Colorado Parks and Wildlife on Wednesday confirmed a gray wolf was spotted in sparsely populated Jackson County — the state’s first sighting of the animal since 2015.
Photos circulating on social media this week showed a wolf with a tracking collar that identified it as a member of a pack centered hundreds of miles away on the Snake River in Wyoming, officials said.
Wolves have not roamed Colorado in significant numbers in almost 75 years, but the sighting comes amid debate over reintroducing them to the state.
The wolf is a 3-year-old male, said Sara DiRienzo, a spokeswoman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“It’s not uncommon for a wolf to travel a far distance, especially if they’re trying to find new territory,” she said.
Wolves were reintroduced to Wyoming in the mid-1990s, when 31 gray wolves from Western Canada and 10 from Montana were relocated to Yellowstone National Park.
The last of Colorado’s native predators were wiped out in the 1940s. But it’s not uncommon for one to appear, straying here where the species ran free before outcry mounted over the loss of livestock.
Before this week, the last confirmed wolf in Colorado was four years ago. A hunter killed the animal near Kremmling, mistaking it for a coyote.
Another wolf was found dead, poisoned, in 2009 in Rio Blanco County. And five years before that, one was hit and killed by a car on Interstate 70.
Rebecca Ferrell, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokeswoman, said about 100 sightings are reported every year but “a vast majority” are unverified. The agency has yet to confirm another sighting in Grand County, just south of where the collared wolf was seen near Walden.
The news is enough to disturb Denny Behrens of Grand Junction. He represents the Stop the Wolf Coalition comprised of big-game hunters and ranchers who fiercely oppose calls to reintroduce the predator in the state.
“It just seems to me, if you’ve got two wolf sightings within a week or two, and they’re two different wolves in two different areas, that leads me to believe we’ve got some established pack or packs going on.”
CPW has no reason to believe that, Ferrell said. “We have no evidence at this point of any kind.”
But she didn’t dismiss the possibility of wolves returning to the state without human help.
“It’s entirely possible, if wolves decide to start moving from healthy populations up in Wyoming and other neighboring states, that they may start to decide Colorado is a great place for them to live without a reintroduction program,” she said. “But that would certainly, obviously be a very slow process.”
Behrens’ fears are misplaced, said Montana Sen. Mike Phillips, who has spent decades advocating for wolves.
Phillips, a biologist, is helping to guide the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project and Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, which last month began collecting signatures for a 2020 ballot item that would let Colorado voters decide on the animal’s future in the state.
“There’s just not much chance that any gray wolf or sufficient number of gray wolves are gonna find one another in Colorado and give birth to puppies who give birth to puppies who give birth to puppies to give rise to a viable population,” Phillips said. “There’s a very, very, very slim chance.”
To him and other proponents, a reintroduction would restore natural order — a benefit to the misunderstood creatures and the ecological world around them.
CPW said it’s not pursuing the wolf spotted in Jackson County. Nor is Wyoming, DiRienzo said. Once wolves cross into territory where they are considered endangered, they become the responsibility of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“They disappear, that’s what happens,” Phillips said. Sometimes they return to their pack, he said, and sometimes they’re killed.
“Who knows?” he said. “What we do know is they don’t like being alone.”