There is probably only one wolf left in far northwest Colorado. Can the state protect it?

Karin Vardaman, director and founder of Working Circle, examines wolf tracks near a spring-fed pond in Moffat County, July 12, 2021.
Sam Brasch / RCR News

On a hazy July afternoon, wolf expert Karin Vardaman returned to a spring-fed pond in Colorado’s most northwestern corner. Enough rain had fallen to wet the ground around the waterhole. She tiptoed through the soft earth – being careful not to disturb the impressions left by the cattle and the American antelopes – until a trail filled her with an almost overwhelming sense of relief. .

There, embedded in the mud near the Wyoming and Utah borders, was a large wolf print.

“Maybe there is,” she said. “It gives hope”

For nearly two years, Vardaman has visited Moffat County rangelands every few months to hunt wolves for Working Circle, a non-profit organization she founded to help ranchers cope with predators. The patchwork of public and private land is already a riot of animal life. Forested mountains overlook wide valleys, where elk and cattle scare badgers from their dens under sagebrush.

In the winter of 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced that the area also appeared to be home to the state’s first wolf pack in nearly a century. The arrival marked an important milestone in the conservation of predators in North America. The pack’s rapid demise reveals the extent of Colorado’s challenge as it seeks to become a refuge for the species.

Just months after its discovery, state wildlife officials learned that hunters had likely killed three pack members just across the border in Wyoming. The news came amid a growing wave of anti-wolf sentiment in the western Rockies.

Over the past year, conservative states like Montana and Idaho have taken aggressive steps to reduce their wolf populations. Wildlife advocates anticipated the possibility, which is why many lined up behind a Colorado voting measure to force the state to reintroduce the animals by the end of 2023. The proposal was narrowly passed in last november.

While Vardaman wants the wolves to return to Colorado, she fears the animals will succeed without greater acceptance of predators in rural communities. For years, his nonprofit has worked with ranchers in northern California and southern Oregon to protect livestock from predators. She is now trying to adapt the model for Colorado.

“We have to be able to protect what we have before we bring in other creatures,” she said.

His work has confirmed that part of the task likely remains in Moffat County. Weeks after finding the paw prints, a single wolf set off one of Vardaman’s camera traps near the same waterhole. The camera’s white flash lit up the eyes of a silver wolf, perhaps the only survivor of Colorado’s first pack after an 80-year absence.

From eradication to reintroduction

The federal government is a central figure in the history of the disappearance and return of wolves in Colorado.

By the turn of the 20th century, hunters and trappers eradicated the species from Colorado and most other areas of the lower 48 states. The US Fish and Wildlife Service recorded evidence of Colorado’s last known native wolf, which the government captured and killed in Conejos County in 1945.

Fifty years later, the federal government led an effort to reintroduce the species to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. The packs multiplied and spread across the northern Rockies over the following decades, but the journey south to Colorado proved difficult.

Only a handful of lone wolves made it to the state, where survival was far from guaranteed. A driver killed a wolf on Interstate 70 in 2004. A hunter mistakenly killed another near Kremmling in 2015, believing it to be a coyote.

Signs of unrest in Moffat County

While it is not known exactly what happened to the Moffat County wolf pack, the first signs of trouble reached Colorado Parks and Wildlife in May 2020. As reported by CPR News, it is at this point. At that time a local resident told the area’s wildlife manager, Bill deVergie, that he had killed two wolves just across the Wyoming state border. The agency later learned that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had investigated a third potential wolf murder in the same area.

Colorado wildlife officials declined to identify the hunter because the wolves were killed outside his jurisdiction. It is also perfectly legal to hunt wolves in much of Wyoming, which has defined a “predator zone” outside of the Yellowstone ecosystem where anyone can kill a wolf on sight.

The legal distinction meant the Moffat County wolf pack was never far from danger. In Colorado, anyone who kills a wolf faces a fine of $ 100,000 and up to one year in prison. The federal Endangered Species Act also protected Colorado wolves until the start of the year. Both wards disappeared if the wolves wandered north across an invisible state line.

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