Colorado wildlife officials have 3 weeks to collar wolves. That's harder than you think.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is having a difficult time finding wolves to capture and collar among the snow-laden 1,600 square miles of Jackson County, and the window is closing each day.
The agency has about three weeks to capture and collar wolves before the breeding season starts in mid-February. It will not conduct collaring efforts after that time because of disturbance to the animals.
That might seem like adequate time, but there are a number of obstacles working against the critical collaring mission:
None of the three telemetry collars on the pack have worked in months, making it more difficult to track their movements.
It is believed only half of the original eight-member North Park pack is alive. Three of the pups were presumed legally killed in Wyoming, and the pack's breeding female has not been verifiably seen in about a year. This makes locating wolves more difficult because there are fewer, though some believe other wolves have migrated into North Park. Rancher reports indicate one to three wolves have been seen together across the county.
Part of the pack's known territory includes southern Wyoming, where the wolves spend weeks at a time. Colorado would need special permission to capture and collar wolves across the border.
Ranchers have reported seeing Colorado Parks and Wildlife flying over the area for months, which they believe has conditioned wolves to seek cover when hearing aircraft.
While the pack's black wolves are easier to spot in the snow, the pack's breeding male is mostly white and is difficult to see.
"I know they will get a lot of pressure from all sides to get collars on them,'' said Don Gittleson, who has not seen wolves or their tracks on his ranch 10 miles northeast of Walden in more than two weeks. "But that will be difficult with the tight window they are looking at. They have a lot of obstacles in their path and can only control so many things.''
Colorado Parks and Wildlife wrote in an email response to Coloradoan questions that it has confirmed reports of wolf sightings from members of the public within the past week.
The agency said it is using a fixed-wing plane to look for wolves or tracks and is using reports from ranchers to try and locate the wolves. In the agency's favor is abundant snow in the open sagebrush flats, which slows the wolves.
The agency said its preference is to capture and place GPS collars on two wolves. It added there is not a preference as to the wolf captured, be it a breeding male or pup(s).
Gittleson, who has given Colorado Parks and Wildlife permission to capture and collar wolves on his 11,000-acre leased ranch, believes the breeding male should be a target to recollar because his movements could indicate if breeding takes place in North Park this spring. The state wildlife agency said it doesn't believe a second litter was produced last spring.
"CPW is in a bad situation, and it is not all their fault,'' said Gittleson, whose ranch has accounted for five of the pack's 10 confirmed depredations on livestock and cattle dogs over the past year.
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How capturing and collaring wolves works
Generally, a plane is used to spot the wolves. Then a nearby helicopter flies to the site and hovers over the wolf, which is shot with a tranquilizer dart. The wolf is fitted with a telemetry collar, and bloodwork and other health-related work is done. Once the wolf safely recovers from the tranquilizer, it is released.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife captured and collared the breeding male in early February 2021 and one of the pups in early February 2022. Those collars included GPS (satellite) and VHF (radio) functions. The male's collar failed May 13, 2022, and the pup's collar failed soon after it was fitted.
A VHF collar was fitted on the breeding female in Wyoming in 2017. It is no longer functioning. Collars generally have a lifespan of five years.
The agency said last year's collaring cost $6,000 for the helicopter and $2,000 for the collar.
Capturing and collaring has resulted in the deaths of less than 1% of wolves captured over the past 24 years, according to Yellowstone National Park.
Studies have shown radio collars fail for a variety of reasons and that collars do not impact the livelihoods of wolves.
GPS technology collects location points at a predetermined interval, stores the data, then communicates the data via satellite to biologists. Data location was collected every few days from the GPS collars on the North Park wolves, according to the state wildlife agency. It did not show where a wolf was in real time. The more frequent the data is collected, the closer biologists can track the animal, but that requires more time and expense.
VHF radio collars work by emitting detectable radio pulses transmitted on specific radio frequencies. Biologists have equipment in the field that is used to detect the intensity of the radio pulses, helping locate the animal.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife said it will fit all wolves initially released in this year's reintroduction effort with collars, then move to collaring other animals as needed to track movements.
Previous coverage:Meeker cattle deaths remain unsolved mystery to Colorado wildlife and livestock experts
How to report a wolf sighting
Colorado Parks and Wildlife urges people to contact the agency immediately and fill out a report if they see or hear wolves or find evidence of wolf activity in Colorado. The wolf sighting form can be found at https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/Wolf-Sighting-Form.aspx
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Colorado wolves proving hard to capture, collar for wildlife officials