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Since Colorado’s last wild wolves were killed in the 1930s, a few lone animals have been spotted in the state. So, when a pack was spotted in northwest Colorado — several months before Colorado voters decide whether they’ll support a bill to reintroduce gray wolves to the state — it wasn’t a total surprise to Carbondale ecologist Delia Malone.
“It does give life to the idea that Colorado has ample suitable habitat for wolves,” said Malone, a member of the science advisory team for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which hopes to reestablish a sustainable population of wolves in Colorado.
Malone and Colorado wildlife officials agree that the rural northwest corner of the state is well-suited for wolves. CPW isn’t releasing the pack’s exact location, but agency spokesperson Lauren Truitt says there is plenty of prey and room to roam.
“With Colorado not having any wolf presence, there’s not a whole lot of competition for them, so it’s very likely that they’ll hang around,” Truitt said.
CPW biologists used DNA testing on four scat samples, which revealed there are at least three females and one male in the pack, and those wolves are all closely related, probably as full siblings.
“That does not mean there’s a sustainable population of wolves in Colorado,” Malone said. “A sustainable, recovered population is a population that is ecologically effective in their role to restore natural balance; they’re well-distributed throughout Colorado; they’re well-connected. And six little wolves is not that.”
Malone says her work as an ecologist gives her a clear view that Colorado needs wolves.
“Our ecosystems are not in great shape,” Malone said.
The combination of a warming climate and lack of predators has reduced the resilience of Colorado’s aspen forests and other habitats. Malone said the presence of wolves has tremendous benefits, including improving water availability in the driest months of the year.
“They (wolves) move the elk so that they don’t overgraze, so that there’s willow left for the beavers to build their dams, to store their water, to supply streamflows in the late-summer season,” Malone said.
Malone and others point to the ecological benefits seen after wolf recovery in Yellowstone National Park as a model. The National Park Service says that without pressure from predators such as wolves, the elk population grew far beyond what was sustainable. The number of elk has since reached healthier levels.