Wolves don't have pockets, so they can't carry their legal status around when they travel.

That's raised some points to ponder since the controversial predators allegedly arrived in Colorado this week. While authorities in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming argue whether wolves should be hunted or not, stepping across the Colorado state line restores fully protected status for those wolves under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Of course, biologists still must confirm wolves have made it to the Centennial State.

"If wolves start appearing in an area naturally, people are excited and curious about following that," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Stephen Guertin in Denver. "We'll see how nature runs its course. We've had false starts before."

Workers on the High Lonesome Ranch near De Beque, Colo., have reported sightings, howls and scat of wolves on the million-acre hunting and fishing preserve. But that's not enough evidence to say wolves have established a population in the state. Even DNA tests can't confirm if the wolves are actually there to stay.

"We had observations of wolves in Colorado before we put them in Yellowstone," said Ed Bangs, FWS wolf program coordinator for the Northern Rocky Mountains in Helena. "Even a den doesn't mean anything at this point."

***

What does mean something is, literally, where a specific wolf stands. The same animal today would be an out-of-season "species in need of management" in Montana, a huntable "trophy game animal" in Idaho, and a federally protected "experimental species" in Wyoming. Should that wolf wander all the way to Colorado, it would be federally endangered and given full protection of the law.

The situation is similar to a pack that lives on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Bangs said. On the Minnesota side, the pack is threatened, but on the Wisconsin side it's endangered. That's so humans on either side of the border know exactly what rules apply.

Technically, an endangered species is threatened with extinction, while a threatened species is at risk of becoming endangered. More practically, endangered species enjoy the most restrictive protections the federal government can supply, including requirements for environmental impact statements on land developments and strict controls over how the animal can be handled or killed.

A threatened or experimental species has much more regulatory latitude. The federal government can pass some management tasks to state agencies, can allow lethal controls and even limited public hunting, and doesn't have to do so many consultations on land use.

In Colorado, the wolf has had a busy, albeit theoretical, life. Rocky Mountain National Park officials recently considered importing wolves to get control of their oversized elk herd. The plan flopped because the park's few natural barriers wouldn't keep wolves from spreading to surrounding developed countryside, Guertin said. The park officials chose human sharpshooters to cull the herd instead.

A naturally developing wolf population would be a better way to manage those elk, according to Wendy Keefover-Ring of WildEarth Guardians in Broomfield, Colo.

"You end up with all kinds of problems here because you don't have wolves," Keefover-Ring said. "They're very important for keeping ungulates on the move. We should see a good ecosystem coming back like you have in Wyoming and Montana and Idaho."

A majority of Colorado residents support the reintroduction of wolves, according to studies done in 1994, 2001 and 2004.

Colorado Department of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said a working group of ranchers, environmentalists and state officials recently agreed that if wolves did appear, they should be tentatively welcomed.

"We knew our time would come," Hampton said. "And hopefully we can learn from other states that have dealt with this."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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