Wolf experts: Colorado officials should 'urgently' address recent wolf kills of livestock

·10 min read

Two experts with decades of experience in wolf ecology in the Northern Rocky Mountains said Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials should address a recent string of confirmed wolf kills of cattle and a dog "urgently and aggressively.''

The latest wolf kills came Tuesday and Wednesday early morning on the Gittleson Angus ranch north of Walden. The ranch is located near where a pair of wolves naturally migrated from Wyoming and had six pups last spring, marking the first time in 80 years wolves were born in the state.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed wolves killed one heifer and injured another badly enough that it had to be euthanized. Another heifer was injured but survived. The heifers weighed 1,200 and 1,400 pounds. The ranch suffered what's believed to be the state's first loss of livestock to wolves in 70 years a month ago when wolves killed a 550-pound calf.

Two weeks ago, the same pack killed a working cattle dog on an adjacent ranch.

The Gittleson Angus ranch near Walden has lost two heifers and one calf to wolf depredation over the last month, including a heifer like these that was killed Monday and another Tuesday.
The Gittleson Angus ranch near Walden has lost two heifers and one calf to wolf depredation over the last month, including a heifer like these that was killed Monday and another Tuesday.

Carter Niemeyer spent three decades studying gray wolf ecology, including killing wolves for the federal government, trapping wolves for reintroduction into the Northern Rockies and most recently helping ranchers with nonlethal means of dealing with depredating wolves. He is retired and serves on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife's Gray Wolf Reintroduction Technical Working Group.

He visited the area where the pack is located in Jackson County several months ago and talked to ranchers as part of the nonprofit Working Circle, which works with ranchers to coexist with wolves.

"It's a bad start knowing the polarization of the issue even before wolves are reintroduced there,'' said Niemeyer, who lives in Boise, Idaho. "Without serious nonlethal intervention, to think anything else will change is foolish. If this goes untreated, they will have a big problem.''

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Diane Boyd has spent four decades studying wolves, including studying the naturally recolonizing wolves in northwest Montana starting in 1979 and served as the large carnivore specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks before retiring.

She said studies have shown that once wolves kill livestock, it becomes a learned behavior and they are likely to kill livestock again. She said a small percentage of wolves kill livestock and that wolves account for "single-digit'' loss of livestock. However, she added some ranchers can see substantial losses and that any livestock loss impacts ranchers.

"This is a precedent-setting event because it's the first pack of wolves in Colorado to kill livestock in many years,'' said Boyd, who lives in northern Montana. "It has to be resolved quickly. It's a red flag for those who don't want wolves in the state. But it's also an incredible opportunity for pro- and anti-wolf people people to come together to keep wolves from killing livestock and to keep the wolves alive.''

'We are too late'

Rancher Don Gittleson said Walden-area Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have been helping him since three of his cows were killed. He said state wildlife agency officers have helped guard his cattle at night to alleviate the situation.

He added he appreciates the help but that he and the area Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials had been discussing the issue months before his cattle were killed. He wished something would have been done sooner.

"We knew last spring we had pups,'' he said. "Now everybody is frantically trying to do something. I can tell you from my point of view, we are too late.''

The state wildlife agency said it is working with U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and Defenders of Wildlife and with the rancher to minimize further loss of livestock.

This pregnant heifer was injured by wolves Monday on the Gittleson Angus ranch near Walden. Wolves have killed two heifers and one calf in the past month on the 11,000-acre ranch in Jackson County.
This pregnant heifer was injured by wolves Monday on the Gittleson Angus ranch near Walden. Wolves have killed two heifers and one calf in the past month on the 11,000-acre ranch in Jackson County.

Gittleson confirmed he was meeting with officials Friday to work on ways to haze the wolves, which is legal after the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission passed an emergency regulation to allow nonlethal hazing Jan.12.

Acceptable hazing measures to reduce immediate threats to livestock include scare devices and scare tactics such as propane cannons, vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, range riders, guard dogs, noisemakers and motion- and radio-activated guard devices.

Gittleson said the intent of the measure is good but that Colorado Parks and Wildlife has not been able to secure such devices to help him. He said those items were not available in Colorado and have to be purchased out of state because they weren't needed in Colorado until now.

"It's like giving out food stamps and you go to the grocery store and there isn't food on the shelves,'' he said.

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He said the state wildlife agency has offered to pay for hazing efforts, but the agency refuted that Friday, writing in an email response to questions: "There is no current funding mechanism for defraying the cost of hazing techniques.''

Colorado Parks and Wildlife said it will compensate the ranchers for the loss of their livestock and cattle dog to wolves. It added that there have been no other wolf depredation incidents reported other than those confirmed at the two ranches.

Gittleson said he has taken measures to keep wolves from killing his cattle. He said the kills have been in small pastures close to his house. He added that other predators such as mountain lions, coyotes and bears are present but he believes only one calf has been lost to those predators since he moved to the ranch five years ago.

'It's very grim at the moment'

Niemeyer and Boyd said the use of a variety of hazing methods have proved to work for varying periods of time but that wolves can become accustomed to them.

"None of those are silver bullets,'' Niemeyer said. "But people can work together and make every effort to solve this or get territorial and make it political.''

They said a human presence such as range riders is one of the most effective methods because wolves avoid humans. But they said the method must be done consistently for as long as months before the behavior of the pack may change to looking at elk and deer in the area as easier prey than cattle.

They recommended finding a source of suitable people who would be willing to serve as range riders until the pack changes its behavior.

Gittleson said neighbors have offered to help and his family has watched over the herd at night but that his wife and sons and their wives have jobs that allow them to come only on weekends, leaving him alone during the week. He said finding range riders will be one of the discussion points with state wildlife agency officials.

"We have been watching the cattle 24/7, but this is not sustainable for us,'' said Kim Gittleson, Don's wife. "It's very grim at the moment.''

Wolf kill: Colorado wildlife officials confirm wolf kill of cow near Walden

Colorado Parks and Wildlife said there have been discussions between the Gray Wolf Reintroduction Technical Working Group that included the topic of relocation of wolves, noting it is rarely justified to move the predation challenge to a new location. The agency said current regulations do not allow for lethal control.

Gray wolves are no longer federally protected, and states where wolves were reintroduced like Wyoming and Idaho allow killing of wolves, as does Montana. Gray wolves are listed as endangered in Colorado and killing of wolves here is illegal.

Colorado voters narrowly passed a ballot initiative in 2020 to reintroduce wolves no later than the end of 2023. Gov. Jared Polis has said publicly he would like to see wolves reintroduced as early as this year. As part of the measure, ranchers will be compensated for confirmed wolf kills of livestock as well as working cattle dogs.

"This will impact reintroduction either way,'' Boyd said. "It will more likely be negative, but this issue can't go on. The quicker they resolve it, the better it will be.''

History of wolves in Colorado

1876: Colorado admitted to the Union. Wolf scalps and ears bring 50 cents.

1909-1915: U.S. Forest Service reports killing 113 adult and pup wolves in Colorado.

1934: Wolf excluded from game status in Colorado and is left unprotected.

1943: Last wolf in Colorado reportedly killed in Conejos County.

1973: Wolves are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

1974: What was then the Colorado Division of Wildlife announces part of its objective is to provide protection and management to establish a minimum of 20 wolves in the state.

1982: Colorado Wildlife Commission releases a resolution against wolf reintroduction.

1991: San Juan Mountains added to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “future consideration’’ list of areas to be evaluated for wolf reintroduction.

1993: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begins $50,000 feasibility study to determine if biological and social attitudes conducive to wolf reintroduction exist in the state.

1994: Feasibility study indicates the state could support up to 1,128 wolves. Colorado State University Human Dimensions in Natural Resources Unit’s poll on wolf reintroduction indicates 71% of Coloradans polled approve of it.

1995: Colorado not included in Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan.

2005: Colorado Wildlife Commission adopts a state working group’s Wolf Management Plan for the state.

2006: A study, after forecasting increased human population growth and road development, stated Colorado could support at least 400 wolves by 2025.

2016: Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission reiterates its opposition to wolf reintroduction.

2019: In July, a female wolf fitted with a GPS-tracking collar is confirmed north of Walden and to be from Wyoming's Snake River pack. It marks the first confirmed wolf sighting in four years.

2019: Rocky Mountain Wolf Project announces it will seek signatures to place on the 2020 ballot.

2020: In January, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirms a pack of six wolves in Moffat County in extreme northwest Colorado. It is believed the pack wandered in from other states. As of early 2022, the pack is no longer there.

2020: In November, voters pass Proposition 114, a ballot initiative that calls for the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado no later than the end of 2023. The vote was 50.91% for, 49.09% against.

2021: In January, U.S. Department of the Interior's rule to delist the gray wolf from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act takes effect. The move transfers management authority over the gray wolf in Colorado from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Wolves remain a state endangered species.

2021: In February, for the first time since Colorado took over management of wolves, a male wolf is captured via helicopter and fitted with a tracking collar.

2021: In spring, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirms the first wolf pups born in Colorado in likely 80 years are discovered north of Walden. The parents are the two wolves seen in the area and fitted with tracking collars. Six pups are born.

2021: On Dec. 19, Colorado Parks and Wildlife receives a report of a calf carcass on a ranch north of Walden in Jackson County near where the pack of wolves have denned. The state wildlife agency confirms it to be a wolf kill that week, and it is believed to be the state's first wolf kill of livestock in more than 70 years.

2022: On Jan. 9, a rancher near where the calf was killed reports wolves killed his working cattle dog and injured another. The kill is confirmed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

2022: On Jan. 18-19, two pregnant heifer cows are confirmed killed by wolves (one was euthanized due to its injuries) on the same ranch that earlier lost a calf.

Colorado wolf information

Colorado Parks and Wildlife: Visit https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/Wolves-in-Colorado-FAQ.aspx

Colorado State University: Visit https://sites.warnercnr.colostate.edu/centerforhumancarnivorecoexistence/

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 milesblumhardt@coloradoan.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 wolf experts warn state to 'urgently' address recent kills

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