Wolves, apparently, don’t need an invitation.

Whether Coloradans approve or decline their reintroduction in a statewide referendum in November, it appears the predators have returned to their native range.

For the first time since wolves were systematically eradicated in the 1940s by shooting, trapping and poisoning, state officials believe a wolf park is roaming the state’s northwest corner.

Following a Craig Daily Press report, Colorado Parks and Wildlife on Wednesday released pictures of recognizable paw prints around a shredded elk carcass described as “consistent with known wolf predation.” The evidence was found on hunting grounds around Moffatt County.

An eyewitness account claiming six large canids is “very credible,” CPW says.

If confirmed, this would be Colorado’s sixth wolf sighting in 25 years — the first of a pack.

“It looks like we have a group in the northwest part of the state that finds a good habitat here and has the ability to sustain itself,” says Rebecca Ferrell, CPW’s spokeswoman on endangered species. “That’s significant to us. It shows that the habitat can contain these animals and it shows they are willing and able to come here.”

The news comes days after Colorado’s Secretary of State announced enough signatures had been collected to add an initiative to the 2020 ballot that would launch a plan bringing wolves back to the Western Slope.

The prospect has people split. One side claims the predator would restore natural balance. Another fears the opposite, including Grand Junction resident Denny Behrens, representing the Stop the Wolf Coalition.

“We’re gonna continue to see wildlife depredation on wildlife,” he says, “and sooner or later there’s gonna be depredation on livestock. That’s when it’s gonna get serious.”

A pack’s possible presence in the state is reason enough for voters to reject bringing in more as proposed in Initiative 107, Behrens says. “They’re already here.”

However, the news should embolden proponents, says Rob Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund. The pack would be the vanguard for the new generation, he says.

“The best we can do for these wolves is to bring some more down and be part of their extended family in the future.”

Colorado’s last confirmed wolf sighting was announced in Jackson County in July, northwest of Fort Collins. The lone traveler came from Wyoming’s Snake River pack, Sara DiRienzo, of the state’s Game and Fish Department, told The Gazette then.

“It’s not uncommon for a wolf to travel a far distance,” she said, “especially if they’re trying to find new territory.”

That very well could be the case, Ferrell said at the time. It was “entirely possible” that wolves from bordering states could reestablish themselves in Colorado without human help, she said, “but that would certainly, obviously be a very slow process.”

A pack would be an indication of that process starting. Says Ferrell now: “This is the first time that we’ve had some pretty compelling evidence that we may have a pack here in Colorado.”

Despite the sightings of lone animals, CPW has yet to confirm there are any breeding pairs in the state.

If that was happening, we would know, Edward says. Maybe not, says Behrens, who at the time of the Jackson County sighting predicted a pack lurked somewhere, based on anecdotes he regularly heard from fellow hunters.

“We get up to probably 100 reported sightings in a year, and probably 5% to 10% of those are what we consider credible sightings,” Ferrell says.

Before last summer, Colorado’s last confirmed wolf was killed in 2015 near Kremmling; a hunter thought he shot a coyote. Another was found poisoned in 2009 in Rio Blanco County. And five years before that, one was run over by a car on Interstate 70.

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