By the mid-1900s, America’s gray-wolf population had been decimated by a systematic campaign of removal in the Lower 48, particularly in the Rocky Mountain states, and it’s taken decades for the species to regain its footing. Now, wolves have been spotted in the wild in Colorado, nearly a year ahead of a ballot initiative that, if passed, would officially bring the endangered animals back to the state. 

A pair of howling wolves in a snowy forest at Yellowstone National Park.
In November, Colorado voters could pass an initiative that would bring gray wolves back to the state © JudiLen/Getty Images

Just days after officials announced, in early January, that supporters of a proposal to reintroduce gray wolves had gathered enough voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot, representatives of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) department confirmed “the likely presence of multiple wolves in northwest Colorado.” 

A wolf footprint in the snow, with a ruler for reference
Government officials say wolf tracks were spotted around a "thoroughly scavenged" elk carcass near Irish Canyon, in the northwest corner of the state © Colorado Parks & Wildlife

According to a press release, officials made the determination after a scavenged elk carcass was discovered the week prior in Moffat County – evidence that, when taken in conjunction with an eyewitness report, filed in October, of six large canids near the borders of Wyoming and Utah, “strongly suggests” a wolf pack has taken up residence in the state’s northwest corner. 

"The sighting marks the first time in recent history CPW has received a report of multiple wolves traveling together," northwest regional manager JT Romatzke said in a statement. “In my opinion, this is a very credible report,” he added, especially considering accounts of wolf activity over the past few years that have included tracks, howls, photos, videos, and even DNA testing. "We have no doubt that they are here, and the most recent sighting of what appears to be wolves traveling together in what can be best described as a pack is further evidence of the presence of wolves in Colorado." 

Closeup of a grey wolf in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
"It is inevitable, based on known wolf behavior, that they would travel here from states where their populations are well-established," said CPW northwest regional manager JT Romatzke © Steve McKinzie/Getty Images

Local officials were quick to point out that they had registered their dissent to a formal reintroduction initiative months prior, and indeed, the ballot measure remains a hotly-debated topic statewide, with ranchers and farmers voicing their opposition over concerns for pets and livestock and conservationists arguing for biodiversity, ecological balance, and disease limitation in support. 

Rob Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, told ABC News that wolves are “critical components” of the western Colorado ecosystem, necessary predators who would push the region's sedentary elk and deer toward migration. In the wolves’ absence, he said, the grazing herds “browse all of the vegetation ‘down to the ground,’ which leads to erosion from rivers and streams and the disruption of other habitats.”

Wild grey wolf (Canis lupis) trotting through winter snow in Yellowstone National Park.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed delisting the gray wolf as an endangered species due to recovery, but conservationists say the

Though the US Department of the Interior proposed delisting the gray wolf as an endangered species in March, advocates say the predators still deserve protection on state and federal levels. 

“Although what’s happening in Colorado is not necessarily addressing what’s happening at the federal level, it’s a statement on how much we are interested in saving what we have regardless of what’s happening at the federal level,” Joanna Lambert, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, told the Washington Post. “Anybody that has their eyes open looking around the world sees habitat destruction. If you’re paying attention, you cannot deny we’re losing wild things and wild places at a time when the measures we have to protect those species are increasingly being eroded."

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