It's easier for a wolf to get from Yellowstone to Colorado than it might sound. "Wolves are just driven to travel," says Douglas Smith, the Yellowstone wolf biologist. "For them, it really isn't a big deal." While wolves are wary of humans, they are able to pass through developed landscapes -- even, apparently, the ranchlands and gas fields of southern Wyoming. Single wolves, or small coalitions of two and three animals, regularly strike out in search of unoccupied territory.
The risks are high, as the deaths of the two radio-collared wolves in Colorado demonstrate. But the potential rewards -- wide-open territory, abundant prey -- are enormous. Even journeys of hundreds of miles "aren't in any way eyebrow-raising," says Smith.
So no matter what left the scat and tracks on the High Lonesome Ranch, wolves are likely to keep venturing into Colorado. Wolves from Idaho and Montana began showing up in eastern Oregon and Washington at least a decade ago, and now both states have breeding pairs of wolves. Utah has confirmed six sightings since 1994, but no evidence of breeding wolves.
The wolf populations in Idaho and Montana, along with wolves in eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and northeastern Utah, were taken off the federal endangered species list last April. But wolves that wander into Colorado are considered endangered species, and their management is led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2004, a working group of livestock producers, wildlife advocates, scientists, sportsmen and others appointed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife developed a management plan, focused on transient wolves and on the state's responsibilities once its wolves are removed from the endangered species list. The group recommended that the state allow wolves to live where they find habitat, and permit a variety of measures -- including, in some cases, lethal methods -- to deal with problem wolves.
But before wolves could be delisted in Colorado, a population would have to meet recovery goals set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Such goals don't even exist yet, and are unlikely to be considered unless and until evidence of breeding wolves emerges. "We haven't talked about what a Colorado (recovery) plan might look like," says Ed Bangs, the Western gray wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His agency, he adds, has "no plans for active recovery in Colorado, no active discussion to put wolves there, take them out of there, do anything with them."
For a wandering wolf hoping to settle down, Colorado offers habitat -- and prey. Independent wildlife biologist Carlos Carroll, who has co-authored several studies of potential wolf habitat in Colorado and elsewhere, says the state could support a population of at least 1,000 wolves. "Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are in the same league in terms of the numbers of wolves that each state can hold," he says, "and they're quite a bit above the other states in the West." In Colorado, however, potential habitat is fragmented into smaller chunks, and Carroll says that a wolf population would depend largely on three disjunct swaths of public land in western Colorado -- one in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, one southwest of Aspen, and one in the Flattop Mountains, just northeast of the High Lonesome Ranch.
To preserve their genetic diversity, says Carroll, wolves in Colorado would need to move among these three "source populations" -- through the mostly private land that separates them. "If wolves aren't able to persist (on private lands) or move across them without getting killed, that poses some risk to the source populations," he says.
But the protection of wolves on private land requires the presence of another notable species: rural landowners with a soft spot for predators. "Wolves can live pretty much anywhere people will allow them to live," says Shane Briggs, wildlife conservation programs supervisor for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "The real questions for managing wolves aren't biological -- they're social and political."