Wolves likely roaming Colorado Rockies | VailDaily.com

Wolves likely roaming Colorado Rockies

Cliff Thompson

If you listen carefully enough and are in the right place you could hear the howl of a wolf in Eagle County in a few short years, says a pre-eminent wolf expert.In fact there may be individual wolves here already in some wilderness areas. That possibility was made all the more plausible earlier this week by news that a wolf had been found dead alongside Interstate 70 just an hour’s drive from Eagle County and 30 miles west of Denver. The animal was nearly 500 miles from its home in Yellowstone National Park and, if recent wolf sightings are correct, it had apparently gone on a long-distance walkabout that may have taken it near Yampa and Toponas in southern Routt County as it headed over Gore Pass, near to the Eagle County line.While many wolf experts are divided over when and even if wolves will appear, one leading wolf expert and author, Dr. David Mech of the United States Geological Survey and the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, said he believes wolves already are here. Mech, pronounced “Meech”, has a connection to Eagle County- his son, Chris, lives here.”I’d hazard a guess there will be reproducing wolves in Colorado in five years,” he said.Mech is a researcher and author who has conducted research on wolves on Minnesota’s Isle Royale as well as in Canada, Italy, Alaska and Yellowstone National Park . He also founded the International Wolf Center. He said he believes the wide-ranging carnivore has already arrived in Colorado. Wildlife biologist Gary Skiba, with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, isn’t sure that’s the case. He said the 2-year-old female wolf hadn’t bred, leading him to conclude it didn’t encounter any other wolves on its journey.Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and more recently in Idaho. The last wild wolf in Colorado was killed in the southern part of the state in 1945.”They have the capability to travel that distance from those (population) reservoirs in Idaho and Wyoming,” Mech said. Wolves can live anywhere there is food, Mech added. That means game-rich Eagle County with its large elk herds, a primary prey for wolves, would prove attractive to the animals.”Wherever there’s wilderness areas, there could be wolves,” Mech said. “They eat large and small animals.”The Flat Tops Wilderness on the western fringe of Eagle County has the state’s largest elk herd and would be good habitat for wolves.Genetic dead-endBut Boulder-based Sinapu, which advocates returning top predators to the ecosystems of the southern Rockies, doesn’t believe the animals will be able to start viable populations all on their own.”The best science doesn’t indicate wolves are going to re-colonize Colorado on their own,” said Rob Edward. Sinapu’s director of carnivore restoration. He said he feels it will take human efforts, like those made for the lynx, for there to be decolonization.The reason is that if only a few wolves form a pack, they could suffer a “genetic bottleneck,” from inbreeding. But Edward said restoring wolves to an ecosystem is vital to its success and health.”We’re not talking about restoring them for the sake of the species,” he said. “It restores an ecological process that’s as important to the landscape as is wildfire.”Natural restoration, Edward said, is hindered by southern Wyoming’s Red Desert, which has lots of roads and human activity that could dissuade wolves from crossing it.

Mech said the discovery of the wolf alongside Interstate 70 nearly 500 miles from its home pack isn’t surprising. He doubts the animal was killed elsewhere and dropped off outside of Denver, as some have suggested.”The fact that she had a radio collar tends to reduce the chances someone moved her there,” he said. “They had to possess the knowledge that they could have been tracked by a biologist with aircraft tracking that wolf.”The peripatetic ways of the two-year-old female wolf are pretty typical, Mech said. Young wolves often travel to new territories in the spring.”That’s how they colonize new areas,” he said. Singles sceneBut getting a reproducing population of wolves in Colorado will require a male and female to overcome the same odds encountered by humans on the singles circuit, only this circuit could be thousands of square miles of forest.It will require a male and female to be in the same area at the same time. While it may seem ruled by chance, wolves have some advantages, Mech said.They leave scent markings, just like dogs, and also have one other calling card that has chilled human nerves over the years – a howl. It’s how individual wolves keep in touch with each other, Mech said. A howl can be heard three or four miles away.”I’m not sure how they find each other,” Mech said. “If they run across each other’s trail even a week or two old they could track one another down. They probably do a lot of howling.”Mech said he’s glad to see wolves beginning to colonize new areas, but he also acknowledges that with their arrival will come some problems. Some wolves outside Yellowstone and in Idaho have been destroyed because they began to specialize in killing domestic livestock instead of wild prey. Others have been illegally shot and still others, killed by highway traffic.Getting wolves to Colorado is a double-edged sword, Mech said.”I do like to see that (colonization),” he said. “I know they have to be managed and I accept that.”Wolf strategyThere have been a number of wolf sightings reported in Eagle County over the years, particularly in the Homestake Creek area south of Red Cliff, said Bill Andree of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.He said those sightings have never been verified and he theorizes the animals may have been pet wolf-dog hybrids that were either abandoned or were deliberately released and subsequently became feral. Without a DNA test they are virtually indistinguishable from wolves, he said.The Colorado Division of Wildlife seems to believe it’s not a question of if wolves will arrive, but when. It held meetings last week to develop a wolf management plan that will set the rules for dealing with the predators, who sometimes don’t distinguish between a cow elk and a Hereford heifer. That plan are expected to be completed in the autumn and will include where or if to allow wolves to stay, and policies for dealing with wolf predation on domestic livestock. Those regulations are also needed because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected in the next couple of years to remove wolves north of Interstate 70 from the threatened status. When that happens, management of them will become a state issue.

In 1989 the Colorado Wildlife Commission declined to participate in a wolf recovery program.Wolves do kill livestock but not as much as had been predicted, Mech said. Many ranchers have grazing permits for wild public lands, the same area favored by wolves.”They are killing livestock outside the wilderness areas,” Mech said. “The numbers they are killing are an extremely small proportion of the livestock out there. To the individual rancher it may be significant but it’s a tiny portion of the whole.”Not totally welcomeAs might be expected, not everyone will be pleased to have the predator back in the area. Many ranchers operate on a razor-thin margin, and aren’t that keen on the prospect of having a predator in their back yards that could make raising livestock even tougher.”Wolves can have significant negative impacts on livestock,” said Rick Kahn, wildlife management supervisor for the Division of Wildlife. “They’re the epitome of a predator.”In places where wolves have been reintroduced there also has been resistance from sportsmen’s groups concerned about the effects of wolves on free-ranging wildlife populations, he said.Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: cthompson@vaildaily.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.==========================================For more information on wolves:http://www.wolf.org/wolves/index.asphttp://www.sinapu.org/ Another lynx dies in Vail Pass traffic

Animal was released in southwestern Colorado in AprilBy Cliff ThompsonDaily Staff WriterFor the second time in five years, a lynx from southwestern Colorado has been run over and killed while crossing Interstate 70 at Vail Pass.This one, a female, was killed May 17 near the red cliffs at mile marker 187 in the westbound lane – about a mile west of where the previous lynx was found after it was killed.A necropsy – an animal autopsy – conducted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, revealed the animal killed in May was in good condition and was not pregnant, said Division of Wildlife Officer Bill Andree. “It shows they want to cross the highway at that point,” he said. The animal wore an electronic tracking collar.Canada lynx were captured in Canada and reintroduced by the Colorado Division of Wildlife to southwestern Colorado’s 401,000-acre Weminuche Wilderness. Colorado is considered the southern range of lynx habitat.A handful of animals – all wearing radio tracking collars – have wandered far and wide. One ended up in Nebraska and others were tracked moving through Eagle County.The lynx struck and killed by a vehicle on Vail Pass most recently was released in April, said Rick Kahn, wildlife management supervisor for the Division of Wildlife. ” Sometimes they just hit the ground and start walking, Kahn said. “We want them to stay more in the southwest area of the state.”For the past two years, researchers have found 16 lynx kittens in a handful of dens in southwestern and central Colorado, indicating the reintroduced lynx are breeding and have adopted their new homeland. A total of 78 of the 129 lynx released in the last there years, are alive, the Division of Wildlife web site states.In the late 1990s, lynx, which are being considered for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, were at the epicenter of a conflict involving Vail Resorts and environmentalists over the construction of Blue Sky Basin. That area was considered lynx habitat by environmentalists. Lynx had been seen and trapped on Vail Mountain in the 1970s, but none have been found since. The uproar over Blue Sky Basin’s subsequent approval by the Forest Service, many believe, led to the largest act of eco-sabotage in U.S. history. A group calling itself the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, burned down Two Elk Lodge and several lift structures on Vail Mountain in October 1998, saying it was retaliation for the decision.

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