With Colorado voters set to decide whether to order a re-introduction of wolves, wildlife officials using cameras and “howl surveys” say they’ve regularly detected multiple wolves in the northwestern part of the state — possibly including a pup from a newly-arrived pack.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said Thursday that as recently as August they’ve confirmed the presence of “at least four” wolves. An off-duty CPW biologist in June spotted a wolf pup, agency spokeswoman Rebecca Ferrell said. CPW leaders, who years ago rejected wolf reintroduction, announced last winter they’d documented a pack of six wolves roaming in the northwestern part of the state.
Agency officials provided information in response to queries about the status of wolves in the state amid reports from Wyoming, where hunting wolves is legal, that two wolves were killed months ago in Sweetwater County just north of the Colorado border.
There was no evidence backing up claims made by pro-wolf advocates Thursday that the wolves killed in Wyoming came from the Colorado pack, CPW officials said, confirming they learned in May from federal authorities that “some wolves” were killed in Wyoming.
Pro-wolf groups pointed to those killings as evidence that wolves cannot survive in Colorado without the state-led re-introduction that voters could order in the November election by passing Proposition 114, aimed at restoring ecological balance.
“We have continued monitoring the area and have continued to see the presence of wolves on the landscape in northwest Colorado since then, including images of multiple wolves from game cameras captured after hearing of wolves being taken in Wyoming,” Ferrell said.
“It would be speculative to say that wolves killed in Wyoming are part of the pack regularly seen in Colorado,” she said.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation into the killings determined no laws were broken, Wyoming state Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, said Thursday afternoon in an interview, a couple hours after talking with the director of Wyoming Game and Fish.
“There was a dispute over whether these wolves were enticed over the border to Wyoming, where they legally can be taken. It was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that investigated it,” Gierau said. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded there was no illegal activity.”
Pronouncing those wolves part of the Colorado pack would be “conjecture,” he said.
Somebody in Wyoming had sent an anonymous letter dated Aug. 22 from Cheyenne to Montana state Sen. Mike Phillips, a scientist who led the National Park Service restoration of wolves in Yellowstone and who serves as adviser for the wolf push in Colorado. It says “at least 3 wolves have been shot from the pack in Colorado. Multiple agencies know.”
Defenders of Wildlife officials on Thursday issued a statement lamenting “the loss of these pioneering wolves — the first pack in Colorado in over 75 years.” Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund president Rob Edward, who has led the ballot push, said that “whoever killed these wolves unwittingly demolished the myth of wandering wolves re-colonizing Colorado.”
In Montana, Phillips said details around the killings should be released. “The opponents might say wolves ‘are already here.’ That’s true, if more than two are within state boundaries. But if Coloradans aspire for gray wolves to be present in a viable population, you’re going to have to re-introduce them.
“You would reintroduce 30 or 40 wolves over the course of 12 to 18 months,” Phillips said, estimating this would lead within a decade to a self-sustaining population of around 100.
If Colorado voters approved the ballot initiative, state wildlife biologists would be required to install wolves on public land west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023, enough to ensure wolf survival, with public input and compensation for ranchers who lose livestock. The wording of the ballot measure enshrines proponents’ view that wolves were “an essential part of the wild habitat of Colorado” before extermination and must be restored to bring back “a critical balance in nature.”
Wyoming Game and Fish officials didn’t respond to queries other than to indicate “we are aware” of the killings. Federal wildlife law enforcement officials could not be reached.
Wolves once roamed Colorado before ranchers and others eradicated the species around 1940. Few wolves have survived in Colorado after wandering from northwestern states where, 25 years ago, government-run re-introductions restored healthy populations.
While hunting wolves now is legal across most of Wyoming, gray wolves in Colorado still receive protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Killing a gray wolf in Colorado can lead to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
State howl surveys, where state biologists mimic wolves and wait to hear responses, detected wolves through the end of August, CPW officials said. This month, hunting season is about to begin, a mainstay of the northwestern Colorado economy, and wolves typically leave their dens.
“We’ve continued monitoring the area, following up on credible sighting reports,” Ferrell said. “And we’ve continued to see the presence of wolves on the landscape in northwestern Colorado via camera images and tracks.”
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