Wolf Update: A Day in the Life of a Wildlife Biologist – Unveiling Colorado’s Diverse and Growing Wildlife Ecosystems

When studying animals, nothing can be forced, predicted or controlled. You just accept whatever unfolds and be grateful you had the opportunity to witness it.
Libby Miller glassing
Terrestrial Wildlife Libbie Miller monitors a variety of species on Colorado’s landscapes to measure population trends and habitat quality.

“Welcome to my office, are you ready to see some critters?” said Terrestrial Wildlife Biologist Libbie Miller as she opened the passenger door to her work vehicle. “Get in.” 

As I climbed into her truck, my mind raced with questions. What kind of critters? Where are we going? Why are we awake at 4 a.m.? But it was too late for details now. I was along for the ride to experience a day in the life of a wildlife biologist. 

During the drive to our first task of the day, I learned Miller earned a degree in Field Biology from the University of Northern Colorado and has worked at Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) for 27 years. Her admiration for nature started at a young age when she realized she loved watching wildlife on family vacations and became fascinated with learning about wildlife behaviors. 

Miller’s passion for studying wildlife and dedication to CPW’s conservation mission radiated as she discussed why protecting wildlife habitats and the coexistence between humans and nature is essential to wildlife thriving in our state. 

“One of my core job responsibilities as a wildlife biologist is species and habitat monitoring. With other CPW biologists and staff, we look at the data collected from a local and statewide perspective and use the information to measure population trends, habitat quality and future management decisions,” said Miller.

Come to find out, similar to how our morning started, surrendering to the unknown is a daily practice for Miller when she conducts her field research.

Libby out on the landscape

“Every day is different and unpredictable because wildlife is just that — wild,” said Miller. “When studying animals, nothing can be forced, predicted or controlled. You just accept whatever unfolds and be grateful you had the opportunity to witness it.”

Sage Brush Field

As we stopped alongside a field of sagebrush, I learned that one species needing conservation support is the greater sage-grouse. The sagebrush habitat that sage-grouse rely on for food and shelter is in decline, and CPW, with the help of partners, is working to restore it. More than 250 species depend on this habitat, including mule deer, pronghorn, elk and a wide variety of migrant and resident bird species.

While we waited for more daylight, Miller explained that one aspect of grouse monitoring involves lek surveys. “Leks,” Miller explained, “are locations where males traditionally congregate to ‘strut their stuff’ to attract mates.” I also learned that these leks are commonly called “dancing or strutting grounds” and happen around dawn.

As we patiently peered into the predawn light, a unique “wup” sound pierced the silence and vibrated from the sagebrush. It was a male sage-grouse showing off its courtship display with his tail feathers fanned and air sacs popping out on his chest. Eureka! We spotted several greater sage-grouse in the area while conducting our surveys that morning and I finally understood why Miller had insisted on picking me up at 4 a.m.

Greater Sage Grouse
Greater sage-grouse in sage-grouse habitat. Photo by Wayne D. Lewis/CPW

After counting the sage grouse, we hiked the area despite the rain and mist and discovered abundant new growth among the sagebrush, indicating healthy habitat conditions.

Once we wrapped up our sage grouse and habitat surveys, we stopped at one last lek location before finishing our grouse duties for the day, this time in search of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. I learned that Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, like greater sage-grouse, are also identified by CPW as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). 

I admired Miller’s remarkable resilience in surveying wildlife. Her days can sometimes consist of leaving her house as early as 1 a.m. to monitor wildlife, hiking in rugged terrain, enduring poor weather conditions, visiting multiple locations without seeing any activity and often weeks in the field away from her family. Yet, her constant curiosity to observe the natural world keeps her going. 

Once we completed our lek monitoring responsibilities, we tackled the following tasks on Miller’s list, including raptor nest monitoring and searching for greater sandhill crane nests. As we traveled to each site, our stops included various state wildlife areas, state parks, and private lands where Miller had obtained permission from the landowners to conduct her surveys. We spotted an impressive display of wildlife throughout the day, such as elk, pronghorn, deer, waterfowl, shorebirds, bald eagles, coyotes, rabbits, greater sandhill cranes, American white pelicans, hummingbirds and a variety of hawks and songbirds.

With more than 350 state wildlife areas covering approximately 900,000 acres, landscapes managed by CPW offer a variety of habitats for wildlife to live.  

However, many human factors can influence wildlife resources. Habitat destruction, invasive species, human population growth and increased recreation can all negatively impact wildlife populations. 

“Colorado ranchers and landowners play an integral role in protecting valuable wildlife habitat in our state and help serve as positive advocates for our wildlife,” said Miller. “CPW works with landowners to put conservation easements on private lands in place to protect the landscape from development and allow habitat restoration projects to occur. I think ranchers and landowners are often the unsung heroes in wildlife stewardship.”

After my experience with Miller that day, I saw she is a huge advocate for building relationships with landowners. She often assists landowners who want to learn more about protecting wildlife habitats on their land. One tool used by Miller and CPW is the Colorado Wildlife Habitat Program (CWHP). This statewide program supports our mission by offering funding opportunities for landowners who wish to voluntarily protect critical wildlife habitats and provide the public with sustainable wildlife-related recreational access. The CWHP is an incentive-based, voluntary program that utilizes conservation easements, public access easements, and, in some circumstances, fee title purchases to accomplish strategic wildlife conservation and public access goals. 

As the day progressed, it was apparent that Miller had a knack for multitasking. It was impressive to watch her as she would effortlessly shift gears from talking about easements to documenting a previously unknown bald eagle nest to casually sticking a radio telemetry antenna out her window while explaining that our next task of the day was to see if we could detect a signal from one or both of the collared wolves living in North Park. As we drove along the road, she described how CPW uses VHF and GPS technology to monitor many species, including the gray wolves that naturally dispersed into Colorado. 

In 2019, a female wolf originally collared in Wyoming in 2017 near Grand Teton National Park entered Colorado and was later identified as 1084. CPW fitted another wolf, 2101, with a collar in February 2021 after he was seen traveling with 1084. The agency doesn’t know the precise origin of 2101. It’s presumed that he also came from Wyoming, but this has not been confirmed. 

I have always known that radio collars are valuable wildlife management tools. However, it was interesting to hear from Miller how CPW terrestrial biologists monitor wolf data collected from these collars to learn how wolves use and are seasonally distributed across the landscape and provide specific location information. Miller also shared that knowing a wolf’s real-time location is far more complicated than folks realize.

“There is almost always a lag in time from when GPS data is transmitted,” Miller explained. “Wolves can travel as far as 30 miles daily. Although wolves usually trot along at five miles per hour, they can get speeds as high as 45 miles per hour for short distances.”

While collars provide valuable information, that data is only a snapshot of information for our wildlife biologists. CPW typically fields around 100 wolf sighting reports from the general public annually. However, wolf reports are only considered reliable with supporting physical evidence like prints or scat.

“Reliable reports can be a tremendous asset to filling in the gaps of our collar data,” said Miller, “and we encourage folks who have seen wolves to report them using our online reporting system.”

Think you’ve seen a wolf?

Submit a Wolf Sighting Form to https://cpw.info/wolf-sighting.

Conducting field observations is also an essential method for CPW’s biologists. 

“In the initial months that 1084 and 2101 were traveling together, our monitoring primarily helped us learn how the two wolves were using the landscape,” said Miller. “After tracking the collared data for several months, I noticed a distinct shift in their movement patterns. I was immediately suspicious that this shift could indicate that 1084 and 2101 were breeding pairs with a den. Day after day, our CPW team went into the field and observed the pair’s activity from a distance to avoid disturbing the wolves and patiently waited for a visual to confirm that reproduction had occurred.”

Then, in June 2021, she got it! Miller spotted a litter of gray wolf pups in North Park, the first confirmed litter in Colorado in over 80 years. Over the next week, Miller confirmed that at least six pups had been born to 1084 and 2101.

“It was an incredible experience to watch the pups emerge from the den and observe their parents interact with their offspring,” said Miller. 

As we talked about Miller’s experiences monitoring the North Park pack, Miller also explained that CPW is currently aware of only two wolves in the state. From the original litter of six, CPW is still monitoring 2101 and 2301, collared in February 2023 and the only two CPW confirmed wolves recently seen in North Park.

Libby collaring wolf
Libbie helped with the collaring efforts for gray wolf 2202.

In addition to being federally protected in Colorado, gray wolves are also a state-endangered species in Colorado, and wolves cannot be taken for any reason other than self-defense. The gray wolf in Colorado is protected by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and state law. Penalties can vary, including fines up to $100,000, jail time and loss of hunting privileges.

The last documented visual sighting of female wolf 1084 was in October 2021. Having been born in the spring of 2016, 1084 would have been over five years old. The average lifespan for a wolf in the wild varies; however, a wolf that reaches age six is considered an old wolf. Subsequently, CPW staff believe that it is possible 1084 died of natural causes. 

Although there are currently two known collared wolves in Jackson County, CPW will continue implementing the state statute’s mandate to begin restoring gray wolves in Colorado by December 31, 2023. CPW has requested a 10(j) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow for greater management flexibility of gray wolves. The 10(j) is only suitable for unoccupied historical habitat by a pack of wolves. The USFWS defines a pack as a breeding pair and the offspring they have produced. The USFWS would consider an area occupied if there were two or more packs, each successfully bringing at least two pups to the end of the calendar year for two consecutive years. The two remaining wolves in Colorado do not constitute a pack, are not a breeding pair and there was no documented wolf production in the spring of 2022 in the state, so CPW is still on track to release the first wolves in Colorado this winter. Find out more.

“I love my job because every day presents an opportunity for new experiences, regardless of whether I initially set out to accomplish a particular task that I have completed hundreds of times before. I never know what I will see. I also love the diversity of responsibilities my job has. Seasonal duties can range from conducting bird surveys to visiting breeding sites of endangered boreal toads or monitoring wolves; nature never ceases to amaze me,” said Miller. 

Libbie holds a boreal toad
During a conservation field project, Libbie holds a boreal toad (an endangered species in Colorado) while monitoring a known breeding site.

Although we didn’t see any wolves that day, they are one piece of Colorado’s wildlife conservation puzzle. While scanning the landscapes, we did spot several previously undocumented bald eagle nests and the next generation of young pronghorn roaming around.   

My biggest takeaway from the day was that seeing wildlife is a privilege. Colorado is home to over 960 wildlife species — and that number is growing with the reintroduction of gray wolves. We are all responsible for doing our part to care for Colorado and nurturing our landscapes to ensure wildlife has healthy habitats for generations to come.  

CPW wildlife biologists are doing remarkable things for wildlife in the state. Still, conservation can be practiced on a smaller scale — simple things like not approaching or feeding wildlife, bear-proofing your home and avoiding wild animals and their habitat during sensitive times help keep our wildlife wild. 

“We all still have much to learn about wolves on Colorado’s landscapes,” said Miller. “It’s an interesting, albeit somewhat challenging time to be a wildlife biologist in Colorado. Throughout my career, I have seen how wildlife ecosystems constantly change, and I am always interested in seeing the ebbs and flows of different species. I look forward to learning more about how wolves will navigate Colorado landscapes and how other animals and humans will adapt to the continued presence of wolves in Colorado.” 

Libby in classroom with students
Libbie shares her knowledge about wildlife ecosystems at local schools to educate and inspire younger generations to be active stewards of Colorado’s land, wildlife and water. 

Written by Bridget O’Rourke, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Public Information Officer and Marketing Specialist.

One Response

  1. Why in the world is there no mention of how hunting makes all of this work. The entire mission of CPW is supported in many ways by hunting and hunting dollars. Great story otherwise, our wildlife biologists are so key to protecting our wildlife and their habitat.

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