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
 

Last April, in a narrow mountain valley in northwestern Colorado, Cristina Eisenberg was searching for scat. The diminutive, dark-haired biologist and two members of her field crew had set up a kilometer-long transect through elk habitat, and the trio was walking slowly along the line. It was a raw day, cold and windy with spells of freezing rain, and the biologists had been moving through meadows for hours, looking for elk poop, deer poop, coyote poop, mountain lion poop. This was old-fashioned wildlife biology -- hardly glamorous work -- but in it lay the story of the landscape, of the pursuers and the pursued, and Eisenberg was absorbed in the tale.

Then, on the edge of an aspen grove, one of the biologists saw something unusual: a scat roughly as long and wide as a banana, tapered at the ends, perhaps two months old. When Eisenberg examined it, she saw that it contained hair from deer or elk and shards of bone, some almost as long as a fingernail. It smelled distinctively earthy, like a shady forest floor.

In the course of her research, Eisenberg had seen and handled thousands of scats just like this one, but not here, not in Colorado. Everything about it -- the size, the shape, the smell, the contents -- indicated a creature that had been extirpated from the state more than 70 years ago. Everything about it said wolf.

Within an hour and a half, the crew found a similar scat, some 500 yards away. Later that day, in another aspen grove about five miles away, they found two more. Less than a week later, Eisenberg's lead tracker, Dan Hansche, found a wolf-like scat with a similar, smaller scat laid on top -- suggesting, Eisenberg says, that an adult wolf had been teaching its pup to mark territory.

As the weather warmed last summer, the field crew found 11 more wolf-like scats, and Hansche documented a set of tracks with wolf characteristics. Then, at dawn on July 27, Eisenberg and another biologist were driving down a winding valley road, deep in a discussion about statistics, when Eisenberg spotted a black shape running across a bright green alfalfa field, perhaps 100 yards away. The stance, the gait and the set of the ears all suggested the wolves Eisenberg had spent so much time observing near her home in northwestern Montana.

This past November, during another trip to her Colorado study area, she found another set of wolf-like tracks, fresh prints that extended at least a quarter-mile up a snowy ranch road. All in all, Eisenberg and her crew found some 18 separate signs of wolf activity during visits over a seven-month period. This animal -- or animals -- was no mere passerby.

Officially, wild wolves do not live in Colorado. The nearest established population is in Wyoming, where gray wolves were introduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. But rumors of wolf sightings abound in Colorado, and in recent years, at least two wolves have died in the state. In 2004, a young radio-collared female wolf from Yellowstone was killed on Interstate 70 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, roughly 20 miles from where Eisenberg and her crew work. That wolf's death, in April, is still under investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and neither state nor federal officials will comment on the matter.

Like most scientists, Eisenberg and her colleagues are cautious. For months, even among themselves, they half-jokingly spoke of "visitors from the North," reluctant to name a species as controversial as the gray wolf. They emphasize that DNA testing, now under way at a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, is needed to back up their identification of the animal or animals that produced the scat and tracks. But whatever the animal is, it appears to be eating what wild wolves eat, and traveling over the landscape the way wild wolves do.

When wolves arrive in an ecosystem, everything changes: the ecology, the politics, relationships both animal and human. "We know more about wolves, and the management of wolves, than we do about many other forms of wildlife," says Douglas Smith, leader of the Yellowstone wolf project. "But we rarely get to put it into practice, because people freak out, flat-out freak out, when a wolf shows up."

Wolves herald a grand experiment -- and in Colorado, that experiment may already be under way.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....