A wolf pack in Moffat County has upended one of Colorado’s most controversial wildlife management debates, prompting voters, legislators and wildlife officials to wonder what course to chart on wolf reintroduction and management.
In mid-February, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed through DNA tests on scat samples taken from Moffat County that a pack of at least four wolves was present in Colorado. The four were siblings, three females and one male.
“This is the first time we’ve documented a group of wolves, a pack of wolves in the state since they were extirpated in the early 1940s,” said Eric Odell, wildlife species conservation program manager.
These wolves were confirmed by Parks and Wildlife less than a month after a Colorado petition was certified giving voters the chance to weigh in on wolf reintroduction.
“The pack coming into the state was a real reset in the conversation because, of course, before that the wolf reintroduction conversation was centered around the proposed ballot initiative, which has now gained signatures,” said Colorado State Sen. Kerry Donovan, who is working on the issue in the Legislature. “With the pack coming into the state, and with both sexes represented within the pack, we now have a management issue as well that the state isn’t perhaps entirely prepared for.”
Representatives of the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition have said the presence of this pack and its three females that could reproduce will make reintroduction unnecessary. But wildlife biologists say the presence of Craig’s newest neighbors doesn’t mean a re-established wolf population in Colorado is a done deal.
Another two wolves were observed by Parks and Wildlife staff, but genetic testing on those two has not been confirmed. More scat has been tested, but the full results have not been released. The genetics of those two animals are critical in understanding whether this pack is the start of a full wolf recovery in Colorado or an anomaly.
“It’s built into their social system to avoid mating with relatives, so they would not form a mated pair,” University of Colorado-Denver Professor Diana Tomback said of the sibling wolves. “The perpetuation of this pack is going to depend on what the genetic relationship is of the other two members.”
Tomback, a conservation biologist who served on the science committee of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, said there are still too many unknowns to determine the future of these wolves. However, having a breeding pack in Colorado may not be enough for the species to recover, she said, without more wolves to provide genetic diversity.
“If you actually go by the guidelines used by U.S. Fish and Wildlife to determine whether a population is recovered, it has to populate enough range and be there with enough population size to be able to withstand disturbances and challenges that are natural to their environment,” Tomback said. “From the perspective of genetic diversity, this one pack is inadequate.”
Other wolves make the trek from the northern Rocky Mountains to Colorado, Odell said. Between 2004 and 2019, six gray wolves were photographed or killed in Colorado. More would have to make that journey and find this pack for the population to expand.
“One pack is a start to establishing a population, but it does not meet the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) definition of a wolf population — two or more packs successfully reproducing for two or more years,” Odell said. “Genetic diversity is important, and only one pack does not provide that needed diversity.”
HOW WOLVES SPREAD
Wolves have spread this way in the past. Gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the mid-1990s and expanded their populations in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Today, more than 2,000 wolves are estimated in those three states.
In the early 2000s wolves started to pop up in Oregon, which sits across the Snake River from Idaho, said Michelle Dennehy, communications coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. One was killed crossing a road. Another was found shot. All were lone wolves, known as dispersers, that had left packs to search for mates.
In 2008, a wolf from Idaho crossed the Snake River and gave birth, starting the first pack in the state.
In 2009, Oregon confirmed a second pack, she said. By 2010, both packs were giving birth to pups.
“We didn’t do any translocation,” Dennehy said. “Everything is here naturally or reproduced naturally and we’ve gone from, if you just look at the numbers, from 10 in 2009 to 137 at the end of 2019.”
Oregon and Colorado are not a one-to-one comparison when it comes to wolf migration though, Tomback said. The major obstacle between Idaho’s estimated 1,000 wolves and northeast Oregon is the Snake River. While it is a difficult river to cross, many wolves have done it. According to the latest Oregon Wolf Management Plan, “Radio-collar data shows that dispersing wolves immigrate to and emigrate from Oregon, indicating that Oregon is part of a metapopulation with Idaho and Washington.”
THE HARD ROAD TO COLORADO
In Wyoming, wolves in the northwestern portion of the state are managed with some hunting allowed in areas outside Yellowstone National Park. In the rest of the state, wolves are considered a nuisance species and can be killed with no limit, Odell said.
A wolf must make a 120-mile trek from the southern edge of Wyoming’s Wolf Trophy Game Management Area through high desert hills, sagebrush seas, canyons and across Interstate 80 to get to the Colorado border. During that trip, by Wyoming law, they can be killed without limitation.
“It is a challenge and this does seem to be the first time two individuals, a male and a female have made it down and found each other and successfully reproduced,” Odell, with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said. “Wolf management in Wyoming, they manage it as a game species in the northwest part of the state and, then outside of that it’s a varmint species, so there is quite a challenge for animals to cross that landscape.”
Because of the difficulty in crossing through southern Wyoming, Odell said this pack is likely a mated pair that produced pups in or near Colorado.
Denny Behrens, Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition co-chairman and regional director for Big Game Forever, said this natural reproduction and the known instances of wolves dispersing into Colorado in the past make further reintroduction efforts, like the initiative that will appear on the November ballot this year, moot.
“There’s no need for introduction in this state,” Behrens said. “They are naturally dispersing out of the nonessential experimental area up in Wyoming and so it’s the same thing. They’re moving into Washington and Oregon and California.”
Tomback said she is skeptical that dispersing wolves will make it to Colorado frequently enough to provide the necessary genetic diversity to ensure the continued survival of the population.
“If people want to reintroduce wolves into Colorado, it’s going to take more than waiting for this to happen,” Tomback said. “The last 25 years have shown that, yes, individual wolves may disperse and make it down, but they’re not able to find another wolf of the right sex and form a pack. So wolf reintroduction, scientifically, the reality is it’s going to take some help to get that genetic diversity and to get the numbers down where wolves can form packs with each other.”
Donovan has proposed a bill to provide for the reintroduction of wolves, but only after a funding source has been identified to pay for wolf management and reimbursement to ranchers who lose livestock to wolf depredation. It also gives five years for the current wolf population to establish naturally before moving forward with reintroduction.
Donovan said she was pursuing the legislation to take a deliberative approach to the question of wolf management and reintroduction, but she said many unknowns still surround the state’s lone pack.
“We will have to see if they settle down in a range, if they reproduce this spring,” Donovan said. “Right now, we don’t know if we have a roaming pack of teenagers or if we have a group that’s looking to settle down in Colorado.”
While the first pack in Colorado is historic — being the first to cross that hostile terrain, find each other and perhaps settle here for good — they are only the start of what could mark the first return of a real population of wolves in the state in 80 years, Odell said. Whether through human reintroduction or from wolves dispersing from the north, the formation of more packs will be needed if wolves are going to once again range widely throughout Colorado.
With a ballot initiative coming in November, a bill proposed in the Senate and at least six wolves wandering through northwest Colorado wilderness, Donovan said looking into all the issues wolves represent is now more important than ever.
“We have wolves in Colorado and we suspect that delisting could come out of D.C. sooner rather than later,” Donovan said. “I think it is a perfect time to look at these issues in a very thoughtful way with the folks in the room who are most excited about having wolves in the mountains again and what that means and the people in the room who are most concerned about what it means to have a federal land lease and a wolf pack as your neighbors.”