On a hazy July afternoon, wolf expert Karin Vardaman returned to a spring-fed pond in Colorado’s northwestern-most corner. Enough rain had fallen to wet the ground around the watering hole. She tiptoed across the soft earth — careful not to disturb any impressions left by cattle and pronghorn antelope — until one track filled her with an almost overwhelming feeling of relief.
There, sunken into the mud near the Wyoming and Utah borders, was a broad wolf print.
“Maybe there’s one,” she said. “It gives hope.”
For nearly two years, Vardaman has visited the Moffat County rangeland every few months to track wolves for Working Circle, a nonprofit she founded to help ranchers live with the predators.
The patchwork of public and private land is already a riot of animal life. Forested mountains overlook broad valleys, where elk and cattle scare badgers from their dens beneath the sagebrush.
In the winter of 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced the area also appeared to be home to the state’s first wolf pack in almost a century. The arrival marked a milestone in North American predator conservation. The pack’s rapid disappearance reveals the extent of Colorado’s challenge as it seeks to become a safe haven for the species.
Only months after its discovery, state wildlife officials learned hunters likely killed three members of the pack just across the border in Wyoming. The news came amid a rising tide of anti-wolf sentiment across the Rocky Mountain West.
In the last year, conservative states like Montana and Idaho have taken aggressive action to cut their wolf populations. Wildlife advocates anticipated the possibility, which is why many lined up behind a Colorado ballot measure to force the state to reintroduce the animals by the end of 2023. The proposition narrowly passed last November.
While Vardaman wants wolves to return to Colorado, she’s concerned the animals won’t succeed without a greater acceptance of the predators in rural communities. For years, her nonprofit has worked with ranchers in northern California and southern Oregon to protect livestock from predators. She’s now trying to adapt the model for Colorado.
“We got to be able to protect what we have before we should be bringing other critters in,” she said.
Her work has confirmed part of the task likely remains in Moffat County. A few weeks after she found the paw prints, a single wolf triggered one of Vardaman’s camera traps near the same watering hole. The device’s white flash lit the eyes of a silver wolf, possibly the lone survivor of Colorado’s first pack after an 80-year absence.
The federal government is a central character in the story of the disappearance and return of wolves to Colorado.
In the early 20th century, hunters and trappers eradicated the species from Colorado and most other parts of the lower 48 states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded evidence of Colorado’s last known native wolf, which the government captured and killed in Conejos County in 1945.
Fifty years later, the federal government led an effort to reintroduce the species in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. The packs bred and expanded across the northern Rockies over the next few decades, but the southbound journey to Colorado proved difficult.
Only a handful of lone wolves ever made it to the state, where survival was far from a guarantee. A driver killed one wolf on Interstate 70 in 2004. A hunter mistakenly killed another near Kremmling in 2015, thinking it was a coyote.
While it’s unclear exactly what happened to the Moffat County wolf pack, the first signs of trouble reached Colorado Parks and Wildlife in May 2020. That’s when a local resident told area wildlife manager Bill deVergie about killing two wolves across the state border in Wyoming. The agency later learned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated a third potential wolf killing in the same area.
Colorado wildlife officials declined to identify the hunter since the wolves were killed outside its jurisdiction. It’s also perfectly legal to hunt wolves in most of Wyoming, which has defined a “predator zone” outside the Yellowstone ecosystem where anyone can kill a wolf on sight.
The legal distinction meant the Moffat County wolf pack was never far from danger. In Colorado, anyone who kills a wolf faces a $100,000 fine.