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
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...