A wolf now potentially making Colorado history by raising a litter of pups was mislabeled as a male when originally captured in Yellowstone National Park more than four years ago.
A Teton County denizen until her big 2019 walkabout south, the wolf now known as 1084F (formerly 1084M) was captured in January 2017 for Grand Teton National Park biologists monitoring the old Snake River Pack, which occupied both parks. The contracted wildlife “mugger” who handled the wolf, then a 7-month-old pup, simply made a human error, marking the wrong sex on a form.
“I found the original capture form, and it was just mislabeled as a male,” Grand Teton National Park wildlife biologist John Stephenson told the News&Guide.
Stephenson was not present for the capture. An employee of the contractor, Idaho-based Leading Edge Aviation, said that he was not sure which of his muggers would have captured 1084F and checked the wrong box, and he deferred questions to agency biologists.
In fast-paced wildlife capture work during which several animals might be handled at once, such mistakes can happen. Stephenson said it wasn’t the first time that he’s learned of a Teton Park wolf that was sexed incorrectly — it happened once before with a wolf that dispersed from Idaho.
Statistically, wolves captured for monitoring and research are recorded in databases as the wrong sex about 2% to 3% of the time.
That’s one finding of a multi-state genetic analysis that analyzed samples from about 450 Northern Rocky Mountain wolves, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department wolf biologist Ken Mills.
“Somewhere in the low-teens of those were misidentified,” Mills said. “It’s all human error.”
The error is not the result of people who can’t distinguish between male and female canine genitals, which is pretty easy. Rather, it’s the chaos of the moment.
“You have a capture crew, and they’re spending $20 a minute,” Mills said.
If the canine isn’t sedated, the process is executed rapidly to minimize its stress.
“They’re catching it, muzzling it, hobbling it, taking a quick look at what they see and writing it down,” Mills said. “They circle the wrong thing. Then they put a collar on and send it on its way.”
Mills wasn’t certain of the specific conditions when Wolf 1084F was captured on Jan. 20, 2017. But it was winter in Wyoming, and the same day two other black Snake River Pack wolves, an adult female and adult male, were also captured and collared, according to Yellowstone’s annual wolf report for that year. That type of scenario lends itself to a mistake.
“If you have four wolves on the ground and you have four data sheets, you can see how human error would happen,” Mills said. “Accidentally switching a sheet. Those sorts of things happen.”
Before genetic testing confirmed it, Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists had suspicions that their male wolf was actually a female. In February contracted crews captured and collared a 4-year-old, 110-pound male wolf that was accompanying 1084, which still has a functional tracking collar. Initially the two animals were described as “hunting partners.” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis joked on Twitter that the two were gay. Elected in 2018, Polis was the first openly gay man elected governor in American history.
The newly captured male wolf was fitted with a GPS tracking collar, which provided much more data than 1084’s very-high frequency collar. Colorado biologists soon had better insight into the pair’s travel patterns and behaviors.
“As we continued to monitor the movement patterns of M2101 and F1084, CPW biologists noted a change that was consistent with potential denning behavior,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Terrestrial Section manager, Brian Dreher, said in a news release.
With conclusive proof that M2101 was a male and denning behavior documented, Colorado biologists began to question whether 1084 was really a male. They contacted Mills, who in turn got in touch with Grand Teton’s Stephenson. When Stephenson checked the capture form, he confirmed that it said male. The park biologist also sent them a blood sample so they could do a genetic analysis to look into the sex.
But then the answer emerged unexpectedly: Results came in from the 450-wolf genetic study, which 1084F was already a part of.
“We had submitted this sample, coincidentally, a couple of years ago,” Stephenson said. “And it just so happens that those results came through.”
The genetic results provided evidence that there was a male and female wolf running together in north-central Colorado’s Jackson County.
“We know wolves are resilient, hardy animals and in this case two of them hundreds of miles from their home packs found each other and are now making a home in Colorado,” Polis said in a statement.
Although the wolves are exhibiting denning behavior — which typically means sticking to one area — there’s not yet evidence of pups.
But the pair’s potential litter has made waves in Colorado, which hasn’t supported a functional wolf population since the native canines were extirpated in the 1940s. Progress, both naturally and via human intervention, is being made toward reestablishing the population.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists confirmed in January 2020 that a pack of six wolves was documented in northwestern Colorado’s Moffat County. According to Colorado Public Radio that summer a state biologist witnessed an adult wolf and a pup but was unable to get evidence of the sighting. At least three wolves in that region have also been shot and killed, both illegally in Colorado and legally across the border in Wyoming’s predator zone — where there are virtually no restrictions on killing wolves.
The natural arrival of a wolf pack to Colorado inflamed the debate about reintroducing the species to the Southern Rockies, since they already seemed to be coming. Still, Colorado voters decided in a referendum in November that it was in the state’s best interest to introduce more to give the reestablishing wolves help by augmenting the population. By a razor-thin margin, Proposition 114 passed, directing the state to craft a plan and reintroduce a to-be determined number of gray wolves by 2023.
With reintroduction looming, all eyes are on Colorado’s known wolves: 2101M and 1084F. Writing on Facebook, Polis said that the duo deserves proper names and he christened them “John and Jane Wolf.”
“Of course, one breeding pair can’t sustain a healthy population,” Polis wrote, “but Colorado voters recently approved the reintroduction of wolves to our ecosystem, which will help John and Jane’s pups have genetically diverse potential mates to choose from when they grow up.”