Two possible gray wolf sightings in northern Colorado promise to only add to the debate over a proposed ballot measure that would require reintroduction of the animal into the state.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife says a private citizen spotted a dark, wolf-like animal wearing a collar in Jackson County, and provided the agency with photos and video of the sight.
"It seems to be a pretty confirmable wolf sighting in Colorado," said CPW spokesperson Rebecca Ferrell.
She said the collar appears to be consistent with equipment used on wolves in Wyoming, and CPW is checking with officials there on whether they've been getting satellite or radio tracking information that might indicate the wolf came from their state.
A brownish, uncollared, wolf-like animal also was photographed about a month ago in Grand County, which is directly south of Jackson County.
Ferrell said wolf sightings aren't all that unusual in Colorado, but photographic evidence is fairly uncommon. The agency encourages people to report any possible sightings, and Ferrell said it gets maybe around 100 such reports a year, but most can't be confirmed.
The last confirmed wolf sighting in the state was in 2015, when one was shot and killed in the Kremmling area (Grand County), reportedly by a hunter who mistook the animal for a coyote.
One was hit and killed by a vehicle on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs in 2004, CPW employees took video of what appeared to a wolf near Walden a few years later in Jackson County, and a wolf died from poisoning south of Meeker in 2009.
Ferrell said CPW knows within "a pretty tight vicinity" where the Jackson County animal was photographed. She said the agency is trying to find out whether the animal has a collar battery that's still working, possibly allowing Wyoming personnel to locate it or CPW employees to track it down from the air or on the ground. Alternatively, researchers can search for fur or scat and test the DNA, but Ferrell said finding such evidence is difficult given how wary wolves are of humans.
Wolves are federally protected in Colorado by the Endangered Species Act. Killing one except for in self-defense can result in fines and time in prison. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing the wolf from the list of species protected under that law; it already is delisted in the northern Rocky Mountains.
In a Facebook post, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said CPW has been in contact with the Fish and Wildlife Service about the recent sightings due to the wolves' protected status.
The last gray wolves in Colorado were killed around 1940, CPW says on its website.
Polis said in his post, "The Gray Wolf is gradually returning to its historic homeland in Colorado from areas with healthy wolf populations including Montana and Wyoming."
In 2016, CPW said natural expansion of gray wolves to the state is likely enough that people should be careful not to accidentally kill one. The agency pointed to what it said were numerous confirmed and possible appearances by the animal in recent years.
Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement to media Tuesday, "With expansive and exceptional wolf habitat, Colorado could once again be home to a wolf population. These natural wolf dispersals are encouraging, but they're extremely rare. It's highly unlikely that a male and female wolf will find each other in Colorado without a reintroduction program."
Her group is involved in an effort to get a measure on the statewide ballot that would require CPW to develop a plan to restore wolves to the state while fairly compensating ranchers for livestock losses from predation by wolves.
Adkins told the Daily Sentinel it's encouraging to see a wolf make it into the state alive, as so often the animals reaching the state end up dead from causes such as vehicle strikes or being mistaken for coyotes and shot.
She said the recent sightings reflect "the fact that Colorado has expansive and excellent wolf habitat and that a reintroduction effort could be successful."
Adkins said reaction to the sightings also shows how excited Coloradans are to see wolves in the state, and how much they would love to see more here.
The ballot initiative effort has been meeting resistance from groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition.
RMEF spokesman Mark Holyoak said his group defers to state agencies when it comes to wildlife management. He said CPW is on record as saying it's fine with wolves repopulating Colorado naturally if that happens, but opposes forced reintroduction of the animal.
"We very much agree with that," he said. "Natural is natural, so be it. We're not against predator or prey going or coming, dispersing naturally, that's just the way it goes."
But he thinks wolves have shown themselves capable of spreading to other states, and he said dealing with the issue through a ballot measure is a backwards approach.
"Ballot box biology is dangerous," he said.