Prodigal Dogs

Have gray wolves found a home in Colorado?

  • The sun sets over a duck pond on the High Lonesome Ranch near the Roan Plateau in Western Colorado. The ranch is being managed for wildlife ... maybe even wolves.

    JT Thomas
  • Wolf.

    Don Hammond/Design Pics/Corbis
  • Paul and Lissa Vahldiek, owners of the High Lonesome Ranch.

    JT Thomas
  • Montana wolf biologist Cristina Eisenberg, with High Lonesome hunting guide Todd Weiszbrod, has seen signs of wolves on the ranch.

    JT Thomas
  • Conservation biologist Michael Soule of the Wildlands Project looks at tracks in Kimball Creek on the ranch.

    JT Thomas
  • Scat believed to be from a wolf, photographed on the High Lonesome Ranch last spring by then ranch manager Doug Dean

    Courtesy Cristina Eisenberg
 

Page 4

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...