The Modern History of the Wolf in Colorado

Photo Credit: Antagain (iStock).

On a quiet night in the middle of the Colorado backcountry, you’ll find that one sound is absent that can often be heard in many wild parts across North America – the howl of a wolf.

Once a thriving species in the Centennial State, the wolf was aggressively eradicated, now entirely absent from Colorado according to most.

Though the wolf has been kept away for decades, that might not be the case for much longer. Talks of wolf reintroduction continue to get more serious, potentially leading to a ballot item in an upcoming 2020 vote.

This begs the question, will the wolf’s howl remain unheard across Colorado hillsides for much longer? And if the howl is heard again, will this be for better or worse?

According to Colorado Parks & Wildlife , the last gray wolves were eradicated from Colorado around 1940. Prior to that, wolves thrived in the Centennial State thanks to a number of big game species that were readily available for them to prey on such as bison, elk, and deer, along with a number of small game species like rabbits and rodents.

However, things changed for the wolves as larger numbers of early American settlers and pioneers pushed west, bringing their taste for hunting and trapping with them.

During this period of western expansion, populations of big game species were decimated. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that in 1872, an average of 5,000 bison were being killed every day in the west. While sources tend to vary regarding exactly how many bison were killed during the years surrounding this time, the most common assumption seems to be a number between 30 and 60 million. Some sources even suggest that bison numbers nationwide dropped to just 325 by 1884.

As hunters and trappers were pushing the bison toward extinction, this had another side effect – the wolves were losing a key source of food. This same rampant hunting was occuring with other big game species, as well, though not quite to the same extent. However, this crunch was felt by the wolves as a variety of food sources they had relied on for centuries were suddenly more scarce.

This rapid increase in hunting meant that the wolves faced more competition for dinner. Because of this, they were forced to either adapt or die.

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife , this pressure caused by overhunting led the wolves to seek out nontraditional food sources. The low hanging fruit was cattle – often fenced in and relatively defenseless.

While this new style of prey kept the wolves fed, local ranchers immediately started to feel the economic impact of their cattle getting picked off one-by-one. Wolves started to be viewed as more of a threat, with Coloradans systematically poisoning, trapping, and shooting the species with fervor.

During the 1870s, it’s said that poisoned bait could have been responsible for killing up to 100,000 wolves annually. As far as hunting wolves, this act is said to have reached its height in the 1920s and 1930s, spurred at times by government programs and initiatives.

One such initiative was the National Park Service’s predator control program that was enacted at Yellowstone National Park. Stemming from the Yellowstone National Park Act of 1872 , which deemed wolves destructive to other animal populations in the park, this initiative specifically targeted wolves in the park. Between 1914 and 1926, at least 136 wolves were killed at Yellowstone with wolves rarely reported at the park in the following decades.

This culling of wolf populations wasn’t isolated to a certain portion of the country either. By the 1900s, the National Park Service reports that wolves had been practically eliminated in all 48 contiguous states.

It wouldn’t be until 1973 that the status of the wolf as a pest to eradicate would formally start to change. Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law, which protected species deemed to be endangered or threatened. Wolves were then categorized as one of these protected species a year later in 1974.

A few years after that, the debate regarding whether or not to bring wolves back to Colorado would start.

The legislation surrounding wolves has continued to evolve and change since, most recently displayed by the decision of the Trump administration to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. Some believe the species has rebounded to a sustainable population in the lower 48 states, though others do not.

No longer federally listed as an endangered species, managing the wolf population now became the job of each individual state. Different states tend to have different rules and policies regarding the gray wolf. Some places like Wyoming have slowed legal hunting due to a rapid decline of the local wolf population. At the same time, places like Oregon have already relaxed their rules for hunting this predator that is no longer officially considered to be in danger of extinction.

One 2018 article , written by the Colorado Springs Independent, mentions that Wyoming has specific designated areas that the wolf is allowed to roam, though they are killed without consequence in 88 percent of the state. Part of this 88 percent includes space bordering Colorado, a potential reason why a natural migration has yet to occur.

While wolves haven’t had an established population in the state of Colorado for decades, wolves do occasionally make an appearance in the Centennial State from time to time.

Most recently, two different wolves were reportedly spotted in two different sightings near the Wyoming state line. It’s believed that these wolves traveled to Colorado from nearby states where wolf populations are thriving and were not long-term residents of the area.

There are also several rescues around Colorado where you’re able to get up-close and personal with wolves. One of these organizations is the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation in Guffey, Colorado, where you’re able to reserve a time for a tour around their property during which you’re typically able to meet several of the animals.

Today, there’s a debate that continues over whether or not an official reintroduction should take place. Time will tell if this happens or not.



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