Grand Canyon wolf visit signals possible Colorado comeback for the species

FRISCO, Colo. — As the Grand Canyon’s new lone wolf howls at the silvery moon from the Kaibab Plateau this winter, biologists hope to learn more about how the West’s great predators may someday recolonize their ancestral hunting grounds — including Colorado.

The last time a wolf peered over the edge of the canyon was nearly a lifetime ago — 70 years, biologists say. But in early October, a solitary wolf from the northern Rockies turned up in northern Arizona after wandering at least 450 miles. The long-distance journey — along with similar treks by other animals in the past few years — shows that there is still plenty of room in the West for wild things to roam.

“This wolf’s epic journey through at least three western states fits with what scientific studies have shown, namely that wolves could once again roam widely and that the Grand Canyon is one of the best places left for them,” said Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s so much more room for wolves in the West if only we extend them a bit more tolerance,” Robinson said.

The recent history of wolves in northern Rockies shows that the animals can survive and co-exist with humans here, said Dr. Carlos Carroll, a wolf biologist with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research.

But populations are small and isolated compared to historic standards. To persist for the long term, wolves and other far-flung predators (including Colorado’s own lynx) need a series of spread-out but connected strongholds to maintain healthy genetic diversity, Carroll said. The Grand Canyon wolf’s trek fits the pattern of other recent carnivore movements, he added.

In 2011, an Oregon-born wolf wandered into northern California and stayed for more than a year — the first confirmed wolf in that state in more than half a century. Around the same time, a wolverine made its way from Wyoming into Colorado, ranging from Rocky Mountain National Park down to Mt. Evans. In 2004, a wolf wandering down from the northern Rockies was killed on I-70, and in 2009, yet another was found dead in Eagle County, just 120 miles west of Denver.

howling wolf

Welcome back?

Wolves are native to Colorado, but were targeted under a relentless predator control program that eradicated the species from the state by about 1930. But the recent long-range wolf treks clearly shows that they are likely to return one day — a fact that was acknowledged by a wolf working group in 2004 that issued a set of wolf management recommendations.

For now, the species is still managed under the federal Endangered Species Act. But the state wanted to be ready if wolves show up in Colorado and are someday taken off the Endangered Species list, said Eric Odell, species conservation coordinator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“How they get here will depend on how they’re managed in the states around us with wolf populations,” Odell said, explaining that Colorado has plenty of potential habitat where they could roam, from the sparsely populated northwestern corner of the state down to the San Juans. “I think it would be, in certain areas, possible to sustain wolves but it would require careful management to avoid conflicts. A lot of it is managing peoples’ expectations,’ he said.

The wolf working group agreed that there would be both positive and negative impacts from wolf presence in Colorado. Positive impacts could include restoration of ecological systems and aesthetic contributions to the Colorado landscape, while negative impacts could include depredation on domestic livestock and reduction of wild ungulate populations.

The management recommendations focus on a flexible approach based on good monitoring, a compensation program to reimburse ranchers for animals that might be killed by wolves and a public outreach component. Specific recommendations include:

– Migrating wolves should be allowed to live with no boundaries where they find habitat. Wolf distribution in Colorado will ultimately be defined by the interplay between ecological needs and social tolerance.

– If wolves are causing problems, manage to resolve the problem. When negative impacts occur, they should be addressed on a case-by-case basis utilizing a combination of appropriate management tools and damage payments.

– Allow take of wolves to manage depredations. Flexibility should be maintained in the array of management tools available to accommodate changing circumstances over time.

– Wolf monitoring is an essential component of the plan. Monitoring can be conducted with different types of technology and at varying intensity levels based on local needs and CPW discretion.

– The CPW should, over time, bring the wolf into existing management programs and policies for other carnivores, such as mountain lions and black bears.

[ Photos of the lone wolf at Grand Canyon, courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department.]