It was a long, no doubt treacherous, journey, but a young wolf from Yellowstone National Park's wolf recovery program has made it down into Colorado.
Colorado Division of Wildlife officials guess the female wolf traveled about 1,000 miles along the way from southwestern Montana to Eagle County, Colorado. Officials at WildEarth Guardians hope she travels a bit farther, into Rocky Mountain National Park where she'll encounter a sumptuous buffet-on-the-hoof -- elk. Lots of elk.
This is the second Yellowstone-area wolf to have reached Colorado. The last-known Canis lupis to make it that far south was hit and killed on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs back in 2004.
“Sadly, though, at this rate, Colorado will not likely see a breeding population of wolves in the next several decades unless we reintroduce them, as we have successfully done with Canada lynx," says Rob Edward, the carnivore recovery director for WildEarth Guardians.
According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, a Global Positioning Satellite collar attached to the 18-month-old female indicated her last known position was in Eagle County. She had separated from her pack just north of the Yellowstone boundary in September and has now traveled across five states, federal biologists said.
"Young wolves often cover remarkable distances looking for a mate and a new territory," said DOW director Tom Remington. "If this wolf doesn't find a pack, she'll likely keep moving. We've seen at least one Yellowstone wolf in Colorado before, but we have no reason to believe that wolves have established a pack in the state yet."
The gray wolf is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and may not be killed or harassed without federal approval. Colorado's wolf policy allows for wolves to move freely throughout the state as long as they don't come in conflict with people or livestock.
The wolf roaming Colorado, known as 314F, was a member of the Mill Creek Pack when she was caught and collared by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks as part of a research effort with the University of Montana to improve wolf monitoring techniques. The data provided by her collar has allowed researchers to track her epic journey across an enormous chunk of the Rocky Mountain region.
According to satellite data, the wolf passed south through Yellowstone National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming southeast of Pinedale. She then traversed widely through southwestern Wyoming and wandered through southeast Idaho and northeastern Utah before crossing into Colorado within the past two weeks. The wolf is now 450 miles from its origin, but has traveled at least 1,000 miles overall.
The last confirmed wolf in Colorado also came from Yellowstone. The young female was killed by a vehicle on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs in June, 2004. In 2007, video footage of a black, wolf-like canid was taken near Walden, Colorado, in the North Park area. While this footage was highly suggestive, the animal was not wearing a radio collar and its identity could not be verified. The DOW has received other reports of wolf sightings throughout the state in recent years. None have been confirmed.
According to Colorado biologists, wolves "generally disperse within 60 miles of their pack, although biologists have documented approximately 10 wolves since 1992 that traveled in excess of 190 miles in search of a mate. The actual number of long-distance dispersers may be higher; less than 30 percent of the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population has been radio-collared. None of the long-distance dispersing wolves from the northern Rocky Mountain population have successfully formed packs or bred. Lone wolves typically have low survival rates outside of occupied wolf range."
They add that they expect "dispersers from the Yellowstone area, Idaho and Montana will continue to attempt to reestablish populations in suitable portions of their former range."
While Colorado has no plans to reintroduce the wolf, WildEarth Guardians has called for wolves to be returned to Rocky Mountain National Park so they could act as a natural predator to contain the burgeoning elk herds.
“We hope that while she’s here, she’ll wander over to Rocky Mountain National Park and chase some of their elk around,” says Mr. Edward. “There’s plenty of room for her to get some exercise and a meal.”
WildEarth Guardians is presently suing the National Park Service over its elk management plan in Rocky Mountain, claiming that the agency failed to fully consider restoring a free-roaming population of wolves.