With occasional wolf sightings in Colorado, officials believe the animals may reestablish a population in the state.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued a statement Monday reminding residents that gray wolves are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, and killing one may result in jail time and a fine of up to $100,000.
Colorado has seen an uptick in confirmed and unconfirmed wolf sightings as the animals have begun to appear in neighboring states, according to parks and wildlife.
"Wolves are known to travel long distances and we expect that they will continue to come into the state on their own," CPW director Bob Broscheid said in a statement. "We have a duty to let the public know about this possibility to help prevent someone from accidentally killing a wolf."
In April 2015, a trail camera near Walden captured footage of what appeared to be a wolf. That same month, a hunter near Wolford Mountain Reservoir mistakenly killed a wolf, thinking it was a coyote. The man was not charged because he was hunting legally and did not intentionally kill the wolf, according to parks and wildlife.
Colorado is part of the gray wolf's habitat range, but the last of native populations were killed off in the 1940s. Since the mid-to-late 90s, gray wolves have been reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains, including areas in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, as well as New Mexico and Arizona, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
An estimated 1,700 gray wolves live in the northern Rockies, according to the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide. This winter, the southern regions of New Mexico and Arizona were home to just under 100 Mexican wolves, a subspecies of gray wolf, said Katie Geist, a staff member at the center.
And while wolves have been known to stray from the pack in search of a mate, it would likely be years before population levels were observed in Colorado, Geist said.
"It's hard for us to believe a lone wolf looking for a mate who crosses the border will have a long-term success making a significant impact in the wolf population in Colorado," she said. "It's a slow process."
Parks and wildlife urges anyone who believes they've seen a wolf in Colorado to report the sighting at cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/Wolf-Sighting-Form.aspx.
Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108