By Paige Blankenbuehler, High Country News
This story was originally published by High Country News and is republished here by permission.
In the early days of October 2020, a soft breeze blew across Cold Spring Mountain, rustling the sagebrush and aspen groves. Three prominent conservationists camped near the weathered land marker that identified the junction of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, hoping to hear something that had long been absent from this landscape: the howling of a pack of wolves.
Conservationist Karin Vardaman, who is widely recognized as one of the nation’s experts on wolves, was collecting data for the Working Circle, a nonprofit she founded that works to reduce conflicts between predators and livestock producers. That winter, a wolf pair and as many as four others were spotted in Moffat County, Colorado — the first pack of wolves in the state in more than 80 years. By that fall, just months after they crossed the nearby border into Wyoming, three of them had been shot and killed. Throughout that summer, wildlife biologists conducted howl surveys of the area to see if any of the others had survived. Vardaman, who had been tracking the pack, was a key part of those efforts.
“We were able to put together the pieces of the puzzle about how these wolves were using the landscape — where they were hunting, where their rendezvous spots were,” Vardaman told me by phone in May.
At the same time, Gary Skiba, a wildlife biologist who had worked for Colorado Parks and Wildlife for more than two decades, and Matt Barnes, a scientist for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, were searching for the pack along the Green River.
Wildlife scientists tend to be lone wolves themselves, with a strong protective streak; they often keep their findings and the locations of their cameras private, obscuring details, such as pack movements, so the wolves they’re tracking can’t be easily targeted. Vardaman had crossed paths with Skiba and Barnes before, however; what Skiba likes to call the “wolf world” is a small place. Vardaman told them that she had heard howls in the area a few days earlier, so they all camped nearby, staying close together and hoping to hear them again. Vardaman recalls chatting with the others, sharing information, and then Barnes and Skiba went back to their campsite. They sat up drinking and discussing the landscape.
And then the howling began: At least three distinctive sorrowful peals, long and deep, carried along by the slight breeze — faint but unmistakable amid a chorus of higher-pitched yips from a pack of coyotes. It lasted scarcely more than a minute, but Skiba said it made his hackles rise. It was “primal,” Skiba told me. “It’s very emotional, a real connection to wildness and a connection to this bigger landscape. It’s a feeling of recognizing a system that’s functioning properly.”
In the world of wolf restoration, that feeling is exceedingly rare. Gray wolves are native to this part of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountain Range. They once flourished across the Western United States, ranging the Rocky Mountains in numbers at least into the tens of thousands. But years of lucrative trapping — much of it government-sponsored — in the 19th and 20th centuries, followed by liberal hunting regulations and development and habitat loss, devastated the population, and the constantly changing federal and state guidelines haven’t helped. Now there are only around 2,000 gray wolves in the entire Western U.S., and they reside almost exclusively in the Northern Rockies. Skiba, Vardaman and Barnes knew that the wolves they heard that night were among the only known wolves in Colorado — the few surviving members of what some were calling the Pioneer Pack.
The fate of the Pioneer Pack was a painful reminder of the obstacles faced by gray wolves in the West: Since January 2021, federal protection for the majority of gray wolves has been stripped away in the Lower 48, and wolves are managed by whatever state they happen to wander into. They are trapped in a web of overlapping and intersecting barriers, from the protected territories within Indigenous lands and national parks to the hostile country in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, where most wolf takes are legal and culturally acceptable. Wolves that cross the invisible boundary into Wyoming, into its “predator management area,” are vulnerable to the state’s draconian policies, which allow wolves to be killed any time of the year without a license. In Idaho, where the Nez Perce Tribe successfully oversaw the reintroduction and management of wolves from 1995 to 2007, the state now permits the killing of up to 90% of the population, which is currently about 1,500. In Utah, ranchers don’t need a license to kill wolves that prey on livestock. Since Colorado adopted a management plan in 2005, wolves are welcome — as long as they get into the state on their own.
In November 2020, Colorado took yet another step toward wolf restoration, when residents — primarily people in left-leaning urban, suburban and micropolitan areas like Telluride and Aspen — voted to pass Proposition 114, which mandates wolf reintroduction. The people who live where the wolves will reside — mainly rural, ranching and conservative western Colorado — largely voted against the proposition. (Moffat County, where the Pioneer Pack had localized, overwhelmingly voted “no.”) Now, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state’s wildlife agency, has until the end of 2023 to establish a sustainable population of gray wolves.
Once wolves are back on the landscape, a long-broken link in the chain will be mended: Wolves will be connected along the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico for the first time since the early 20th century. Conservationists believe this will increase biodiversity at a time of catastrophic global loss.
Now it’s up to Colorado to establish viable packs, not just by getting wolves into the state, but by making sure they can survive. Gray wolves are excellent dispersers and habitat generalists that have long flourished across their native historic range. Their survival doesn’t really depend on finding vast swaths of connected habitat and lots of prey to eat — it depends on human tolerance for them. But rural and ranching communities have viewed wolves as a threat to their way of life for more than a century. Achieving a sustainable population means convincing these communities that coexistence is in their own best interest — and that won’t be easy.
It also means protecting wolves as they move through the landscape. Wolves can travel 60 miles at a stretch, though some have been documented traveling hundreds — and, in rare cases, even thousands — of miles typically in search of mates. For long journeys like that, they often rely on natural wildlife corridors, which cross state lines and pass through zones with conflicting rules about protection.
Corridors require habitat that is connected across vast distances, where a wider ecosystem of flora and prey animals can flourish. Since so much habitat has been developed or fragmented, these pathways are rare and becoming rarer, as urban newcomers invade rural communities. This makes finding viable corridors critical to wolves’ survival: If a route could be shown to offer that degree of connectivity, then public awareness of its potential could lay the groundwork for its protection, not just for the sake of dispersing predators but for other wildlife, too.
In the spring, after Colorado passed Proposition 114, Matt Barnes, one of the three scientists who heard the wolves in Three Corners, started finding clues that wolves were traveling the Green River corridor. The Green snakes from the Wind River Mountains through southwestern Wyoming and into the Southern Rockies where the Uinta Range begins in Colorado and Utah. It wasn’t yet widely considered a potential dispersal corridor, but Barnes hoped it might prove to be a safer option than crossing Wyoming’s Red Desert.
“If you look at it broadly, not just the water itself, but the entire corridor, plus a little buffer distance on either side, it actually is a more direct line from the thick wolf and grizzly bear country of the Wind River Range and the upper Wyoming Range to the northwestern corner of Colorado,” he told me at a coffee shop in Ignacio, Colorado, in March. “(The Green River) is the only river that very nearly connects the Northern Rockies to the Southern Rockies.”
But the Green River corridor also passes through some of the most dangerous territory for wolves in the entire West, and Barnes knew that the likelihood of wolves making it safely through the area was low. So he decided to scope out the corridor by river this summer. From late May to June, Barnes canoed, kayaked and packrafted 400 miles of the river in what became a mission to see how viable the corridor was.
I joined him for part of the journey to see for myself. For a two-week period in June, I explored the corridor by river and by land, hoping to better understand what’s preventing gray wolves from repopulating the Southern Rockies on their own.
In Justin Wright’s living room, leering at you from beside his television set, is a stuffed gray wolf mounted on wheels. The wolf is nearly five feet high at its shoulders, and it stands on a fake rock accented with wisps of fake prairie grass. The wolf’s eyes are fixed, its paw pointed. Wright calls it the “Minnesota Mount,” because he sent the wolf to Minnesota to get the body mounted. The wheels are useful, because he likes to move it between the living room and kitchen.
Wright, who lives at the northern point of the Green River Valley in Cora, Wyoming, has built his life around proximity to big game. He owns several businesses: the Kendall Valley Lodge & Saloon and Mule Shoe Outfitters, which are 20 or so miles from the Green River’s headwaters. He leads guided hunts for bighorn, mountain lion, bear, elk and deer in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Wolves that wander onto his land (and many do) are vulnerable to Wright’s rifle.
Wright has decorated his lodge and saloon with bleached wolf skulls and pelts from some of those hunts. Inside the saloon, a poster of a busty, bikini-clad blonde aiming a bow hangs next to a blown-up photo showing Wright’s arms wrapped around a recently killed wolf. Its glazed eyes are fixed on the camera, its paws are bloody, and its mouth turned up in what can only be described as a grin. Wright’s arm is draped across its shoulder, his wedding ring and blood-covered fingers visible in the animal’s thick gray, black and white coat.
Despite wolves’ propensity to range, Wyoming Game and Fish has managed to keep them concentrated mostly in the 8,250 square miles of its Trophy Game Management Area, simply by making it legal to kill them if they wander too far away from it. Outside the trophy game area lies the state’s predator management area, where wolves are considered vermin and can be killed any time of the year without a license. The predator area comprises about 85% of the entire state. For wolves that leave the manufactured habitat of northwest Wyoming, the first leg of a southward journey leads through the Kendall Valley and then the predator area. Wright told me that he’d been exploring the idea of guided wolf hunts, but for now, it was off the books, done only by request. “Knowing where they are,” he told me, “we think we can offer the likelihood of a pretty successful hunt.”
Wyoming’s wildlife managers, legislators and the wider public see this conditional existence as a good thing; the habitat in the state’s northwest corner supports what they consider a sustainable wolf population. And the threshold of human tolerance for living alongside predators seems to have been carefully calibrated over the threeis i decades since wolves were reintroduced in 1995. If the wolves leave that boundary, well, they’re fair game. “Ths all density-dependent,” Ken Mills, a large-carnivore biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish, told me. “The more (wolves) you have, the more likely they’re going to get in conflicts and the more you have to kill, so we’re holding the population down in this 160-range. Humans are the single limiting factor for exponential growth in wolf populations.”
In the evenings, Wright’s saloon is filled with tired ranch hands, property owners and construction workers. Nobody I spoke to there said they would pass up the opportunity to kill a wolf — though later that night, I caught a group of the construction workers outside howling at the waxing moon with a kind of drunken admiration.
One of Wright’s regulars is Joe Sondgeroth, whose family has lived in Wyoming for generations. Sondgeroth told me about a hunt last fall where he shot a wolf at a dead run. “That thing was sprinting away from me, but I could make it out, and I got my shot,” he said.
Sondgeroth, who is 70, has killed three wolves in his life so far. He has shiny eyes and wears a faded hat from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. He and his wife, Annie, a former public health worker from California, earn much of their income from renting the multiple properties they own in the area. They are especially proud of their home, which they have spent over two decades renovating. When I visited them there, in between showing me photos of wolf hunts and laying out pelts on the living-room floor for me to admire, they gave me a tour of their new master bedroom and bathroom.
For Joe, who grew up in the nearby town of Pinedale, wolf encounters are an uncomfortable part of an otherwise idyllic life spent working in the area and watching the Super Bowl at the VFW Hall. “I don’t hate them,” he told me. “But I don’t want them to be in my yard.”
Joe views himself as a protector, defending not only the local people and animals, but also a place that he loves. “I feel like I’m helping all the game in this area,” he said. “(Wolves) are eating machines. … They have no mercy.”
This is an attitude that goes back generations. Like many people in the Cora and Pinedale area, Sondgeroth has a connection to the ranching tradition in western Wyoming. As a young man, he sometimes worked as a ranch hand, occasionally helping his friends run cattle into the summer grazing allotment in the high country by way of the Green River Drift, the oldest continually used stock drive in Wyoming.
The Drift is an intensely contested piece of land. Only 11 ranching families in the Cora and surrounding Green River area use it, but many view it as a living connection to the West’s ranching heritage. Environmentalists oppose grazing cattle in the upper Green River watershed, but Wyoming’s politics remain firmly on the side of ranching.
Ironically, the Drift makes for a bad cattle run. In sections, it is a relatively narrow corridor, like a conveyor belt into the high country with barbed wire on each side. There, a herd traveling it becomes elongated; the individual cows can get separated from each other, making them more vulnerable to predator attacks. It’s unlikely that a wolf or a grizzly will attack a dense herd of hundreds of cattle, but spread the animals out, and occasionally a few will get picked off. According to 2020 data from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, these types of kills are rare. Wolves prefer to prey on wild ungulates like elk or moose. But whenever an incident does occur, it leaves an outsized impression on the ranchers. One multigenerational Cora ranching family, who asked not to be identified for fear of harassment by environmentalists, repeated a claim I’d heard from others: That wolves kill for fun, that they “are vicious.” “They don’t just go after (calf), sometimes they’ll cripple or kill three or four (cattle) and then only eat one. People don’t understand that.”
The idea that wolves are vicious killing machines has deep colonial roots. Across the continent, Indigenous peoples have lived alongside and hunted wolves long before Europeans arrived. Fossil evidence suggests an ancestral offshoot of gray wolves were abundant in North America as far back as 500,000 years ago. In many Indigenous nations’ spiritual beliefs, wolves are seen as protectors that model hunting behavior, sharing the bounty from their kills.
In 2007, the Northern Arapaho Tribe and Eastern Shoshone Tribe published a Wolf Management Plan for the Wind River Reservation, where, in 2020, at least 21 wolves were documented. The tribes spent two years developing it. They included interviews with tribal elders, who summed up the traditional views of both tribes as people who recognize wolves “as deserving of respect and placed here by the Creator for a purpose.” According to an Arapaho oral history, a young boy got so engrossed in playing that he did not realize that his tribe was breaking camp. He was accidentally left behind. “As night fell, he began to cry,” the report said. “A wolf appeared and told
him not to be afraid — that he would help him.” Wolves gathered around the boy, collected brush and used flint to start a fire. They took care of the boy and raised him. “Wolves could teach virtuous things to people,” one Shoshone elder told officials. “They were an example of how to care for family members, because they took good care of the young as well as the old.” Today, the Shoshone and Arapaho people regard gray wolves as “kin, as helpers, as strong,” according to their wolf-management plan.
In some powwows, Shoshone people have a traditional social dance in which wolf hides are worn over the dancers’ heads. The dance celebrates bravery and wisdom, and it is considered honorable to wear the skins of an animal one is trying to emulate. Neil Thagard, director of Wildlife Division for Nez Perce Tribe, which oversaw the successful restoration of gray wolves in Idaho beginning in the mid-1990s, says that the tribe’s management of the species has been an intentional reversal of colonial policies. “Their summer range, transitional range and winter range has been disrupted by man,” Thagard told me by phone in August. “And the human footprint continues to expand. Today, we don’t have a lot more space on the ground — at least in the Lower 48.”
It wasn’t until European colonization that wolves in North America became a threatening symbol. The wolf-trapping era, which spanned from the 1850s throughout the early 20th century, took place as beaver and bison populations were being decimated. Many former trappers went on to kill wolves in staggering numbers as their pelts rose in popularity. In Montana alone, between 1870 and 1877, professional and civilian wolf hunters, known as “wolfers,” purportedly killed an estimated 100,000 wolves per year. An article in the Northern Wyoming Herald from this period laid out the stock-raisers’ goal: to eliminate “practically all of their tormentors within two years’ time.” In 1905, the U.S. government instituted its own eradication program, in which federal wolf hunters killed more than 24,000 wolves in under 30 years, including the last wolf killed in Yellowstone National Park. By 1960, wolf populations in the Lower 48 had hit a low point, but government-backed bounties of up to $50 per wolf continued to be offered until 1965.
But the United States’ political relationship with the predators was about to shift: In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was signed into law to be administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Eastern timber wolves and the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves were listed as “endangered,” among the first series of species to receive federal protection under the law. The designation — and the protections it afforded — were expanded to the majority of remaining wolf populations in the Lower 48.
In 1994, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho announced they would begin restoring wolves into the Northern Rockies. Some of the animals had already begun to disperse throughout the West, flirting with parts of their historic territory in the Northern, Central and Southern Rocky Mountains. In the 1980s, for the first time in decades, a naturally recolonizing wolf pack, known as the Magic Pack, from Canada, denned in Glacier National Park, Montana. And in 2015, a pack known as the Shasta Pack returned to California for the first time in nearly a century. Around that time, DNA tests confirmed that a gray wolf was living near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon — the southernmost point the species had been confirmed in almost a century.
But just as more wolves began to resettle on the landscape, they began to lose federal protections. Once beleaguered animals begin to recover, there’s less reason to keep them on the endangered species list. In 2000, the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton proposed changing the wolf’s status from endangered to threatened, a designation that carries milder protections. And by March 2008, the population of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies — the packs in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — were taken off the list altogether. The day protections were officially removed, one of Yellowstone’s most recognizable wolves, 253M — known as “Limpy” because of his wobbling gait — was killed near an elk feeding ground in the Green River corridor, outside Daniel, Wyoming.
In the wake of delisting and Limpy’s death, environmental groups sued Fish and Wildlife en masse over the delisting. When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the administration paused the decision, but months later the Interior Department affirmed it, and the states were eventually put in charge of managing their gray wolf populations. A decade later, the Trump administration finalized the delisting of gray wolves in the Lower 48 — blowing up any distinctions between gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and their cousins in the Great Lakes. Six environmental groups responded by suing to reinstate Endangered Species Act protections, while the National Rifle Association joined to defend the federal government and uphold the delisting. The case is still pending.
As I traveled south along the Green River corridor from its headwaters in Cora, Matt Barnes was paddling down the river. I met up with him just north of Fontenelle Reservoir, in mid-June.
Barnes is a lanky man of 46, with wiry arms and sharp features. Every day when we reached camp — even after rowing more than 20 miles — he changed into fitted Wrangler blue jeans with a large silver belt buckle. He’s an easy person to be on the river with, laid back but a little lofty; he considers himself a modern-day adventurer, but in a good-humored rather than arrogant way. When the wind on the river was too strong and the sun too hot, we would pull over and search for clues — a mule deer or elk carcass, scat or prints — that might indicate that a wolf had passed through. In the dirt amid a constellation of pebbles on a rocky ridge overlooking the reservoir, I found nothing more than a small skull. “Rabbit?” I guessed.
Reservoirs are an impediment to dispersing wolves, and Fontenelle is on the westernmost boundary of Wyoming’s massive Red Desert, a formidable landscape with little cover for any wolves that are trying to follow the movements of an abundant food source: the nation’s largest elk herd, which roams this arid 361,000-acre swath of land.
This is a risky landscape for a wolf to travel. There is little vegetation to hide in, leaving the animals exposed to ranchers, farmers and hunters. Any passerby with a gun in the truck could legally kill a wolf on sight. In 2020, 43 wolves were killed in the predator zone, and chances are most of the wolves that dispersed from their northern packs never even made it as far as Fontenelle.
We camped at the dam on the reservoir’s southern point. All night, I could hear the plink, plink, plink of a single pump jack, like someone methodically plucking a guitar string. I awoke to the sound of two beavers smacking their tails and splashing in the river. On the opposite side of the dam were smokestacks. It was a dusty scene, with little to see but yellowed bunchgrass and concrete and garbage. But a ferruginous hawk circled overhead, and I enjoyed my coffee in the company of my wild neighbors, who didn’t seem to mind the industrial décor.
South of the dam, the Green River flows through the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, a long and narrow ribbon of protected land that links forest and desert. As we neared the refuge, I noticed the water changing. The reservoir above Seedskadee had been more opaque; now the water became so clear that the stones of the riverbed were visible. Beavers swam around us, and trout hunted smaller fish around our canoe, like little sharks.
Despite the beauty — because of the beauty — we were hyper-alert, almost jittery, and we jumped at the movement of anything larger than a pine marten. On and off the water, we searched for even the slightest hint — a bedded-down area in the trees, fragments of bone — that a wolf might have been around recently.
But there have been no definite wolf sightings in Seedskadee. Tom Koerner is the refuge’s manager. He’s of medium build, with a graying red beard and brown hair, and his mouth curves on the side of his face, like a crescent moon, when he talks, somewhere between a smile and a smirk. Koerner, who has been at Seedskadee for more than a decade, told me that over the years he has had some surprise visitors. In the mid-’90s, Koerner remembers his wife telling him that she had spotted a North American river otter, Lontra canadensis, a species never before documented on the refuge. He doubted it at the time — until he saw the animals for himself. Now, he estimates that some 35 otters live in the refuge year-round. Still, he has yet to confirm a wolf sighting.
“We’ve had reports of wolves shot outside the refuge — above us, below us,” Koerner told Barnes and me. “So logic tells you, just like any canine, they’re going to need some water at some point.”
He had heard whispers about a recent wolf kill at Pilot Butte, a landmass that rises like a pyramid out of a flat expanse of sagebrush and greasewood, some 40 miles outside the refuge. Koerner, Barnes and I looked out at Pilot Butte from the back deck of the refuge headquarters.
Back on the river, Barnes and I reached the boundary of the refuge too soon. It marked the end of 44 safe river miles for wolves. Now, the corridor becomes a checkerboard of private, state and federal lands in the predator area.
“The intentional return of predatory animals — that the ancestors of today’s ranching community worked so hard to extirpate — is like a repudiation of an entire worldview and one version of what the future of landscapes in the West should be,” Barnes said soberly, as we paddled along.
“It’s not the wolves themselves, but what they represent to people that really, really matters.”
In the refuge, the river was lined by cottonwoods, but the closer we got to the boundary, the sparser the trees became. The cover afforded by Seedskadee — shade from the sun shining harshly at altitude, a community of flora, fauna, insects and birds all sharing the cottonwoods, willows and sage — all but disappeared.
The landscape after the refuge could not be more different — sparse, sunbaked and dirty. Yellow foam gathered on the banks of the river and oil slicks beaded on its surface.
We floated down the river towards the intersection with Interstate 80, around 60 miles from the Colorado border and a major barrier for wolves. Outside of James Town, Wyoming, an old railway bridge and powerlines crossed overhead; Green River Garbage Collection had tied rusted car parts and other metal waste in dense bundles along the riverbank. Barnes was quiet through much of this. “An industrial wasteland,” he called it later.
“We haven’t been in decent wolf habitat for quite a long time now,” Barnes said.
During the weeks Barnes and I spent on the river together, we often talked about the lone female wolf, known as 314F, who made the journey from Montana through Wyoming, passing in and out of the Green River corridor, more than a decade ago. She left Montana’s Mill Creek Pack in 2008, and her incredible and erratic journey, documented by a radio collar attached to her by the then-Montana Game and Fish Department that summer, defies logic. She pinballed her way through Wyoming’s Wind River Range, winding through parts of the headwaters of the Green River. She was most likely searching for a mate outside her own pack. Three separate times, she encountered Interstate 80 and was turned around, but all the time she kept steering toward Colorado.
“The interesting thing to me about her journey is how it looks like she was determined to go south,” Barnes said one day.
As we paddled through some of the same country, we traced her steps, using a crude map of her long, strange trip. Though she didn’t use the Green River as her guide, she did find her way back to it and its tributaries again and again — first through Wyoming and then in Utah, and finally in Colorado. As we pushed south, much as she had, we took note of the places we knew she had skirted.
We imagined her traveling at night, when she would have been safer from a landowner’s gun. We thought about how she might have gotten by, how she ate and where she found water. Often during the trip, I remembered my own drive through the Uinta Mountains in Utah on my way up to the put-in for the Green River. She had traveled solo through the same area. Around a hairpin turn that crested at the top of a mountain pass, I stopped my car and looked out at an expansive view of the Uintas. If I were a wolf, I thought, I would have enjoyed hanging out in a place like that — lush, steep and rocky, with alpine flowers just beginning to bloom on that early June morning. I longed for 314F’s survival, even though I already knew what had happened to her.
When we floated quietly, rather unnervingly, under a bridge covered with nesting cliff swallows while Interstate 80 roared overhead, we pictured her anxiously approaching and turning away.
On the final leg of our journey, toward the latter half of June, Barnes and I paddled through Red Canyon near Dutch John, Utah, just a few miles from Colorado. When the Green River flows over the Utah border and into Colorado, it enters the Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge. Though gray wolves don’t take note of such borders, there is a marked change in the landscape within this refuge, too.
According to Fish and Wildlife, which manages Browns Park, there are 68 species of mammals, 15 different types of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 220 bird species in the refuge. It’s a lush riparian zone, teeming with milkweed and evening primrose. Floating through, we counted pronghorn and mule deer on the banks; I’d never before seen so many trout swimming in schools, uniformly packed together. If 314F had traveled through hostile country in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah and then finally ended up here, in Colorado, its vibrant landscape must have felt like a relief. For whatever reason, after traveling at least a thousand miles across five states, this time she decided to stay.
The West Cold Spring Wilderness Study area in Colorado, just five miles south of the Wyoming border, stretches across the deep draws and plateaus of the O-Wi-Yu-Kuts Plateau. The tallest peak is Cold Spring Mountain, and the Green River Valley and its tributaries snake through mountain mahogany, sagebrush and Douglas fir, where mule deer and elk bed down. This was the summer territory of the Pioneer Pack, whose howl’s Skiba, Vardaman and Barnes likely heard, before its remaining members disappeared.
This is the northern tip of the Southern Rockies and its old-growth, rumpled landscape looks like the promised land — a sea of green after the arid expanse of southwestern Wyoming. In February of 2009, 314F arrived in the Cold Spring area of northwest Colorado; she meandered along the Yampa and Little Snake rivers within the Green River Valley and continued pushing west. She was 22 months old, of breeding age, but because she kept trekking west and south, the wildlife biologists charting her journey assume she had not yet found a mate. Onward she ventured, moving deeper into Colorado.
By March 31, 2009, her collar had stopped transmitting data. According to documents obtained by Wildearth Guardians through a Freedom of Information Act request, one official wrote: “It doesn’t look good, I think she may be dead. She is ~ 6 miles north of Rio Blanco.”
Wildlife officials found her carcass about 24 miles north of Rifle, Colorado. With its mountainous surroundings, Rio Blanco’s landscape is similar to Montana’s Paradise Valley, where 314F was born.
Wolf 314F’s death dispels the notion that the Southern Rockies — and Colorado — are a sanctuary for predators. This mix of private and public land makes for a deadly conflict zone between predators and private property owners, and Rio Blanco is a conservative ranching county with attitudes similar to those in southwestern Wyoming. In the spring of 2021, the Rio Blanco Board of County Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to become a “Wolf Reintroduction Sanctuary County,” declaring that Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s “artificial reintroduction” would not be allowed.
After years of investigating, agents with Fish and Wildlife concluded that 314F was killed by Compound 1080, a lethal predator poison that was banned in 1972, following its widespread misuse, including the death of an untold number of birds. (It became legal again in 1985 and remains in use today.)
“You couldn’t have come up with a more tragic, ironic ending,” Barnes told me.
Wildlife managers will soon restore wolves in Colorado. The missing link of the chain between the Northern Rockies and native wolf range in the Southern Rockies will be replaced. But while technically the range will be connected, have the politics and perspectives changed enough to make connectivity actually possible?
In early June, as Barnes and I made our slow and steady progress down the Green, Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff conducted observations of the rumored den site of a recently localized wolf pair in Colorado. Two gray wolves — M2101 and F1084 — had made separate dispersal journeys into Colorado, found one another and denned together in North Park, in north-central Colorado. Agency staff observed the site and confirmed six pups, the first known wolves born in the state in more than eight decades.
The news spread like wildfire. Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, welcomed the state’s “new wolf family,” its parents dubbed “John” and “Jane.” The state buzzed with excitement.
“With voter passage last year of the initiative to require re-introduction of the wolf by the end of 2023, these pups will have plenty of potential mates when they grow up to start their own families,” Gov. Polis said in a statement.
But Colorado’s new pack remains vulnerable. Colorado still has to reckon with the same anti-wolf attitudes that pervade much of the Western U.S., and certainly Colorado’s Western Slope. Cora, Wyoming, the Kendall Valley and Wyoming Game and Fish have calibrated their own idea of coexistence, a conditional balance where only small populations of wolves are tolerated. Meanwhile, at least so far, the wolves that have arrived in Colorado on their own — like 314F and the Pioneer Pack — have not managed to survive here for very long.