Wolf worries

Land Use Board says arrival of predators in Moffat County inevitable

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The Moffat County Land Use Board spent nearly three hours Tuesday reviewing evidence and discussing the possibility that Moffat County may soon be visited by gray wolves.

"These wolves are coming, whether we like it or not," said T. Wright Dickinson, alternate agriculture representative to the board.

According to recent research by Rick Hammel, the county's Land Use Board's environmental representative, wolves have preyed on livestock in northeastern Utah and Farson, Wyo. A "reliable source" reported a siting as close as Baggs, Wyo., Hammel said.

The nearest confirmed depredation of livestock by wolves occurred west of Rock Springs, Wyo., Hammel said.

The Land Use Board's visitation of the issue comes after numerous confirmed livestock deaths in Wyoming because of wolves, which appear to be thriving in the state after their re-introduction. The gray wolf, which dwarfs a coyote, stands as high as 36 inches at the shoulders and weighs as much as 100 pounds.

The Bailey Wildlife Foundation, which reimburses ranchers losing livestock to wolves, already has paid more than $14,000 in 2003 for livestock losses, including 13 cattle and 35 sheep.

Some area ranchers say they plan to take matters into their own hands.

"I'm gonna have to buy a backhoe because if I shoot one in the winter, I can't dig fast enough by hand," Moffat County Commissioner Les Hampton said at the meeting.

Wolves are known to be capable of traveling 60 miles a day and, because they have been seen in southern Wyoming, it is just a matter of time before the wolves come to Colorado, said Nick Kamzalow, owner of Outdoor Connections.

"A neighbor of mine spotted one a year ago between Slater and Encampment, Wyo., in Medicine Bow National Forest," Kamzalow said.

Kamzalow said he anticipates conflicts with livestock and wildlife.

"They'll be killing livestock and they'll be killing game," Kamzalow said. "Coyotes and cats have had an impact on the deer and elk herds and this will just add to it."

The wolves will run at will, Kamzalow said. "There's nothing to stop them," he said.

The board voted Tuesday to recommend that the county commissioners draft a letter to the Colorado Division of Wildlife stressing the need for a "wolf management plan," in the event that the wolves do show up here.

"The DOW has got to get their heads out of the sand," said Burt Clements, the board's chairman. "If the wolves get established, they'd have free reign."

Currently, the DOW has no wolf management plan. But management of the wolves under current laws falls to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Gray wolves are a "threatened" species in Colorado, north of Interstate 70. South of the interstate, the wolves are officially "endangered." Unless de-listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the DOW cannot legally do anything about the wolves.

The DOW has drafted a set of response directives to guide its personnel in the event of a wolf siting, said DOW spokesperson Todd Malmsbury. The directives provide specific guidelines for many different circumstances "should gray wolves reach the state," Malmsbury said.

Malmsbury said no wild wolves are confirmed to be living in Colorado. He said the Colorado Wildlife Commission, which governs the DOW, officially opposes re-introduction of the gray wolf.

Reg Rothwell, supervisor of biological services for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said people forget that the Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency, has a mandate from Congress to protect species guarded by the Endangered Species Act.

"If a species has to be listed as threatened or endangered, the service has the responsibility to recover them," Rothwell said. "Once the wolves reach the recovery targets, and can be taken off the list, they become state-managed species."

The gray wolf is not a state-managed species in either Colorado or Wyoming.

Rothwell said the wolf might soon be de-listed in Wyoming, Utah and Montana, where it was re-introduced. The three states have met the recovery targets the Fish and Wildlife Service set. The target was 30 pairs of wolves successfully breeding each year in the three-state area. Last year, the states hit the target, Rothwell said.

The three states are now working to demonstrate to the Fish and Wildlife Service that they can successfully manage the wolf population. That is the first step to de-listing the animal. Rothwell said the process could be complete in 2005, at which time, Wyoming would manage the wolf as a trophy game animal in the northwest corner of the state. Everywhere else in Wyoming, the gray wolf would be classified as a predator, which would allow unlimited "take" of the animal.

"I'd be real surprised if you see many wolves over the next five to 10 years because most of our wolves will be up in Northwest Wyoming and that's quite a way for wolves to travel through country where they're going to be considered predators," Rothwell said. "That is going to be a real impediment for those wolves to get as far as Colorado."

Rothwell said the nearest established pack of wolves resides north of Pinedale, Wyo. Reports of wolves near Colorado are likely lonely, adventurous wolves, Rothwell said.

"They're highly mobile animals, particularly in the early spring," Rothwell said. "They'll do what you would call a walk-about, and they may travel 300 to 400 miles."

He said it is unlikely the wolves would persist long enough to breed, even if the wolves reach Colorado.

Dickinson, a former Moffat County commissioner, said wolves present more of a problem than other endangered species, such as the bald eagle or the black-footed ferret. "It's harder to strike a balance with wolves," Dickinson said.

Where wolves and active agricultural interests meet, there are few success stories, Dickinson said. He doesn't anticipate one, either.

"Wolves just don't fit here," he said.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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