The apparent presence of a pack of gray wolves in Moffat County is heightening debate over a ballot issue this fall that would require the animal’s reintroduction to the state.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife received an eyewitness report from a hunter that he and his hunting partner saw six large canids traveling last October in far-northwestern Colorado near the Wyoming and Utah borders, and a member of the party recorded two of the animals on video, the agency says.

In addition, last week a thoroughly scavenged elk carcass was found near Irish Canyon, a few miles from the location of the October sighting, which when considered along with that sighting strongly suggests a pack of gray wolves may be living in the state, CPW says.

“The (October) sighting marks the first time in recent history CPW has received a report of multiple wolves traveling together,” CPW Northwest Regional Manager JT Romatzke said in a news release Wednesday. “In addition, in the days prior, the eyewitness says he heard distinct howls coming from different animals. In my opinion, this is a very credible report.”

The investigation involving the elk carcass is ongoing. CPW officers observed several large canid tracks from multiple animals around the carcass, and the tracks are consistent with wolf tracks and the carcass condition is consistent with wolf predation, the agency says.

The developments come as the Secretary of State’s Office said this week that Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund had submitted enough valid signatures to place a measure on this November’s ballot providing for reintroduction of wolves into western Colorado.

“The latest sightings add to other credible reports of wolf activity in Colorado over the past several years,” Romatzke said in the release. “In addition to tracks, howls, photos and videos, the presence of one wolf was confirmed by DNA testing a few years ago, and in a recent case, we have photos and continue to track a wolf with a collar from Wyoming’s Snake River pack.”

This summer, authorities said a collared animal from that pack was documented in photos and video in Jackson County. CPW spokesman Mike Porras said that the last he heard, that collared wolf still is in Colorado.

“It is inevitable, based on known wolf behavior, that they would travel here from states where their populations are well-established,” Romatzke said. “We have no doubt that they are here, and the most recent sighting of what appears to be wolves traveling together in what can be best described as a pack is further evidence of the presence of wolves in Colorado.”

Wolves are a federally endangered species in Colorado, where they are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and people can be penalized and fined for harming or killing them.

Denny Behrens of Grand Junction, who is co-chair of the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition, said the report of the apparent wolf pack demonstrates why a reintroduction program isn’t needed in the state. He believes even more wolves already are in Colorado than those documented by CPW, based on the number of wolf reports made to the agency that haven’t been able to be substantiated.

“Granted, some of those are people that may not know really know what a wolf looks like, but even if you took 25% of those (reports) you’d have a lot of wolf sightings in the state,” he said.

He said it makes no sense to be bringing even more wolves into the state through reintroduction, and the focus instead needs to be on managing those in the state.

Rob Edward, president of Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, said the presence of a wolf pack in the state would be great news if it’s confirmed. He said individual wolves have come into the state from time to time but have ended up being killed or disappearing. He doesn’t believe that the sporadic arrival of wolves into Colorado, even involving a pack, would be sufficient to result in the animal’s recovery in Colorado.

He said the one pack, the presence of which isn’t confirmed, “doesn’t equal and may not lead to recovery, that’s the bottom line, and so that’s why we’re focused on reintroduction. The news (Wednesday) doesn’t change the game for us at all.”

Wolf reintroduction advocates say southern Wyoming has less available prey for wolves than farther north, and they can be shot as a predatory animal in the state, helping hinder their ability to move into Colorado in numbers that can achieve a sustainable population. Edward also notes that the ballot measure includes a provision to compensate ranches for livestock lost to wolves.

“We welcome these wolves if they exist up there (in Moffat County) and we hope to give them a chance to become a vanguard for a recovering wolf population once the reintroduction passes in November,” he said.

Behrens said compensation programs in states like Idaho and Montana have failed to address livestock stress and lost weight that also cost ranchers.

He said that due to the Endangered Species Act protections there’s nothing that can be done about wolves that already are coming to Colorado, but “the consequences totally outweigh any benefit of introducing wolves” as the ballot measure would require. He worries about the impacts to wildlife and livestock and the conflicts he said would result from bringing the animal into a state with 6 million people.

Porras said the apparent existence of a gray wolf pack in Colorado is a significant development.

“Certainly with all of the back and forth and the controversy and the debate about wolves in Colorado, this certainly does add to that public discourse,” he said.

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