New evidence suggests that America’s iconic gray wolf species is making a comeback in the Centennial State after being hunted to near-extinction almost a century ago.
Last week, officials discovered a “thoroughly scavenged elk carcass” located just a few miles away from where an October hunting party captured one of the first videos showing roaming wolves in Colorado. Together, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials tell IFLScience that there is only one logical explanation they can conclude: wolves are back in Colorado.
"The sighting marks the first time in recent history CPW has received a report of multiple wolves traveling together," said JT Romatzke, CPW Northwest regional manager, in a statement. "In addition, in the days prior, the eyewitness says he heard distinct howls coming from different animals. In my opinion, this is a very credible report."
CPW has initiated an investigation following the confirmation of the carcass. Wolves prey primarily on large ungulates – large hoofed mammals, such as elk – notes the International Wolf Center. Alongside the elk carcass, Mike Porras, a public information officer with CPW, confirmed the presence of several large canid tracks from multiple animals that appear to be consistent with wolves. Additionally, CPW reports that the “condition of the carcass is consistent with known wolf predation.”
"The latest sightings add to other credible reports of wolf activity in Colorado over the past several years," said Romatzke. "In addition to tracks, howls, photos, and videos, the presence of one wolf was confirmed by DNA testing a few years ago, and in a recent case, we have photos and continue to track a wolf with a collar from Wyoming’s Snake River pack."
IFLScience spoke with Porras, who cautions that these animals have not been observed up close and there is no real way to determine if the group fits the "true definition of a pack," which entails an extended family unit that includes a dominant male and female, referred to as the alpha pair. Porras adds that officials do not yet consider the group an established population defined as two or more packs successfully reproducing over two or more years.
“You have to also take into account known wolf behavior. These animals disperse and they move around. They are not looking for specific habitat and they are adaptable. They’re just doing what wolves do,” said Porras, adding that reports of recent wolf sightings in the state go back to 2004.
Wolves were largely hunted and subsequently eradicated throughout much of the western United States. They all but disappeared from the lower 48 states by the beginning of the 20th century. The last known individual in Colorado was killed in 1945. This year, voters in the western part of the state will have the opportunity to decide whether to reintroduce the canid officially.
Gray wolves were first given federal protections within five years following the enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, varying from “threatened” to “endangered” statuses across their historic range. Today, USFWS thanks in large part the ESA for the replenishment of the species across nine states, with “stable and healthy” populations made up of around 6,000 individuals – one of the greatest comebacks in US conservation history. This rebound has prompted some regions to delist the gray wolf from protection under the ESA. In March of last year, the agency announced it would seek to delist the species and “return management of the species to the states and tribes.” As it stands, wolves in Colorado remain under the federal jurisdiction and protected under the ESA.
"We will not take direct action and we want to remind the public that wolves are federally endangered species and fall under the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. As wolves move into the state on their own, we will work with our federal partners to manage the species," Romatzke said.
Wildlife officials also ask that if you spot a wolf, please report it using the Wolf Sighting Form.