Just a few weeks ago, Colorado wildlife officials thought they were going after two male wolves.
The gray wolves, sighted by only a handful in the state in recent years, had been described as potential hunting partners who roamed unrelated. Not only did one of them turn out to be female, but the pair has now produced a litter of gray wolf pups – the first in the state since the 1940s.
The growing family has settled in Jackson County, which borders Wyoming. Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff, who observed the cave from about two miles away, recorded multiple sightings of the two adults with at least three pups this month, although there could be more as there are typically four to six pups in a wolf litter .
“We salute this historic cave and the new wolf family in Colorado,” Governor Jared Polis said in a statement last week.
There will likely be more sightings of the pups that haven’t been photographed as they grow larger and venture outside the cave more often, wildlife officials said.
“We continue to actively monitor this den, taking extreme care not to inadvertently jeopardize the potential survival of these pups,” Libbie Miller, a state wildlife biologist, said in the statement.
Gray wolves were once found across North America, but their numbers began to decline significantly in the 19th century when they encountered settlers who viewed them as a threat. By the 1940s, as in the rest of the region, the Colorado wolf population had been hunted, captured, and almost entirely poisoned.
From the 1990s, gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and central Idaho. A subspecies, the Mexican gray wolf, was also reintroduced in Arizona and New Mexico. But they had rarely been seen in Colorado until 2019, when hunters made the first report in years of multiple wolves traveling together.
Although gray wolves were removed from the federal list of endangered species last year, they’re still protected in Colorado, where sentences for killing a gray wolf can include up to a year in prison, a $ 100,000 fine, and loss of hunting privileges.
Colorado is also in the process of increasing its wolf population and became the first state to vote in November on whether to bring back a native species. Voters narrowly agreed to a vote calling for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to reintroduce and manage a gray wolf population on public land in the western part of the state by the end of 2023, a fund to compensate ranchers for the livestock that the Wolves could kill.
Opponents of the election measure cite the wolf litter as evidence that the animals do not need government assistance to be restored. Mr. Polis and others counter that bringing in other wolves promotes genetic diversity and provides the pups with healthy choices of mates once they are grown up. The reintroduction plan requires a self-sustaining population and has not been affected by the sightings of the wolf pups, wildlife officials said.
Dozens of public and private meetings are scheduled in the coming months to discuss details of Colorado’s reintroduction plan, which continues to meet opposition from rural residents who say their concerns have been drowned out by the urban vote. At least one district, however, has passed a formal resolution.
Other states are also embroiled in debates over the status of wolves, one of the most controversial conservation issues in the American West. In April, citing the threat to livestock and other wildlife, the Idaho Senate passed a bill that would allow the state to kill up to 90 percent of its wolves, of which 1,556 at the last count were.