The Jackson County rancher who suffered the first loss of livestock to a wolf in 70 years believes wolves will take a greater toll on dogs than cattle when reintroduced.
Don Gittleson, who runs about 180 registered Angus cattle on nearly 11,000 leased acres north of Walden, had a 550-pound calf killed by wolves Dec. 18. The kill was confirmed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
He said the pack, which includes two adults that naturally migrated from Wyoming and six young born about nine months ago, have not injured or killed any of his other cattle despite its members continuing to move through the pasture near his house where the calf was killed.
But that coexistence ended Sunday when a manager on a neighboring ranch reported to Colorado Parks and Wildlife that a prized border collie used to work cattle was killed and another dog was injured by wolves.
The wildlife agency confirmed the attack was from the pack of wolves that has a den in the area. It is the only known pack of wolves in the state.
Gittleson said he believes the dog, which was killed Saturday night, won't be the last dog killed by wolves in Colorado and that those dogs won't just be ranch dogs but pets out with people recreating in the backcountry.
"I think going forward you will see more dogs get killed by wolves than cattle,'' said Gittleson, who started seeing wolf tracks near his house five years ago when he moved to the ranch. "There will be ranch dogs killed but also there are a lot of people who take their dogs out while hiking, and if there are wolves in the area they will go after the dogs.''
Colorado Parks and Wildlife said it will compensate the ranch manager for his loss because it was a working dog.
Gittleson said just like with wolf depredation on his calf, it's difficult to put a price on the loss because of all the work involved with the animal. He said settling compensation is difficult for the state wildlife agency because it lacks an understanding of livestock value. Still, he said he was going to settle for compensation on his calf at the low end of the scale to keep a good relationship with the agency.
"I have a dog that works cattle and I can tell you one good dog working cattle is more valuable than four people, so not only was that dog part of his livelihood but just like anyone else he was very close to his dog," Gittleson said. "He can't just go to the Dumb Friends League and replace that dog. Ranchers who have good working dogs won't even sell them.''
Studies have shown wolves are aggressive toward dogs and other predators because they see them as competition for prey in their territory and will staunchly defend their territory. The same is true for wolves killing other wolves.
"I used to joke that I was the wolf magnet because they seem to spend more time around my house than other places,'' said Gittleson, who keeps his two dogs inside at night, when he said the wolves are much more active. "But now I've come to realize that I'm not the magnet but that my dogs are. I've seen wolf tracks following my dogs' tracks in the yard. They see them as competition and want to kill them.''
'Shoot, shovel and shut up' is not an option
Gittleson admitted harboring thoughts of killing the wolves that killed his calf.
He said he knew he could wait by the calf carcass and the wolves would be back the next night. He lives many miles from another rancher so it was very unlikely that anyone would have ever known or asked questions.
He said commenters on social media told him he should have lived by the rural rule of "shoot, shovel and shut up" when it comes to eliminating predators without officials knowing.
"It was probably a good thing I wasn't there when it happened because I don't know if I would have showed as much restraint,'' Gittleson said.
He said he didn't want to become part of the "rancher-shoots-wolf narrative'' used by wolf advocates and couldn't afford facing a $100,000 fine and time in jail, which is the penalty for killing a wolf other than in self-defense in Colorado, where wolves are designated as endangered.
He said others who lose livestock or pets to wolves in the state have to make their own decisions but cautioned that they would be wise to follow the rules, adding Gov. Jared Polis is a wolf advocate and has publicly pushed for releasing reintroduced wolves into the state as early as this year, one year ahead of the mandated date included in the ballot initiative narrowly passed by voters last year.
"If there are ranchers out there or anyone who wants to shoot wolves, you are a fool because the governor will put every resource he has available to come after you,'' Gittleson warned.
Finding ways to cope with wolves in the neighborhood
Editor's note: This section includes a graphic image of the calf after it was killed by wolves in December.
With wolves in the area, Gittleson said he was going to change his operation to better protect his cattle but then got busy and didn't implement his strategy.
It cost him a calf, but he knew it could have cost him more.
After the kill, he moved around his herd so that larger, mature heifers with no calves were in the pasture to help protect calves in the herd. Since the change, he has seen wolf tracks in the pasture with the cattle but has not suffered injuries or death by wolves.
He said he seldom sees the wolves but sees plenty of tracks. He added he has only seen one wolf kill of deer or elk and that was a doe deer near his house last year.
"Now that I have some experience with the wolves and know they are here, I sleep a little bit better at night because my changes seem to be working for now,'' he said. "We will see how long it works. My next big concern is calving season.''
Gittleson said few ranchers in his area have dealt with wolf predation issues since the predators were largely killed off through shooting, trapping and poisoning by the 1940s.
Gittleson said he voted against Proposition 114, the ballot initiative that voters narrowly passed last year to reintroduce wolves into western Colorado by the end of 2023.
"Just like I don't want somebody who doesn't know livestock telling me how to run my ranch, neither do I think voters who don't know wildlife should be telling wildlife officials how to manage wildlife,'' he said.
Given he unfortunately knows a little more about wolf depredation, he had some insights for livestock owners.
He said the compensation process went OK but that the burden of proof is on the livestock owner and proof can be gobbled up quickly. He said in several hours, the wolf pack had eaten more than half of his 550-pound calf, including the meat, bones and hide. They ate nearly all of the rest the following night after wildlife officials had confirmed the wolf kill. Tracks at the kill site indicated there were five to six wolves.
He said the kill happened in the middle of the night and that he was lucky it was near his house; he checked on the cattle twice a day so there was enough evidence left to prove the calf was alive at the time of the attack and was attacked by wolves.
When cattle are further away and ranchers check on their livestock less frequently in summer, he said, proving a kill will be much more difficult.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission is considering emergency hazing options to keep wolves away from livestock. Gittleson said the intent of the options, which include flagging, chasing and rubber bullets, are good but not always overly practical out on the vast ranches around the state.
While he feels some comfort level in managing his cattle differently to avoid wolf depredation, Gittleson said he is bracing for more issues.
"If you work for a company and you know layoffs are coming, there is an anxiety level,'' Gittleson said. "We feel that as well with wolves. It's the not knowing what is coming next. They are still coming around and will continue to do so. They haven't killed again yet but their pups are growing and they will be able to hunt better as a pack.
"How long will it be until they kill again or injure some of my heifers or people's dogs? That is something we all will now have to learn to live with.''
Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Colorado rancher: Wolves will kill more dogs than cattle