Reintroduction, ecology and the suspicious death of 341F, the wolf who visited Eagle County
EAGLE COUNTY – Wildlife officials have received several reports of wolf sightings in Colorado this summer, including one from the Vail area.
While the sightings have not been verified to be true, it would not be the first time a wolf has been here since reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
The wolves of Yellowstone are expected to migrate out of the park, but the journey taken by wolf 341F, a female who traveled from Montana to Eagle County during the winter of 2009, took many by surprise.
Wearing a tracking collar, 341F used a portion of the migration route known as the Western Wildway, a 6,000-mile corridor of somewhat-connected public lands between Mexico and Alaska. The Western Wildway runs through Vail and the White River National Forest and contains the Vail Pass Wildlife Movement Corridor, which has been identified as a priority wildlife corridor within the wildway.
In a podcast published in May 2020, author Rick Lamplugh, who wrote the bestselling book “In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone,” recounted 341F’s journey through the Western Wildway in 2009.
“In late March, she entered White River National Forest, the last public land that would shelter her,” Lamblugh said.
341F was found dead not long after visiting Eagle County, near Rio Blanco County road 60, about 24 miles north of Rifle.
“This adventurous wolf sparked Colorado’s imagination,” Gary Wockner, a member of the Colorado Wolf Working Group, was quoted as saying in 2009. “She made us think about what Colorado is missing without its wolves.”
Eric Washburn, a fifth-generation Coloradan who lives in Steamboat Springs, was hunting in 2016 in Mount Zirkel Wilderness near the Wyoming border, in the Western Wildway.
While he had visited the area many times, that year he exited the wilderness like Heraclitus’ river visitor, a different man.
“I shot a big elk about 2 miles from camp; I had quartered it up and I was carrying the front shoulders down to camp in a backpack,” he said. “I got down got to camp, and the wind was blowing and carrying the smell of that elk back behind me, and I looked behind me, and maybe 200 to 250 yards away was a pure black wolf, standing in this field, just sniffing the air. He could smell the elk, and he was curious, and he was looking at me. He was there for 3 or 4 minutes, and we just looked at each other, and then he trotted back into the forest and disappeared, and I never saw him again.”
Washburn, who has a masters degree from the Yale Forestry School and worked as a Senior Policy Advisor to former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, became very interested in wolves after his encounter.
“I thought to myself, this wolf belongs here,” he said. “What if we brought wolves down here, what if we reintroduced them like we did in Yellowstone, what would that mean for Colorado?”
Washburn began studying wolves’ recent history in Yellowstone following their reintroduction 25 years ago, and it wasn’t long before his education in forestry and his passion for elk hunting intersected with his new interest in wolves.
“Yellowstone is this laboratory where you’ve got lots and lots of researchers,” Washburn said. “We had this wolf-free area, and we dumped wolves into it, and it allowed them to really understand what a wolf does to the ecology.”
Without wolves, “Deer and elk tend to graze out in the open, and they tend to graze along riverbanks, and denude those areas of willows and aspens,” he added.
As a result, the aspen stands and riparian areas in Yellowstone were in rough shape. Songbirds and beavers had left the area.
“Once the wolves came back, they changed the behavior of the elk, and they also reduced the number of elk in the park,” Washburn said. “That allowed the willows and the aspens to grow back along the stream bank, and that re-created the song bird habitat, and it created, importantly, food for the beavers, so the beavers returned and recolonized those areas, the beavers built dams, that improved the hydrology of the river system, they stored more water throughout the year, they deepened the pools, the deeper pools provided more trout habitat.”
Currently, researchers studying Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado say the park is suffering from similar problems as Yellowstone was before wolf reintroduction.
“That place is an ecological disaster,” said Paul Rogers, director of the Western Aspen Alliance. “You can’t get aspen to grow there without putting fences up. And who wants to go to a national park and see fenced paddocks?”
Rogers also works in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, and has studied Utah’s Pando aspen grove extensively. In the 1970s, scientists judged Pando to be Earth’s largest and healthiest living organism — the entire 106-acre grove is connected by a single root system.
Pando is dying, says Rogers, because deer are eating all the new aspen sprouts, preventing new trees from growing. As old trees die, new ones are not taking their place with the proper regularity to maintain the grove, due to the overpopulation of deer in the area.
Many of Colorado’s aspen groves are destined for a similar fate, says Rogers, and Vail-area efforts to populate aspen in areas that have been clear cut of lodgepole pine run a risk of not being repopulated at all.
“If they remove all the conifers and take all the (dead trees off the ground), deer will have open access, and they might eat all the young aspen coming up,” Rogers said.
Rogers said wolves could help aspens grow new clones, however, “there are difficult social issues that often override our ecological issues,” he said. “People are not going to be happy if a pack of wolves comes into an area that’s populated by people.”
Nevertheless, more than 200,000 signatures in favor of putting wolf reintroduction on the ballot were validated by the Colorado Secretary of State’s office in January.
Colorado voters will have the final say on wolf reintroduction in November when Initiative 107: Restoration of Gray Wolves hits the ballot.
341F’s journey became known to many Coloradans in late February of 2009, when it was widely publicized that the wolf had crossed into Colorado.
“Officials believe that eventually wolf packs may be established in Colorado,” stated a Denver Post story about 341F, published Feb. 25, 2009.
By early April, however, the news was out that 341F had perished in Rio Blanco County on March 31 after making a second journey through Eagle County and the White River National Forest. Many assumed, due to the location of her body near the roadway, that she was hit by a car, the same way the last known wolf in Colorado before her had died in 2004. That assumption persisted until 2011, when environmental litigators WildEarth Guardians published a press release stating that they had obtained the details of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation on 341F, and she was actually killed by a poison that had been illegal in Colorado since the 1970s.
The poison that killed 341F, Compound 1080, was described by Wendy Keefover-Ring of WildEarth Guardians as a “commonly placed cousin” to sodium cyanide, “which is put out in wild places in baited M-44 traps,” in reference to a spring-loaded device designed to shoot poison into a predator’s mouth.
In 2003, Utah resident Dennis Slaugh was on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land near the Colorado border when he touched a loaded M-44 and was sprayed with cyanide. He suffered high blood pressure, difficulty breathing, daily vomiting, and an inability to work as a Caterpillar D8 driver “because he is too weak to climb up into the machine’s rungs,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2008. He died in 2018 at age 75.
341F probably died 3 to 15 hours after her exposure to Compound 1080, Keefover-Ring said.
“Death by Compound 1080 is prolonged, painful, and excruciating,” she said. “Yet, Colorado’s wild country is apparently mined with Compound 1080.”
No suspect was ever identified in the crime.
341F’s dramatic death matched her dramatic life. In less than two years, she traveled from Montana, to Wyoming, to Idaho, to Utah in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, across Utah to the Colorado border through Dinosaur National Monument, across Northwest Colorado through the White River National Forest in Eagle County and the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests in Grand County.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, the landscape has been completely altered by the abundance of elk without apex predators to keep their numbers in check, Rogers said.
“Unfortunately, 100 years ago, when we had this huge extermination of predators, there was no discussion, we just went out and did it,” Rogers said.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, “if they can’t reintroduce wolves, they ought to have a culling of elk every year,” Rogers said.
Washburn, after his staredown with the wolf in 2016, also dreams of Rocky Mountain National as a perfect setting for Colorado wolf reintroduction. He can even envision a direct economic benefit.
“You actually had a $35M wolf tourism economy develop up in Yellowstone,” Washburn said, in reference to a 2004-2006 study.
Yellowstone park rangers, who see an average of 4 million visitors per year, have never recorded a wolf attack on a human.
“I think it’s perfectly reasonable to contemplate a wolf tourism economy in Rocky Mountain National Park,” Washburn said.
At one point in 2009, 341F made it into Rocky Mountain National Park on her travels. For a moment, supporters of wolf reintroduction in Colorado shared a dream.
“With luck, she could find a mate, breed next year, and create a resident Colorado pack,” Lamblugh said in his podcast. “But after 6 months, and more than 1,000 miles, 341F’s luck ran out.”