Colorado wolf importation hasn't started yet, but one rancher feels he's already at the epicenter

Jan. 24—The last known wolf in Colorado was killed in 1943, but now wolves have returned to Colorado through migration from Wyoming. In 2019 two lone wolves with radio collars were detected in the state. By 2021 a pack that included six wolf pups was confirmed in Northwestern Colorado.

Colorado rancher Don Gittleson has so far been at the epicenter of wolf predation — the animals are predators who don't care if the prey is owned by ranchers. His ranch is north of Walden, which is about 100 miles west of Fort Collins near the Wyoming border.

He expects things are going to get worse for ranchers, not better, as more wolves are introduced by the state.

"When there are wolves on the landscape, (ranchers) have lost animals to wolves," Gittleson told The Denver Gazette in an interview. "And we haven't figured out to stop that yet. Odds are that's not going to stop."

So far, Gittleson has lost about 10 cows and calves since the wolves showed up. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has paid for some of them, denied others, and compensation for a crippled cow is pending.

He may not be the only rancher in the area who has lost livestock. According to a news release last October, the agency investigated reports of the deaths of dozens of calves near Meeker that may be wolf related.

In 2020, Proposition 114 was put before Colorado voters, where it passed by 56,986 votes. The Proposition requires Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce and manage gray wolves west of the Continental Divide by Dec. 31, 2023.

The agency held the first of five public hearings on the proposed wolf management plan last Thursday in Colorado Springs to educate residents on the status of the draft plan and take comments from the public.

Darlene Kobobel, a member of the agency's Stakeholders Advisory Group and founder of the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center — a wolf and wolf hybrid sanctuary near Divide — is a supporter of reintroduction.

"I feel that the reintroduction should be a positive event in history after almost 80 years of being absent from native land. The wolf is a symbol of freedom, loyalty, strength, and the spirit of nature," said Kobobel in her testimony.

Michelle Smith, who lives in rural Fremont County in an area designated for wolf reintroduction, voiced concern about the number of wolves that would be released, saying the 200-wolf target is far too small a number.

The agency has set 200 as the floor number that can be considered a viable population, above which the agency can consider controlled and limited wolf hunting.

"The very tiny numbers for down-listing is reflective of pretty outdated science from the reintroduction into Yellowstone and Idaho in the mid-nineties," Smith said. "So, per the wording of Prop 114, the best scientific data available should be used to develop the plan, and data from the 1980s and nineties doesn't seem to be that best available science.

"We know that Colorado can sustain about a thousand wolves. We don't want Colorado to follow the footsteps of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and so far, it's been disappointing to see CPW looking to those three states for guidance in this process."

Wolf hunts have been authorized in areas of all three states. Montana has an estimated 1,100 wolves and Idaho has a wolf population estimated at 1,500 wolves. Wyoming has about 324 wolves, and along the Colorado border and in the vast majority of Wyoming, wolves are presently considered predator animals that can be shot on sight at any time and without a license.

Colorado officials suspect that some members of the pack that killed Gittleson livestock may have been killed by hunters when they ventured across the Wyoming border, some 12 miles north of Gittleson's property.

The draft plan includes provisions for killing wolves that predate on livestock when judged necessary by the agency.

Kobobel and several other of the 27 citizen speakers at the meeting urged the commission to remove lethal management provisions as well as a provision that would allow licensed hunting if, and when, wolf populations justify it.

"There should be no lethal management until non-lethal methods have been tried," said Kobobel.

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"The public is watching and has trust in CPW that we are better than our neighboring states, especially those to the north," said Ryan Cutts. "Can you imagine what the public and the kids who are following the wolves would think to see our wolves being killed? We voted to see them living free, thriving and doing their job as a keystone species, not being killed for sport."

Gittleson has more than two years' experience with non-lethal methods of deterring wolf predation.

With the help of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, he tried turbo fladry — which is an electric fence with fluttering nylon flags sewn to it that some claim deters wolves. He tried others, too.

Jennifer Sherry, a wildlife science and policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a 2020 blog post: "When used correctly, turbo fladry is a highly effective tool for preventing wolf predation."

But it didn't work long for Gittleson, and he's spent a lot of money on trying to deter wolves.

"I always hoped that the non-lethal things would work for at least a year," Gittleson told the Commission. "They did not. I mean the wolves, anything that we manufacture, they can get used to it. It just takes a little bit of time. The problem was it didn't take as long as I was hoping."

He found that wolves adapt quickly to scare tactics. Even using firecrackers, lights and physical human presence rapidly became ineffective and could spook the cattle. Nor are the costs of these efforts being paid for entirely by the state.

"I've probably spent somewhere around $12,000 to $15,000 of my own money for non-lethal," said Gittleson.

Gittleson told the Commission that wolves walk right through his ranch stead at night and aren't deterred by pickup trucks and lights when on the hunt.

"So, they were getting pretty brave the last time they came in the pasture when I was there. They attacked a cow and a calf. I had a truck running that's an old diesel truck that makes a lot of noise. And I had the lights on, and I was about 400 yards away from 'em," Gittleson said in his testimony. "I'd shut the truck off to make sure I knew that I was hearing, what I thought I heard, and to get a location of where they were at. I had started the truck back up, drove right at 'em with the horn honking because I was afraid they'd kill that calf before I got there. They were still there fighting with that cow when I got there with the truck. I ran two of the pups off. But as soon as I saw the male, I quit chasing them and I chased him the length of the field."

Not all ranchers have the same dim opinion of wolves though.

Cattleman and veterinarian Rick Leone has raised Shorthorn cattle on his Peakview Ranch near Fowler in Southeastern Colorado for 45 years.

Interviewed at the National Western Stock Show, Leone said wolves are "absolutely beautiful animals," but he acknowledges that they are predators and as the population grows, conflicts with livestock and humans are going to be a problem.

"How could you not love them? I feel like the wolves are being put in a very bad situation," Leone said. "I think the people who love them and really care about them should think about that."

"I feel bad for potentially what's going to occur. If the numbers can be kept somewhat reasonable, then I could see us all living and getting along together. But it's hard to play God that much and keep those numbers where they're reasonable without them being a risk to humans, their pets, wildlife — they're going to prey on wildlife," said Leone.

Leone believes that predation on wildlife will be beneficial to riparian areas along streams and rivers, where elk, moose and deer like to gather.

"It'll allow brush to grow, it'll allow beaver to come back," said Leone. "So, I get all the wonderful things they do, but when that population gets heavy and starts to exponentially grow, it's going to be rough."

For Gittleson "rough" may mean being driven out of business by wolves.

Asked by Commissioner Dallas May if surviving this level of predation is sustainable, Gittleson said: "Sustainable. I hate that. I don't like that question because it's a very real question. I don't answer it for sure it ... it's too personal. I know in my situation, I could not sustain it."

A comment form specific to the draft plan will be posted on the CPW website and at through February 22. Between January 19 and February 22, five statewide hearings (four in-person, one virtual) will be held to gather information from the public to be considered in developing the final plan. Additional information on meeting times and locations can be found here.

In-person meetings will be held in Gunnison on Jan. 25th, Rifle on Feb. 7th, Denver on Feb. 22nd, and at the Commission's regular meeting March 15 and 16, and in Steamboat Springs April 6th.

The final decision on the plan will be made by the Commission May 3-4 in Glenwood Springs.