Are wolves back home in Colorado?

Gray wolves were exterminated in Colorado in the first half of the 20th century by misguided federal agencies and their proxies. A few lone wolves have wandered into the state from points north in the past few years, but didn't survive. (Check out stories here and here.) Now the High Country News is reporting that the world's largest canines may well have slyly reintroduced themselves to the Centennial State without anybody's permission.

Tests are now underway on scat samples from a northwest Colorado guest ranch to authenticate the theory that wolves are back. If it turns out to be correct, the development promises to change our incomparable natural playground -- for the better.

HCN's Michelle Nijhuis reports:

When wolves arrive in an ecosystem, everything changes: the ecology, the politics, relationships both animal and human. "We know more about wolves, and the management of wolves, than we do about many other forms of wildlife," says Douglas Smith, leader of the Yellowstone wolf project. "But we rarely get to put it into practice, because people freak out, flat-out freak out, when a wolf shows up."

Wolves herald a grand experiment -- and in Colorado, that experiment may already be under way.

Among the key ecological changes we could see in a wolf-populated Colorado: more aspen, more biodiversity, and healthier unglulates. In a nutshell, deer and elk can't sit around and graze all day if they've got to keep one eye open for wolves.

More from Nijhuis:

Biologists have long recognized the power of predators in ecosystems. In the 1930s, Aldo Leopold, who advocated wolf extirpation early in his career, began to realize that the killing of predators had helped create what he called "the modern curse of excess deer and elk." In 1980, ecologist Robert Paine coined the term "trophic cascades" to describe the ripple effects of predators on herbivores, and herbivores on plants. Researchers continue to investigate and debate exactly how trophic cascades operate, but they find these so-called top-down effects at work throughout the natural world: Predators ranging from mountain lions to otters to sea stars have dramatic impacts on the ecosystems they inhabit.

So it seems wolves would help make for a better backyard, and leery Denverites should take note that large numbers of wolves live on the outskirts of Moscow and other large cities without serious conflict.

If these big, bad, and crucially important predators are back in Colorado, I myself only have one thing to say: Welcome home!

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Eric Peterson