Are wolves already in Summit County? Some recent evidence suggests they might be nearby

An animal that resembles a wolf is pictured behind a business outside of Leadville in late December 2021. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said they have not confirmed whether the animal is a wolf.
Charlie Marshall/Courtesy photo

As the logistics of Colorado’s planned gray wolf reintroduction are still being ironed out, some are questioning whether the effort is necessary now that wolf activity has been confirmed in the state.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Travis Duncan said he can confirm eight wolves in Colorado, six of which are the pups of two adults in the vicinity of Jackson County. Parks and Wildlife keeps a list of confirmed wolf sightings in the past 15 years on its website, with this pack being the most recent.

Duncan said his department investigates many potential wolf sightings every year, but more often than not, the sightings turn out to be large dogs, coyotes or a hybrid of a domestic dog and a wolf. The most recent confirmed activity of wolves was when Parks and Wildlife confirmed a heifer was killed by wolves near Walden in Jackson County.

“To confirm a wolf predation, field investigations would include signs of tracks, types/severity of wounds and observations of other potential evidence in the area, such as scat or hair,” Duncan wrote in an email. “To confirm a wolf sighting, field biologists would rely on observations like signs of tracks and scat.”

Charlie Marshall submitted a report to Parks and Wildlife after a game camera at his business outside of Leadville caught a photo of what appears to be a wolf. Based on the photo Marshall supplied, Duncan said it’s impossible for biologists and wildlife officers to determine the animal’s species without DNA.

“We will take this report seriously and investigate it,” Duncan said. “But until we investigate and confirm, it is not a substantiated wolf sighting, and it is inaccurate to say this sighting has been confirmed.”

Marshall said he found a footprint in the snow behind his property that was larger than his own foot, leading him to check the camera to see what it could be. He said he’s spoken with some animal trappers in northern Idaho who were confident it was a wolf, saying it’s one of the biggest they’ve seen — but officials just aren’t able to confirm it yet.

“It’s not somebody’s dog out there at four in the morning at 9 degrees,” Marshall said. “It’s kind of fascinating that they’re back, and they have not been reintroduced. So it kind of begs the question, ‘Do we need to reintroduce them if they’re already here?’”

Charlie Marshall's foot is pictured next to a large footprint left by an animal behind his business in late December 2021. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have not confirmed whether the animal is a wolf.
Charlie Marshall/Courtesy photo

Rob Edward is a strategic adviser with the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, an organization dedicated to restoring wolves on public land in western Colorado. Edward and his organization played a key role in passing Proposition 114, the initiative on which Coloradans voted to reintroduce wolves in the state by the end of 2023.

Edward said Marshall’s photo certainly resembles a wolf-like animal, but because there’s only one infrared photo without much detail, it’s hard to say. He said that even with wolves already present in Colorado, reintroduction is still important.

“If we can protect those few wolves who migrated down here long enough that they have a chance to meet some of the wolves that we translocate starting in late 2023 … then we’re getting to have a genetically diverse population of wolves starting to reestablish themselves here,” Edward said.

In regard to the pack near Jackson County, Edward said he believes the pandemic reduced traffic in southern Wyoming, which allowed the wolves to travel south and find each other in Colorado.

“There’s a lot of people who are very upset that Proposition 114 passed, that it was even on the ballot, and they want to beat the drum that wolves are already here,” Edward said. “The fact is that a few wolves have come down from Wyoming under the window of the pandemic, so we’ve lucked out and had our first breeding wolf pack in more than 70 years up in North Park.”

One of the biggest concerns about reintroduction comes from ranchers with livestock, but Edward said annual livestock kill rates are minimal. He reiterated, though, that this is why Proposition 114 has a built-in compensation component for livestock depredation.

“Beyond that, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project is looking ahead to the future and working toward building a long-term funding mechanism that can help us fund innovative programs to help livestock producers prevent depredations in the first place and to coexist with wolves,” Edward said.

Duncan said Parks and Wildlife is working with stakeholder advisory groups on scientific, economic and social considerations of the reintroduction plan. He said restoration logistics are already complete and that current discussions are around livestock depredation compensation and wolf management. The last element the groups are working on is putting together educational materials about the program.

Duncan estimated a draft plan will be presented to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission in late 2022 or early 2023, followed by an additional period of public comment. Once the final plan is approved by the commission, the actual releasing of wolves will take place no later than Dec. 31, 2023.

“Reintroduction is still very much necessary,” Edward said. “We hope to have a thriving population of wolves here in the coming years.”