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Colorado ranchers cannot shoot wolves that attack their livestock

Don Gittleson woke up Wednesday morning to a sight that’s starting to feel common on his North Park ranch: a cow torn up by wolves, the third attack on his livestock since a few days before Christmas. If this were Montana, Wyoming or Idaho, Gittleson could pull out a gun and shoot the predator dead. 

But this is Colorado.

Wolves in Colorado are protected under state law. Killing them – no matter how many cows or sheep or pet dogs they attack – is not allowed. 

In the span of a month, a wolf pack that roamed into northern Colorado from Wyoming has killed two cows and one border collie, and injured two more cows badly enough that one was euthanized. 

The livestock deaths – caused by wolves that migrated naturally into the state – come as Colorado wildlife officials are in the midst of setting up plans to relocate wolves here from other states, following a wolf reintroduction measure narrowly approved by voters in 2020. 

Don Gittleson makes a phone call with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife to report a heifer carcass, killed by wolves, on his ranch early Wednesday morning, Jan. 19, 2022, outside Walden. The CPW district managers later investigated to confirm the cow was killed by a pack of wolves that migrated from Wyoming. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The livestock attacks in North Park have launched Colorado into the rancher-versus-wolves fight much faster than expected. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials say they’re working with Gittleson to come up with effective methods to protect his herd, but it’s clear they soon will have to deal with ranchers who are starting to amplify their calls for lethal defense of their livestock and livelihoods.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife authorized an emergency resolution Jan. 12 allowing ranchers to haze wolves that threaten livestock or working animals through methods like chasing them in vehicles, firing rubber bullets at them, hiring range riders to watch the herd overnight, or scaring them with “fladry” – flags hung along fence lines. 

But Gittleson says many of the hazing methods are inadequate or impractical given the realities of life on a rugged, remote ranch. 

“Ranchers need the ability to protect their livestock,” Gittleson told The Colorado Sun. “If that means lethal management, that means lethal management.”

But in Colorado, killing a wolf carries a penalty of up to a $100,000 fine, a year in jail, and a lifetime loss of hunting privileges.

Ranchers in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming can shoot wolves on sight

The rules are quite different in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. 

In all three states, ranchers can shoot wolves on the spot if they are harassing or attacking livestock or pets. Then they’re required to report the wolf kill to state wildlife officials. 

In Wyoming, 34 wolves have been killed for livestock predation on average each year since 2008. In some cases, wildlife officials will kill the one or two wolves in a pack that are instigating livestock kills, said Dan Thompson, supervisor of large carnivores for Wyoming Game and Fish. 

Wolves have gone on and off the endangered list in Wyoming, thanks to court rulings, but after five years off the list, the state has “kind of normalized wolf management,” said Thompson, keeping the population steady and seeing conflict with livestock decline. 

A wolf track, near a heifer carcass, with a sharpie-sized pen placed in the snow for scale seen on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Walden. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

His advice to Colorado when wolves are preying on livestock: act quickly. 

“The more it continues on, the less tolerance there is for wolves among those who don’t want wolves there,” he said. “It’s always going to be extremely polarized with wolves, no matter where you are.” 

Wolves were confirmed to have killed or injured 54 cattle, 12 sheep, 10 chickens and one dog in Wyoming in 2020. 

In Idaho, the law pertains not just to landowners but to their employees or hired “animal damage control personnel.” 

Wolves were reintroduced to the state in the mid-1990s, and within a few years, livestock kills jumped dramatically, according to Idaho Fish and Game. In 1995, there were just two investigations into livestock killed by wolves. Five years later, in 2000, there were 55 investigations. 

Last year, five wolves were killed “in the act of attacking or harassing livestock” and 37 were killed by officials because they were suspected of preying on livestock, according to Roger Phillips, a spokesman for Idaho Fish and Game. 

Montana last year tallied 381 livestock losses to wild predators, which would include not just wolves but mountain lions and grizzly bears, which were the most destructive. The losses were valued at more than $300,000, according to the Montana Department of Livestock, which manages compensation payments to ranchers. Of the total 196 cattle and 148 sheep killed, wolves accounted for 56 cattle deaths and 14 sheep deaths. 

Grizzlies killed 98 cattle and 18 sheep, while mountain lions killed only one cow but 73 sheep and 16 goats.

A 2013 Montana law says landowners and officials combined can kill up to 100 wolves per year if they are threatening livestock, dogs or human safety.

“People in Denver don’t have a clue”

In Colorado, ranchers were paid out for 14 cattle killed or injured by black bears in fiscal year 2020, as well as 24 goats, 172 poultry and 443 sheep, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Mountain lions were responsible for killing or injuring two cattle, 43 goats, eight horses, one llama and 36 sheep. An additional 525 sheep were deemed to have been killed or injured by either bears or mountain lions. 

Any livestock killed by wolves feels “like a failure,” said John Murtaugh, a representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a decades-old conservation group that was among the key organizers behind Proposition 114, Colorado’s wolf reintroduction measure. 

“We don’t want dead livestock either,” Murtaugh said. “We want wolves going after elk and fulfilling their ecological niche.”

Murtaugh said he’s been in contact with Gittleson to discuss not only hazing measures but methods to prevent wolves from becoming interested in cattle in the first place. 

“Unfortunately, sometimes wolves learn cattle are easier to get than anything else,” he said. “With hazing, we’d rather the wolf be bruised or scared than killed, but hazing is still an in-the-moment, acute solution. That’s why preventive measures are so important.”

Wolf tracks surround a cow carcass on a ranch outside Walden on Jan. 19, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Murtaugh advocated methods including “low-stress stockmanship” that avoids cattle prods and “hooting and hollering” that can stress cattle and weaken their immune system. He also said mixing the age and breeds of cattle kept close together can help, as can rescheduling calving season so it coincides with that of elk – offering wolves different prey to go after. 

Killing wolves can be “an important tool,” Murtaugh said, though he feels it should be left up to government agencies for the sake of public accountability – at least as long as wolf populations are recovering – and only “after repeat depredations and after nonlethal tools prove ineffective.”

Gittleson said the nonlethal tools have so far been ineffective. All three attacks took place in one of two pastures beside his house, one that’s 250 acres and another that’s around 80 acres. He tried combining all ages of cattle in one pen after the first attack – but that didn’t stop the wolves from coming back, and they have since taken down three cattle far larger than the first young heifer killed. 

Rubber bullets are often only effective up to about 50 yards, but Gittleson hasn’t been within 300 yards of a wolf in daylight. Range riders to work the graveyard shift are expensive and in short supply. Guard dogs are also expensive, and based on what happened to his neighbor’s dogs, may be in danger themselves. Hanging flags on fences doesn’t scare wolves for long, and he’d rather save that method for the spring calving season. Chasing wolves allows him to chase them only to the fence line, and pushes them onto neighbors’ ranches – something he doesn’t want to do.

He says he’s getting tired of hearing advice from people who aren’t ranchers.

“The wildlife officers on the ground get it,” he said. “But the people in Denver don’t have a clue.”

Discussions among a CPW advisory group working on regulations for wolf reintroduction “have included the topic of [relocating wolves], noting it is rarely justified to move the predation challenge to a new location,” CPW spokesman Travis Duncan said in an email.

Gittleson said he has not been reimbursed for his cattle yet, saying he has yet to figure out a value for the cows lost – he’ll take $1,800 for the heifer, but the other two cattle killed were pregnant, and were part of the stock he uses to build up his herd. 

In a normal year, Gittleson said he might lose one cow to lightning, but disease deaths are rare among adult cattle. Calves are more vulnerable, and last year he said he lost five to either disease or predation. 

Heifer cattle move across the ranch outside Walden on Jan. 19, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Nationwide, predators account for just 2% of adult cattle deaths and 11% of deaths among calves in an average year, with respiratory illnesses and old age among the leading causes of death, according to a 2017 USDA study.  

Among deaths attributable to predators, coyotes were the leading culprit.

But ranching is already hard enough without adding the pressure of another predator, said Terry Fankhauser, the vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. 

“The reality is, livestock producers work very hard to make sure any death loss is as low as possible,” he said.

Fankhauser said he’s a proponent of preventive measures and hazing techniques against wolves, though he questions their effectiveness.

“Those are great tools, and they’re necessary,” he said. “But the practical reality for landowners is they can haze wolves off their property, but these are apex predators – they’ll work around it. When packs habituate to predating on livestock, the reality is most states have had to use lethal force. It’s unfair to kill all the wolves, but it’s unfair to let them kill as much livestock as they want.”

Murtaugh said reintroducing wolves will be a significant step toward restoring Colorado’s wild ecosystems. 

“Virtually all Coloradans agree we love our wilderness,” he said. “We want to pass it on to future generations. The best way to do that is to maintain our natural system.”

Federal protections for wolves lifted in 2021

The gray wolf was protected under the federal Endangered Species Act until January 2021, when that designation was lifted under orders from the Trump Administration. The protections were removed years earlier in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, by congressional actions and court rulings. 

Regardless of the lack of federal protection, Colorado has its own law designating wolves as endangered. And as the state writes a new wolf management plan ahead of officially reintroducing the gray wolf, ranchers cannot shoot or trap wolves that are feasting on their livestock.

Colorado law defines a species as endangered when its prospects for survival are in jeopardy as determined by the state Parks and Wildlife Commission. The state’s existing wolf restoration and management plan includes a requirement to determine when or if the gray wolf becomes self-sustaining and eligible for removal from the state endangered list, said Duncan, the CPW spokesman.

The 2021 federal change meant that wolves were no longer protected in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, which in February held a wolf hunt that drew national attention and lawsuits from wildlife advocates. In just three days, 216 wolves were killed.

Minnesota and Michigan still do not allow wolf hunting. The issue is in limbo while the two states are writing new wolf management plans and lawsuits over the federal protection removal are pending. Also like Colorado, ranchers in Minnesota and Michigan cannot kill wolves that prey on their livestock, though they can receive compensation for the lost animals.

The Minnesota-based International Wolf Center, which provides education about wolves but does not take positions on policy, said Colorado has a long process ahead to figure out how wolves and ranchers can coexist.

“Ranchers say sharing the landscape with wolves includes livestock losses, which is true. Environmental groups say sharing the landscape with wolves creates better functioning ecosystems. This, too, is true,” said the center’s executive director, Grant Spickelmier.

A tractor transports hay for cattle on a ranch outside Walden on Jan. 19, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“This conflict between wolves and ranchers in the Western United States goes back more than 150 years to the 1800s. It’s unlikely that there will ever be a solution that will make everyone happy. What’s important is that Colorado uses the best science available when making its decisions about wolf management.”

Murtaugh, with Defenders of Wildlife, said mutual understanding and compassion are needed as Colorado navigates wolf reintroduction. He said it’s important to remember that when wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rockies in the 1990s, it was by an act of Congress, while Colorado’s law was by popular vote of state residents – though the vote was largely split between urban voters who supported the measure and rural voters who opposed it.

Murtaugh said he hopes people on the Front Range can have more compassion for ranchers, and hopes ranchers can remember that the Front Range has the right to weigh in on how public lands are managed.

“This is the new reality,” he said. “We’re all Coloradans here. Let’s put down the pitchforks.”

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