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Wolf rumors have Colorado residents howling

March 09, 2010 at 01:16 PM

DENVER - The news had scarcely gotten out that a western Colorado rancher suspected he had wolves on his land when the phone started ringing at state wildlife offices.

“Get rid of them, and do it quietly,” one caller said.

“You need to make sure no one is trying to shoot these wolves,” another offered.

No one has confirmed yet whether a pack of wolves has taken up residence at the High Lonesome Ranch in De Beque, nearly 200 miles west of Denver, but even the prospect has created a stir in a state that hasn’t seen a regular wolf population in 70 years.

Wildlife officials say both sides are reacting prematurely to a claim that could prove groundless.

Wolves were exterminated from Colorado by the 1940s, although in recent years, lone wolves occasionally have forayed into the state from the Northern Rockies.

Two years ago, High Lonesome Ranch owner Paul R. Vahldiek Jr. hired biologists to survey his land for, among other things, evidence of decline in aspen stands. What they found was evidence of what he believes to be more than one wolf: droppings, sightings and howls.

“Maybe it’s a good thing for the ecosystem,” said Vahldiek, who has ordered DNA analysis on the scat and expects results in a few months.

Such testing can determine whether the scat came from a wolf or wolf-dog hybrid, said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. People often release hybrids into the wild when they no longer want them as pets.

Even if the testing does confirm lupine genetics, it doesn’t mean a pack is taking up residence, said Bangs, adding that his agency has a system to track and verify such matters.

The establishment of a pack would be significant, but Bangs doubts that’s the case. “Wolf packs don’t let you miss them,” he said. “They’re incredibly obvious.”

Colorado wildlife officials are taking a similarly cautious approach.

“We’re going to wait for the science, especially given the political nature of wolves in today’s world,” said state Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton, who has fielded calls not only from supporters and opponents of wolves, but also from those who say Vahldiek is perpetrating a hoax, a conjecture the ranch owner rejects.

Though ranchers don’t worry about lone wolves, they do dread a pack. “We don’t know to what level we can protect our livestock,” rancher Carlyle Currier said.

WildEarth Guardians, which has lobbied for wolf recovery in Colorado, characterizes the threat to livestock as minimal. Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of carnivore protection with the group, said that if the presence of wolves was confirmed, WildEarth hopes to help teach ranchers how to deter the animals using nonlethal methods.

Listed in Colorado as an endangered species, wolves are protected from hunting or trapping. “We think wo lves and ranchers can coexist,” Keefover-Ring said.

But in De Beque, Joe Latham and other ranchers don’t see it that way. Although Latham doubts the existence of a pack, he worries that one eventually will move in.

“Then you got 2,000 wolves, and they’re eating the elk and deer and livestock,” said Latham, who moved several years ago from Wyoming, where he said he saw the problems hunters and ranchers experienced.

“If Paul Vahldiek wants them, he needs to build a fence around his ranch, but I don’t want them,” Latham said. “Colorado’s got way too many people. There’s no room for wolves.”

Vahldiek said he recognized the anxiety, noting that in addition to offering fishing and hunting trips on his ranch resort, he raises cattle and would be concerned for them.

He says he has been unfairly portrayed as taking a side on the issue.

“So much reaction comes from the far right and far left. I hope that sensible heads prevail,” he said. “I don’t th ink wolves need to be recolonized in downtown Denver, but there are places they can exist.”

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