In February, I reported for High Country News on the possible evidence of wolves at the High Lonesome Ranch, an enormous ranch in northwestern Colorado owned by Texas attorney Paul Vahldiek, Jr. During visits over a seven-month period, biologist Cristina Eisenberg, an Oregon State University doctoral student employed by the ranch, had collected scat and seen tracks that she believed belonged to wild wolves. False alarm, it appears: The High Lonesome Ranch and The Wildlands Network are announcing today that scat samples collected at the ranch and analyzed by a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, belonged not to wolves, but to coyotes.
Eisenberg is well acquainted with wolf packs and their sign in Montana and elsewhere, and two other experienced trackers, Dave Moskowitz and Dan Hansche, assisted her in the field at the High Lonesome Ranch. The reasons for the misidentification of the scat are unclear at this time, but High Country News will be following this story as it unfolds (and as I return from the Louisiana coast, where I'm reporting on the BP oil spill this week). [UPDATE: Hear more details about the DNA results on High Country Views, Episode 8.]
No matter the final outcome of the episode at the High Lonesome Ranch, the tale of wolves in Colorado is likely far from finished. In 2004, a radio-collared female wolf from Yellowstone was killed near Idaho Springs, about 30 miles west of Denver. In the winter of 2009, another young female collared wolf traveled a 1,000-mile-long route from the Yellowstone region to the Meeker, Colo., area. As I wrote in HCN's February story:
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." ... 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.
Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor at High Country News.