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Grey Wolves Were Recently Reintroduced to Colorado, and the Reception Has Been… Mixed

Colorado ranchers remain wary as reintroduction proceeds.

Eric Peterson //April 10, 2024//

A lone Timber wolf or Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) standing on a rocky cliff looking back on a rainy day in autumn in Quebec, Canada.
A lone Timber wolf or Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) standing on a rocky cliff looking back on a rainy day in autumn in Quebec, Canada.

Grey Wolves Were Recently Reintroduced to Colorado, and the Reception Has Been… Mixed

Colorado ranchers remain wary as reintroduction proceeds.

Eric Peterson //April 10, 2024//

It’s no longer a hypothetical: Colorado has reintroduced gray wolves, not to mention the lupines that jumped the gun and moved into North Park of their own volition.

Many cattle ranchers decried the victory of Proposition 114 in 2020 that was fueled by votes from Denver and the Front Range and opposed by most of the state’s rural residents, who often continue to view the management plans from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) with suspicion.

In the view of many ranchers, wolves are nothing but an existential threat, amoral apex predators wreaking wanton destruction on any hooved herd available. A few cattlemen see an opportunity for peaceful coexistence.

READ: Wolf kills a calf in Colorado, the first confirmed kill after the predator’s reintroduction

There are now a dozen wolves (10 reintroduced and two colonists), about one for every 200,000 of the roughly 2.6 million head of cattle and calves in Colorado. Established in 1867, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association represents about 60 percent of the state’s cattle through its 2,000 members.

“Cattle and calves totaled about a $4.2 billion contribution to Colorado in cash receipts,” says Erin Karney, the association’s executive vice president. “That’s the number-one ag industry in Colorado.”

Karney says the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association was one of the first organizations to oppose the “ballot box biology” of Proposition 114. “Instead of letting wolves naturally migrate, or letting them live wherever they want to live, we were intervening and telling them where to go and uprooting all of the industries and communities that have been established and introducing this apex species.”

Ranchers “are just anxious,” Karney says. The anxiety stems from the unknowns: where the wolves will go, how information will be conveyed to ranchers in that area, and how the reimbursement process for livestock depredation will work in the real world.

The state’s Wolf Management Plan is “very vague, and that’s the only way, honestly, to get it passed,” Karney says. “This vagueness is not working in livestock producers’ favor because, right now, there’s not a clear definition of chronic depredation.”

While many ranchers are investing heavily in non-lethal mitigation — such as fladry that flaps in the breeze atop fences or guard llamas — the federal 10(j) rule that went into effect in Colorado in late 2023 permits the state the flexibility to use lethal methods in its management of wolves.

“As an industry, we welcome the 10(j),” Karney says. “Everyone will tell you non-lethal works to a certain point, and then you have to start considering lethal to take care of that problem wolf at some point.”

The state’s plan for reimbursement for depredation — up to $15,000 for animals injured or killed by wolves — is good in theory, she adds, but might be more difficult for ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands deep in Colorado’s backcountry. “It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m just going to drive up here in 10 minutes and get out.’ It’s maybe riding on horseback for a day or two to get into that country to find the livestock.

“On CPW’s end, it’s making sure they’re fully staffed, and they’re able to be timely when there’s a request to make it out there,” Karney says. “They’re saying within 24 hours, but it needs to be sooner than that.

“It’s trying to figure out at what level is it going to be scrutinized, and how do we make sure that we have all the data and proof and everything in line to make sure livestock producers put the best case forward to ensure there’s no doubt.”

Karney notes that it’s not the industry at large that will suffer major losses, but individual producers. “Some wolves are traveling over to Middle Park and back to North Park, back and forth, but it seems to be mostly Gittleson that it’s impacted with livestock depredation.”

That would be Don Gittleson, the rancher behind Gittleson Angus in North Park near Walden. His operation, with 180 mother cows on 11,000 leased acres, has suffered from depredation from wolves that migrated out of Wyoming since late 2021.

Gittleson says his ranch has already had seven confirmed injuries or kills from wolves, even with a sizable investment in non-lethal mitigation: $15,000 out of pocket, and much more from government and nonprofit entities. He estimates the total spent to date at $70,000 to $90,000, not including labor and fuel costs.

“We didn’t lose anywhere near the value of animals compared to what’s been spent here for non-lethal,” Gittleson says. “To cover what we lost would have been maybe $20,000 worth of livestock. If you’re in business, typically that would not be good.”

He adds, “A lot of people aren’t going to like this, but it actually would be cheaper just to lose the animals to the wolves than to pay for the stuff to keep them away.”

Gittleson says the problem is not the reimbursement amount, but the devilish details in the process. “You have the burden of proof. They make it sound like you don’t, but I can tell you, you do. The first calf that we lost, the wolves were in the area less than eight hours and they almost ate the evidence that proves that calf was alive before it was eaten,” he says.

“We did have animals that I think the wolves got that were never confirmed and were never paid for. Those were baby calves that just disappeared. The cow was pregnant one day and the next morning, she had delivered a calf, but no calf was around. So that’s not a confirmed wolf kill.”

Joseph Livingston, statewide public information officer with CPW, says via email that the agency will work to respond to depredation reports as soon as possible. “If damage is suspected to be a result of depredation, livestock owners are encouraged to contact their local CPW office immediately to report damage. Timely notice of damage allows CPW wildlife officers to respond and perform a field investigation to determine if a wolf depredation has occurred.”

Colorado’s Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund was staked with $175,000 for the 202324 fiscal year and will receive $350,000 from the general fund for forthcoming fiscal years. Livingston says CPW “does not anticipate losses from depredation exceeding funding.”

Livingston says the state sought input from officials in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming for the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan. “CPW’s Wolf Resource Guide [to reduce depredation] was created using Montana’s guide as a reference,” he adds. “A robust and generous compensation and conflict minimization plan, which CPW has, can help offset negative impacts and minimize wolf-livestock conflicts.”

Dr. Diane Boyd, a wolf biologist based in Kalispell, Montana, wrote a report for the National Wildlife Federation in 2022 on the reintroduction in Colorado.

Montana and Idaho now have more than 1,000 wolves living in their borders, and Boyd sees potential for a similar population in Colorado. “People should be prepared for wolves showing up in Eastern Colorado,” she says. “They’ll be there.”

That doesn’t mean they’ll be fattening up at the feedlots. Montana has 2.2 million head of cattle and calves, about 85 percent of Colorado’s tally, and depredation losses from all predators totaled about $185,000 in 2023. Wolves were responsible for 17 of 91 incidents, compared to 74 for grizzly bears.

“A fraction of 1 percent of livestock losses are due to wolves,” notes Boyd. “It’s pretty insignificant on the bigger scale… but if it’s your ranch, it’s a pretty big deal.”

People, she says, are the best defense. “The really important factor is to have somebody out there with the cattle when they’ve got young, especially calves or sheep. Have a human presence on the landscape to deter wolves from being there. That’s the most effective thing you can do. Like in the old days in Europe, when people had shepherds. We didn’t carry that culture or to our West when we settled it.”

Boyd says lethal mitigation is a necessary tool, because translocation of wolves doesn’t work and often leads to the animals suffering. “I’m not all about killing wolves, but I’m all about as peaceful coexistence as possible in the landscape between wolves and humans,” she says. That said, “If they’re going to decide to move them, just kill them.”

While the presence of a major metropolitan area is unique, the polarization between urban and rural Coloradans on wolves is not unlike the dynamic in the Northern Rockies states. “Dogs are killing stock, people just don’t get upset about it,” Boyd says. “You say the word, ‘wolf,’ and immediately, emotions jack up and heart rates go up. It’s almost as bad as abortion in terms of raising people’s attention.

“No matter how much we try and smooth things over and set up things ahead of time, people are just going to have a visceral response,” she adds. “I think it’s a lot of unnecessary angst.”

But not every Colorado rancher has raised hackles over wolf reintroduction. Tony Prendergast, who raises grass-fed cattle in the Crawford area under the Sunshine Beef brand, is one of them. He currently has about 50 head of Herefords on his 260-acre ranch at the foot of the West Elk Mountains.

“I practice regenerative ranching,” Prendergast says. “Part of regenerative ranching is encouraging diversity … so we want highly diverse soils with a lot of microbial life and rich soil. We want diversity in our pastures.”

In Prendergast’s mind, that includes wolves. “I believe that humans, in order for us to survive and to embrace the diversity of life on this planet, we have to learn how to live with highly social, intelligent apex predators,” he says. “I feel like if we can do that here in Colorado, it will improve our ecosystems and probably our culture and life. But I know it will be challenging.”