In search of Colorado’s wolves " or wolf
Aspen, CO Colorado
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. ” Winds estimated at 30 mph froze the air to 23 below and pierced through layers of clothing straight to the bone. Gusts roared strong and loud like a jet flying just feet above the ground and pushed against one’s body, an awesome, otherworldly force.
And even where patches of trees offered a small respite, a frigid cold lingered.
Crouched in a small windbreak, Dr. Dave Augeri peeled off his gloves.
More important than the cold biting the researcher’s fingers was the exact placement of a camera attached to the tree with old bicycle tire tubes.
He ripped duct tape from rolls around his water bottle and taped the camera in place.
It wasn’t perfect, so he tried again. And a third time.
Finally, he adjusted the camera just right to capture a variety of predators that might trip its infrared sensor ” mountain lions, coyotes, foxes and maybe even a lone wolf.
In the early 1900s, wild wolves called the Colorado wilderness home. But by 1940, the last in the state had been wiped out by hunters who had killed the canine’s prey, by trappers and ranchers.
In 1973, when wild wolves remained only in Canada and Minnesota, the animals were added to the United States’ endangered species list.
But, during the past decade, the wolf has rebounded as wildlife biologists reintroduced it into the wilds of Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona.
Many of those experts have predicted wild wolves would make their way to Colorado.
Augeri, an expert on wolves and other predators who is now coordinator of conservation biology at the Denver Zoo, is one. Twenty years ago, as a graduate student at Yale, he wrote a paper predicting wolves would follow their prey back to Colorado.
“They’re not going to arrive on a bus in massive numbers,” Augeri said.
“They’ll be coming in fits and starts, some lone wolves. Eventually they’ll form packs, they’ll find mates, they’ll have litters.”
So, he wasn’t surprised when two Rocky Mountain National Park volunteers saw what they believe was a large, black wolf in Moraine Park on Dec. 4.
“It was just astounding,” said Jim DeRuiter, who was out walking with his wife, Billie.
“We just had no doubt at all, both of us just simultaneously said, ‘It’s a wolf. It’s a wolf.'”
The black-furred animal was too large to be a coyote and sauntered from an outcropping into a meadow, just like a wolf, said DeRuiter, who has seen wolves in the wild before.
From about 200 feet away, the animal stared at the couple for about 20 seconds, remaining calm, just like a wolf, he said.
“It just turned around and trotted back the way it came.”
The couple hurried back to the park office to alert staff, who the next day returned to the site and found large canine tracks in the fresh snow.
About six weeks later, the possibility of a wolf in the park took on new significance when Augeri found another track. The expert and a second expert, Dr. Richard Reading, confirmed the fresh print to be from a wolf or wolf-hybrid.
But they can’t be sure which.
They need more evidence, and in search of it, Augeri’s research team scouts the park weekly for any signs ” fresh kills, tracks and scat (the latter can be subject to DNA tests).
“Genetics are not foolproof,” said Augeri. “But they’re a good indicator.”
If anyone can find signs of the wolf, it could easily be Augeri, a wildlife biologist with vast experience studying carnivores.
For 10 years, he has conducted camera studies around the world including examining elephants and tigers in Indonesia from 2001 to 2004, as well as the Rocky Mountain National Park research.
The local effort began in 2006, more than a year before the DeRuiters spotted the suspected wolf.
Augeri and his team had placed cameras throughout the wilderness to capture images of predators and prey to document their relationships to each other, to humans and to the habitat in a park without wolves. Then, someday, when wild wolves returned, scientists would have baseline information to compare.
Tripped by infrared sensors, the cameras record images of animals that cross their paths, including the human kind.
While the cameras have not captured wolves, they did record an unwitting hiker relieving himself and a mad mooner exposing himself.
Before the December wolf sighting, Augeri planned to tuck away the cameras until March and spend three months entering and studying data.
Instead, the team placed cameras in five other locations in hopes of catching photographic proof. Each week, field technicians don several layers, fill their backpacks with extra batteries and film, strap on snowshoes and hike in to check the cameras ” even when temperatures dip below freezing.
Augeri stepped back to survey one camera site and gazed below at the rolling meadow and majestic mountains. Wolves, he said, would like the view.
“They like to have a prominence,” Augeri said.
Yes, there were natural paths from every direction for a wolf, or other predator, to cross the line of the camera.
But there also were paths by which they could avoid detection.
That just will not do for a scientific study aimed at recording as accurate information as possible.
So in temperatures bitter enough to humble even the most confident, Augeri and assistant Stephanie Graham hauled armloads of dead wood to the camera site.
Carefully and thoughtfully, they placed each branch to block certain routes or stabbed it into the ground to create a sharp point.
Their deliberate moves crafted natural, almost haphazard-looking roadblocks and direction signs for the animals.
“It’s like a natural avenue for them,” Augeri said.
Satisfied, the team slogged through more snow, at times sinking knee-high, to the next camera. Again, new batteries, more film and duct tape.
At the crest of a nearby meadow, Augeri arched to the right and Graham to the left, eyes trained to the ground in search of tracks.
Moments later, he crouched to the snow after spotting the wolf or wolf-hybrid print.
“Guys, come here,” he shouted, digging into his pack for a tape measure and pointing out the four toes, pad and large span ” all indicators of a wolf.
“Looks like we got lucky.”
And in the excitement, some of the cold melted away.
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