CPW investigating potential wolf tracks in South Routt County
Prints are the right size to belong to wolves, but CPW can't confirm based on tracks alone
Greg Brice, who frequently walks his dog along the road, found the tracks on Saturday, Dec. 17. Brice said he hasn’t seen any sign of the alleged wolves since, and snowfall on Tuesday, Dec. 20, buried the tracks he had earlier photographed.
“(The tracks) are not here now,” Brice said. “I’ve been all over this place, and there is no fresh wolf track anywhere around here now.”
Brice said he has shared several photos of the tracks with CPW officials, including Eric Odell, the agency’s species conservation program manager. Odell also served as a lead author on the agency’s draft wolf reintroduction plan released earlier this month.
“This is very interesting,” Odell wrote in response to an email from Brice, while also encouraging him to use the agency’s online form to report potential wolf sightings.
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CPW spokesperson Bridget O’Rourke said it isn’t possible to confirm the tracks were from wolves based solely on pictures. A potential wolf sighting alone doesn’t confirm another pack either, she said.
“CPW follows up on credible sighting reports when received,” O’Rourke said via email.
The photos shared with Steamboat Pilot & Today show a series of tracks that are roughly 4 inches wide and more than 4 inches long, which is about the size of a wolf track, according to a CPW document about how to distinguish a wolf from a coyote.
That document also says wolves generally take a direct, purposeful path, which is what Brice said he saw in the tracks along County Road 15 that continued for about a mile. He measured the stride of the tracks to be about 4 feet apart, with the back foot generally landing in the same spot as the front, a trend often seen in wolf tracks known as single tracking.
Brice said a CPW biologist came out to where he saw the tracks, photographed them and collected a hair sample that was caught on a barbed wire fence. Whether the hair sample can be DNA tested to confirm it belongs to wolves is so far unclear.
If it is confirmed there are wolves in the area, it would signal more wolves have migrated into Colorado naturally ahead of the voter-mandated reintroduction of the once-banished carnivore.
CPW’s draft reintroduction plan will be considered for approval in May and would release 10 to 15 wolves somewhere in a large area that includes parts of South Routt County by the end of 2023.
O’Rourke said this potential wolf sighting will not impact the overall reintroduction plan, though the agency will likely avoid releasing wolves “immediately adjacent to established and occupied wolf territories.”
She emphasized that CPW has not released any wolves yet, and if the tracks do belong to wolves, they have naturally made their way into Colorado.
“A potential sighting does not mean a pack exists,” O’Rourke said. “A pack usually includes dominant male and female parents (breeding pair), their offspring and other non-breeding adults.”
CPW has confirmed a pack of eight wolves in North Park to the east of Routt County, including what are believed to be the first wolf pups born in the state since the 1940s. That pack has killed several cattle and two cattle dogs near Walden in the last year. State wildlife officials believe three of those wolves were legally killed in Wyoming earlier this year.
“Unless additional information is confirmed, this is the only known pack in the state,” O’Rourke said.
The Fort Collins Coloradoan reported on Tuesday that CPW has evidence to suggest there may be a second pack of wolves in North Park. On Nov. 25, CPW received reports of seven wolves in various parts of Jackson County, and ranchers in the area say CPW officials have told them they suspect a second pack, according to Steamboat Radio.
Wolves were also initially suspected to be involved in the deaths of dozens of cattle near Meeker, though CPW has been unable to find a trace of them and described that situation as “perplexing.“
CPW asks that anyone who thinks they see a wolf report it using the agency’s online form, which allows local staff to further investigate the potential sighting. O’Rourke said CPW does not share the identity and location of anyone who reports a wolf sighting.
Wolves potentially being in Routt County didn’t surprise Jo Stanko, a longtime local rancher who traveled to Montana this fall to learn more about how ranchers up there deal with wolves. Stanko said she has seen wolves on her property near Steamboat Springs in the past, but they never seemed to stick around long.
“The most helpful thing is if they hear (wolves), record it, if they see them, photograph them with a date on it and report those locations,” Stanko said.
Todd Hagenbuch, director and agricultural agent for Routt County’s Colorado State University Extension Office, said he wouldn’t comment on whether he thought the tracks are wolves, but he said that if they are, ranchers in South Routt may need to start keeping a closer eye on their herds.
“(If these are wolves) it would mean ranchers in Routt County need to start taking seriously their steps to protect their herds from depredation,” Hagenbuch said.
He said that would include more frequent patrols of areas where cattle are, keeping an eye out for any tracks in the area, and paying attention to unusual behavior from cattle.
Trying to gather stock into closer proximity of each other can be helpful as well, Hagenbuch said, especially in the evening. That could include changing feeding schedules so that cows would naturally group in the evening.
Hagenbuch said he wouldn’t recommend starting to deploy fladery — flags on fencing meant to deter wolves — until a pack is confirmed, as fladery isn’t necessarily cheap to install.
“Regardless of whether we’ve got them now or not, we will soon,” Hagenbuch said. “People need to be thinking through what they are going to do, not if, but when.”