents. There was evidence it traveled 40 miles from the facility where it escaped, which shows just how far these animals can travel.
Was the wolf injured?
It had lost some weight and had an injured front paw. The injury was not a result of the recapture. Rather, it was an injury the wolf sustained while he was on the loose.
Where is the wolf now?
The wolf was taken to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs where a veterinarian assessed its health. Then it was shipped to a facility in New Mexico. It was not returned to the CWWC in Divide because it had learned how to escape from that pen.
Did wolves ever roam Colorado?
Historically, Colorado was home to one or more subspecies of wolves and they were distributed statewide, feeding on the state’s vast herds of bison, elk and deer. They supplemented their diets with rabbits, rodents and carrion.
Wolves, however, also fed on domestic herds of cattle and sheep and were eradicated from the state by the 1940s.
Over the past decade, the USFWS and the National Park Service have restored gray wolves into Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona.
Because dispersing wolves, especially single male wolves, can travel long distances, the CPW Commission has recognized that it is only a matter of time before wolves start migrating into Colorado, particularly from the north. It’s less likely we’ll see any Mexican wolves migrating from the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area to our south because the management plan there calls for any wolf that leaves to be recaptured and returned to that area.
In 2004, to prepare for any future wolf migrations into Colorado, the (then) Colorado Division of Wildlife assembled representatives of a variety of interests (livestock producers, environmentalists, sportsmen, local government and wildlife biologists) to form a public Colorado Wolf Management Working Group.
The findings, sometimes referred to as Colorado’s “wolf plan,” represents broad-based agreement on how wolves migrating into Colorado will be managed. The wolf working group’s recommendations were adopted in their entirety by the Colorado Wildlife Commission at the May 2005 meeting.
In January 2016, the CPW Commission passed a resolution outlining its justification for opposing the intentional release of wolves into Colorado. Of course, CPW will not assume management authority until the species is removed from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Will CPW reintroduce Gray wolves into Colorado?
No. Colorado law requires that the reintroduction of any endangered species be specifically authorized by a bill of the General Assembly and signed by the governor. However, Colorado’s “wolf plan” suggests that migrating wolves should be allowed to live with no boundaries, where they find habitat. Wolf distribution in Colorado will ultimately be defined by the interplay between ecological needs and social tolerance.
How will wolves be managed in Colorado?
CPW will not manage wolves unless and until U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes wolves from the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Once they are delisted, then CPW would have management authority. The Colorado Wolf Management Working Group has agreed that there would be positive and negative impacts from wolf presence in Colorado. Positive impacts could include the return of a native animal to the Colorado landscape. Negative impacts would likely include depredation on domestic livestock and reduction of wild ungulate populations.
The Working Group finalized its recommendations by consensus to Parks and Wildlife Commission in Colorado’s “wolf plan.”
Four guiding principles for wolf management were agreed upon:
• Impact-Based Management: Address positive and negative impacts of wolf presence.
• Adaptive management: Learn by doing, monitor, and apply new knowledge.
• Monitoring: Use various methods to track and understand wolf populations, livestock depredation, wild ungulate populations, and human attitudes.
• Damage Payments/Proactive Measures: Compensate for losses and encourage methods to minimize livestock-wolf conflicts.
To see the full findings and recommendations for wolves that migrate into Colorado visit:
Learn more about the USFWS Mexican wolf recovery plan at fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf.
Tim Kroening graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in wildlife biology. He works as a District Wildlife Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Teller County. With general questions about Colorado Parks and Wildlife, contact Tim at 227-5281.