A tale of two travelers

The unsolved killing of a wolf in 2009 is a cautionary tale for the one now running wild in Colorado

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A gray wolf has appeared in Colorado and is running free in the Rockies. On July 8, the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife (CPW) released photos of a dark male wolf ranging through a green mountain valley in Jackson County, Colorado. The following day, Governor Jared Polis tweeted a video of the wolf that was filmed by a private citizen. The wolf is wearing a radio telemetry collar, evidence that it likely has ventured to our state from the wolf packs in and around Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park.  

By most estimations, the wolf has likely moved south looking for a mate in an area where many suitable partners once lived. But that is no longer the case as wolves in Colorado were driven to extinction decades ago by systematic hunting, trapping and poisoning, as well as loss of habitat and prey to agriculture and extractive industries. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) confirmed the wolf to be a male disperser from the Snake River Pack that resides in Wyoming southeast of the southeastern boundary of Yellowstone. The wolf, known as 1084M, is a 3-year-old male, according to Ellen Brandell, doctoral candidate at Pennsylvania State University who works with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. The wolf is wearing a radio telemetry collar, which requires researchers to be within 10 miles to locate him, according to Sara DiRienzo of the Wyoming Fish and Game Department (WFG). The last recorded location information for wolf 1084M was taken in February in central Wyoming. Following that contact, wolf 1084M appears to have dispersed out of the area where WFG monitors the pack. 

According to a 2018 report by the WFG, the Snake River Pack had a minimum size of six wolves that year. One wolf from that pack was hunted and killed, which is legal in parts of Wyoming. Further, two other wolves were known to have dispersed from the pack in 2018, according to the report.   

Having a wolf wandering through Colorado is unbelievably rare, considering the nearest viable populations of wolves are hundreds of miles from the Colorado border. It isn’t rare for a wolf to travel such distances, but it is rare for one to survive so long considering the multiple threats posed by people including everything from being shot or hit by a car to being illegally poisoned. Further blocking the path of wolves headed to Colorado from the Yellowstone area is how they are managed in Wyoming. 

The USFWS protects wolves under the Endangered Species Act except in Wyoming, where, in 2017, they were removed from the Endangered Species List (ESL) and management of the species was returned to the state. As a result, outside of trophy hunting management zones, where wolves can legally be hunted, they are considered predatory animals and can be killed year-round without a license. Wolves can also be trapped and killed in Wyoming. 

In 2018 alone, people killed 158 of the estimated 368 known living wolves in Wyoming. Of those, 64 wolves were killed in connection with domestic livestock conflict (70 head of livestock were killed by wolves); 42 wolves were killed as “predatory animals” by the public (12 were trapped as such); 39 were killed by trophy hunters; and 6 others were illegally killed. 

So, it goes without saying, it’s not easy for a wolf to make it hundreds of miles across the Wyoming shooting range and trapping gauntlet to the protections afforded by Colorado should it get here. 

Wolves are still protected in Colorado, and harassing, injuring or killing a wolf — except in “self-defense” — is a federal crime subject to fines of up to $100,000 and sentences of up to one year in prison, according to Rebecca CPW. Because wolves are on the ESL, they are under the management of the USFWS, and therefore CPW plays a supporting role. 

In what must have been a pleasant surprise, wolf 1084M appeared in Colorado just after the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund received approval to begin gathering signatures for the 2019 ballot measure, Initiative 107, which if approved by the people of Colorado, will mandate the restoration of wolves to the western part of the state. 

Proponents of the reintroduction say that even though wolves such as 1084M make their way into Colorado, it is not enough to restore them to their long-lost homeland because threats from humans, as mentioned above (and described below), make that highly unlikely. Wolves have been dispersing from the Northern Rockies since being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 without a viable wolf pack forming in Colorado. 

Though unlikely, it’s not impossible there is a female wolf that 1084M might find in some remote wilderness area in Colorado. But there is one lone female wolf the male from the Snake River Pack will certainly not encounter. That wolf, known as the Mill Creek disperser (SW341F), made her way into Colorado in 2009. After having ranged over 1,000 miles to establish her own territory, she was illegally poisoned and killed in Rio Blanco County, in northwestern Colorado, less than 5 miles from the northeastern corner of CPW’s Piceance Basin Predator Control Plan area boundary. After a two-year long investigation by the USFWS Law Enforcement Division, the case went unsolved and was closed. 

It remains to be seen if the same fate that befell the wolf from the Mill Creek pack will befall 1084M, but a look at the 2009 killing serves as a cautionary tale for those managing the Snake River wolf now running wild through the Colorado Rockies. 

The unsolved killing of the Mill Creek wolf

On July 2, 2008, the young female wolf wildlife authorities referred to as the Mill Creek disperser broadcast her first GPS location from the mountains south of Livingston, Montana. This would be the first of many locations her collar would reveal to researchers in the area. But her signal went silent on Sept. 24 of that year when she headed south in search of her own territory and likely a mate. While no one knows the exact makeup of her journey — what she ate, where she slept, what trials she encountered — GPS information from her collar, which was obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) helps produce a map of her travels. 

First, she went south through Gallatin National Forest into Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. She then moved further south, spending time in the mountains northwest of Cody before heading still further south to the Wind River mountain range. It was near this same area in the town of South Pass at the Southern end of the Winds that wolf 1084M’s location was last recorded. Similarly, back in 2009 the Mill Creek disperser continued her journey south from near South Pass, all the way to Interstate 80 in Wyoming, where she abruptly turned around and headed back northwest. 

Maybe it was the massive trucks barreling past on the highway, or maybe just something instinctual, but she went all the way to Bear Lake on the Idaho-Utah border before once again heading south along the mountains east of Salt Lake City, where millions of people went about their daily lives unaware of her presence. Eventually she turned left for Colorado, passing through Vernal, Utah. And on Feb. 2, 2009, she entered Moffat County, in the far northwestern part of our state. 

Needless to say, she didn’t stop to take a selfie. She continued on her way to Routt County, past Hayden, and then further south to Eagle County, where her collar broadcast her location on Feb. 20. “The Mill Creek disperser is now in Colorado!” reads an email circulated amongst wildlife agency officials (the sender of this message’s name is redacted as they appear to have been a private citizen who was very enthusiastic about the news.) An email string was released by the USFWS as a result of a FOIA request. The female wolf remained in an area less than 10 miles north of Wolcott and due east of Piney Peak, for about a week. 

As she was making her way northeast through Colorado, a conversation within the wildlife agencies now overseeing her journey was underway, according to the emails. “This is very exciting news — [but biologically meaningless],” wrote Ed Bangs, then wolf recovery coordinator for the USFWS, on Feb. 21. 

It was around this time that a different kind of conversation was unfolding, between the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW, now the wildlife section of CPW) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services (WS), which is often contracted to do predator control for ranchers and others. 

“Confirmation on your wolf report,” wrote David Moreno, Grand Junction district supervisor of WS to Ron Velarde, then Northwest Region Manager for the CDOW. “Looks like the same wolf you were talking about a few weeks ago, is now the one near Avon… Let me know what your plan is?” 

“I have no plan,” Velarde replied, “and as of ten minutes ago neither does our Directors Staff [sic].”

Later that afternoon, Moreno responded: “I know Ron. As your friend and counterpart (Of another agency), I would like you to give it some thought. I foresee some rancher, angry as hell, trying to have something done after his $12,000 bull was killed or maimed by these ‘endangered species.’ He will be screaming and want something done, and you know that the USFWS will be nowhere in sight. Again, you will find yourself trying to explain to this rancher why you can not do a damn thing about the problem while he wants someone’s head on a platter. Just food for thought Ron. I know we will eventually have to deal with this issue.” 

WS declined an interview request with Moreno, but stated, “[Its] mission is to help resolve conflicts between people and wildlife.” WS added this can be a difficult balance, “and those experiencing wildlife damage can sometimes become frustrated with our and other agencies’ efforts to resolve conflicts in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of our native wildlife. Our employees strive to understand and address the public’s concerns regarding wildlife damage management issues.” 

In the emails, Velarde replied to Moreno that he understood the USFWS would pay for any livestock damage caused by the wolf, “and then you can ‘handle’ the problem.” Moreno then asked how he was to do this, but Velarde didn’t directly respond to the question, only reiterating the assertion that the USFWS would compensate for any damages caused by the Mill Creek disperser, who, soon after this conversation was making her way through Grand County, Colorado, near Kremmling.

She didn’t stop there, but kept on moving, on into Jackson County, then north again into Wyoming, where she made a huge loop around the entire Medicine Bow mountain range. After this, she returned to Colorado to Larimer County, in the upper reaches of the Cache la Poudre River from where she then headed west.  

By this time, Shane Briggs, then CDOW wildlife conservation programs supervisor, wrote to the group of federal and state wildlife officials that, “the CDOW has determined that we do not want to get involved with the monitoring of this wolf,” adding if “she gets into trouble,” they’d work with USFWS and [WS] to help, “but otherwise we would like to leave her alone as much as possible.” Briggs went on to state that their field operations manager asked about the potential threat M-44s, aka coyote getters/cyanide bombs, posed to the Mill Creek disperser, wondering if there was coordination with WS, “as they evidently have a lot of M-44s set north of I-70.” 

These poison-dispersing M-44s look like a sprinkler head buried in the ground but are actually loaded with an explosive charge containing sodium cyanide that is designed to blast into the mouth and nostrils of wild animals, especially coyotes, and kill them. However, these devices have killed domestic pets like family dogs. One particularly grim instance occurred in Idaho in March 2017 when an M-44 exploded in the face of a 14-year-old boy and his dog as they were walking near their home. The 90-pound dog, “who was writhing in pain on the ground,” died in front of the boy, who himself was seriously injured, but survived the poisoning, according to a Reuters report. M-44s are currently used by WS in Colorado on private lands. As a result of Amendment 14, passed unanimously by Coloradans in 1996, M-44s are banned from public lands in the state.  

But it wouldn’t be an M-44 loaded with an explosive charge of sodium cyanide that would end up killing the female wolf from the far away Mill Creek pack who had found her way to Colorado. It was a far deadlier poison designed for predators, sodium monoflouroacetate, aka Compound 1080.  

In a chapter on Compound 1080 titled, “Biography of a master poison,” from the 1971 book Slaughter the Animals, Poison the Earth by Jack Olsen, an in-depth history of Compound 1080 is given. According to Olsen, beginning with Polish scientists in the 1930s that were trying to develop an improved tear gas, different flouroacetate compounds began being developed for poisoning purposes. The U.S. Army made extensive tests of the synthetic sodium monofluoroacetate for a rodenticide in wars, according to Olsen. 

“It turned out to be the most powerful and effective rat-killer ever known,” Olsen writes. “In early use, the chemical killed 42,000 rats in a single day in the Philippines.” Continued experimentation revealed the effectiveness of 1080 in killing canines, “and the USFWS began wholesale use of the poison as a predacide, purchasing the chemical from the Monsanto Company under the trade name ‘1080,’” according to Olsen’s exposé. 

According to a WS report on predacides, Compound 1080 began being used in the U.S. for killing canids in the mid-1940s as the, “preferred toxicant in meat bait stations used in Western states to reduce coyote populations that preyed on domestic livestock.” Meat bait stations are comprised of pieces of poisoned meat, often injected with a solution of poison. Use of meat bait stations continued until 1964, when approximately 16,000 toxic bait stations were placed by the USFWS’s predator and rodent control program, according to the report. Following this, use of 1080 declined until 1972 when a presidential executive order banned it with the 1977 exception of use in experimental livestock protection collars on cattle, a practice that rarely was effective.

Olsen writes of a USFWS biologist who in 1948 wrote that the “spasm period” of Compound 1080, “seems unduly violent. With coyotes, symptoms may be delayed from one to several hours… After emesis [vomiting] the animals generally pass through a period of excitement — cowering, yelping, or violently running as though in fear — before falling in convulsions.” 

Olsen gives an account of a government trapper who spoke of the numerous dogs he saw poisoned by 1080, “They get nervous, start chasing around. Then they start yelping and screaming, and running back and forth; they’ll run into a tree or a fence or a wall, bounce back, and run into ’em again… Once when I was in a sheep camp a 1080 dog came into the tent, mussed all over it, vomited, peed all over, tore the tent ropes down when she got tangled in ’em, then took off and went down over a cliff.” 

USFWS Special Agent Terry Grosz says illegal Compound 1080 use got to the point that in many investigations, he was concerned for his agents because they were getting so much exposure. “[W]e had one female agent that basically was retired from the service because it pretty well destroyed her,” Grosz says, adding he had several other agents, that got too much exposure to chemicals including Compound 1080, that it just about destroyed their livers. “A lot of these chemicals were so illegally used and in such quantities that if you got downwind of some of these poisoned bait stations, you were asking for it,” he says.

Grosz says that some of the bait carcasses were so heavily loaded with pesticides when discovered they’d be surrounded by nearly a dozen dead eagles. He’s seen carcasses so heavily loaded with poisons that an animal, such as a coyote or an eagle, would have died with a mouth full of scavenged meat on top of the carcass they were feeding on. Sometimes, he adds, coyotes would eat the poisoned meat first, die and then be scavenged by an eagle, which would die by secondary poisoning. 

Grosz says that when Compound 1080 was legal, users of it would stockpile it, and when it became illegal in 1972 (except when put in rarely used, specialized livestock collars), then the price would go up, “so a lot of those individuals made pretty good money selling chemicals that were very hard to get a hold of or restricted,” he says. 

In 1991, USFWS and Environmental Protection Agency agents raided a lab in Wyoming, where a predator control officer had been selling illegal and restricted poisons, including Compound 1080, to ranchers in northwestern Colorado, Wyoming and Texas. 

   The Mill Creek disperser had traveled hundreds of miles through Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado, and was now heading toward northwestern Colorado. Toward the end of March 2009, she once again headed through Routt County, then through Garfield County, and on into Rio Blanco County and the end of her journey.

On April 4, 2009, a message came through the email chain, “It doesn’t look good… I think she may be dead… Her locations show that she has been in the same spot since noon on 3/31… My fingers are crossed that she is feeding on roadkill but it just doesn’t seem likely since her locations are all extremely clustered… I’m assuming someone will go out there to check it out… If you could let me know what happens as soon as you find out I’d appreciate it.”

Bangs then alerted USFWS and CDOW officials. The next day, a special agent in the law enforcement division of the USFWS received the information that the young female wolf may have died. The following day, April 6, a search party including CDOW officers and the USFWS special agent located the Mill Creek disperser, dead, approximately 100 yards north of Rio Blanco County Road 60 on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. 

“The wolf carcass was found on a steep slope, facing uphill, body extended,” the USFWS report of investigation reads. An initial scan revealed no metals, such as bullets, in her body. “A layer of snow had accumulated on the skyward side of the carcass, and upon turning the wolf over, no snow was found beneath it,” the report reads. 

The search team then performed a “cursory search” of the area and found nothing obvious that may have caused the wolf’s death, such as other animal carcasses, potential poison baits or other devices, according to the report. 

According to GPS coordinates and BLM grazing allotment records, the Mill Creek disperser died on the Upper Thirteen Mile grazing allotment, but just before dying had traveled into the bordering Thirteen Mile grazing allotment to the north. The last GPS coordinates surrounding the area of her death are scattered, as if she was frantically running back and forth as she painfully died. The GPS coordinates of her movement reveal she had made her way from the south, along Highway 13 north of Rifle and south of Meeker. 

The end of the Mill Creek disperser’s life had come, but the story of her life had just begun. Soon after, her body was sent for a necropsy, and the USFWS special agent received the full set of GPS coordinates downloaded from the collar by researchers. 

The necropsy revealed the 80-pound wolf was poisoned by Compound 1080, and that she had meat in her stomach at the time of her death. Additional genetic analysis indicated this meat was from both horse and mule deer. “This suggests the wolf had recently ingested either horse or mule deer tissue contaminated with the toxic substance sodium monoflouroacetate (Compound 1080),” according to the report, which further stated an M-44 didn’t appear to be the cause. But it wasn’t until Jan. 11, 2011 — a year and a half later — that USFWS officials publicly released information disclosing the wolf was poisoned.

USFWS special agents then interviewed Moreno, the Grand Junction district supervisor of WS, who had earlier suggested there needed to be a plan for dealing with the wolf. He advised the agents that predator control was practiced by his organization in the area in which the wolf was killed, including aerial gunning, the setting of snares and traps, and the use of toxicants, according to the USFWS report. These toxicants included M-44s and Compound 1080 in livestock protection collars, but Moreno noted 1080 was not then utilized in Colorado. “Moreno stated he mostly serves sheep producers for canid predator control in the Rio Blanco County area. … Stated WS does not have any contracts in the specific area where the wolf in this investigation was found dead,” according to the report.

As noted above, Compound 1080 is used by WS in livestock protection collars, but according to WS, Compound 1080 is illegal for use in Colorado by WS, “or any certified pest control operator.” WS further stated Compound 1080 is not housed in any WS Colorado facility. 

At the same time, a CDOW public information official advised CDOW staff to remain “quiet” until they got an indication the media was aware of the situation, according to emails obtained via an open records request. “Once that happens, expect a high level of ‘environmentalist versus rancher’ kind of stuff … and that’s a debate we cannot afford to be caught in.” 

According to the CDOW (now CPW) report of investigation, on April 10, 2009, CDOW Officer Bailey Franklin received information from the USFWS special agent that the wolf had spent a considerable amount of time in one particular area along the west side of Highway 13 between Meeker and Rifle, and preliminary results indicated she had been poisoned. The USFWS special agent suspected the wolf had possibly been feeding on a carcass at that location. 

That afternoon, Officer Franklin went to the location and discovered several sheep carcasses, which he gathered as evidence. Upon driving away from the site, between the sheep carcasses and where the Mill Creek disperser was found dead, he saw a dead coyote in the ditch near the highway, stopped and, noticing no evidence of blunt trauma as from a speeding car, suspected it might have been poisoned and collected it for toxicology testing. But according to the USFWS, records of such testing don’t exist and aren’t mentioned in the investigation report. Thus, it appears toxicology reports of the carcasses were either never done or disappeared. 

Later that month, Officer Franklin wrote to the USFWS special agent that he had noticed a pile of deer or elk hair, “that looks like it has been plucked” in a pile next to three jugs of antifreeze, also toxic to canids, according to an email released via open records request. The location was between the site of the sheep carcasses and where the wolf died. The USFWS special agent said they would check it out, but there is no mention of the antifreeze jugs in the USFWS report of investigation. Antifreeze, which is sweet-tasting to canids, can be used as a liquid base to make a Compound 1080 liquid solution, which can then be injected into meat for use as a poison bait trap. 

The USFWS Law Enforcement division then embarked on an investigation into the killing of the Mill Creek disperser, an animal protected under the ESA. A heavily redacted report of the investigation details covert operations and interviews with sheep producers in the area that won’t be discussed here to protect privacy. But despite USFWS’ lengthy investigation, the agency closed the case without any prosecution. 

According to Grosz, the USFWS would have to prove any allegations against a person suspected of killing the female wolf beyond a reasonable doubt, “if you’re going to take them criminally. And if you can’t do that, the U.S. Attorneys won’t touch the case.” It appears that this high standard was never met during the investigation of the wolf’s death.

Even so, the story of the unsolved killing of the female wolf from the Mill Creek pack in Montana serves as a cautionary tale for the current wolf in Colorado, wolf 1084M. But as illustrated by the death of the Mill Creek disperser, he has his work cut out for him, with a lot of people who not only don’t want him around, but also likely want him dead.