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Colorado's wolf reintroduction plan worries ranchers

Ranchers are already feeling the impact of migratory wolves
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Posted at 5:03 PM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-10 17:59:05-05

WALDEN  — The decision made by Colorado voters in 2020 to reintroduce grey wolves into the state continues to generate controversy.

State ranchers argue the state isn’t equipped to handle the 250 wolves scheduled to be reintroduced in December 2023.

For two ranchers out of Walden, the wolves who have migrated from Wyoming and Montana have already left an emotional and monetary impact on their livelihood.

Rancher Don Gittleson of Walden, Colorado recently had an encounter with wolves.

“I went out in the morning to feed, and I was seeing a lot of birds over there, so crows and that which is not usually a good sign, and I had a dead calf over there, so I contacted CPW, a wildlife officer here in town,” said Gittleson.

“So, they came out and spent probably at least half a day doing an investigation on that calf, and we made a few changes on things with the cattle. And the wolves came back several times after that, and we didn’t have any more problems. So at that point, we thought we had figured out how to keep the wolves from killing the cattle. Then, the big cows were over here, and we saw wolves leaving out of the creek bottom and had cows where they weren’t supposed to be and so we're afraid that they had gotten into the heifers.”

Unfortunately, their fears were well-founded.

“Then we headed out to see what was going on with the cows. And we had cattle come out of the creek bottom where the wolves were coming out of, and I had a cow down in the creek bottom that was injured that we had to put down. And we had a second cow that had bite marks on her legs and her flank that we treated. But the next night we vetted cows down, tried to get them all bunched up in a group, and the next morning the wolves had come back in and killed a third cow.”

Livestock isn’t the only thing wolves prey on. Since they find other canines as competition, dogs can be at risk. Carlos Atencio, a rancher in Walden who lives near Gittleson, knows firsthand of the danger wolves pose for dogs.

“About 5 o'clock in the morning here something was out on the porch, I go outside and my female dog is laying on the porch kind of bleeding a little bit, my male dog was out there somewhere, so I grabbed the gun thinking it was coyotes, looking for him. I noticed wolf tracks, I mean they were everywhere, so I called CPW,” said Atencio. “They came out and did an investigation. And when I was waiting on CPW, we found the body of my male dog, Buster.”

Atencio’s female dog survived the encounter, but she has missing patches of fur, and has since acted a little more hesitant around other animals, says Atencio.

Both rangers are urging the state to reconsider Proposition 114, the measure that narrowly passed in 2020 that would reintroduce wolves in the state by December 2023.

“I think reintroducing 250 wolves into Colorado is going to have a direct effect on wildlife, ranching, on everything really. So, that’s kind of my biggest concern, biggest fear, is what’s going to happen down the road when 250 wolves come here and these poor ranches are already struggling with beef prices, and living out here is pretty tough already, so you reintroduce wolves into the matter and it’s going to be pretty tough on everyone.” said Atencio.

“It’s not a cheap undertaking for them to bring wolves here and at this point, you really have to question, A, they’re not ready for the wolves that we have, and do you really need to bring anymore? Because they’re already coming. We’re going to have wolves here. I don’t think the taxpayers realize the exp ere but to sustain that program, they’re going to probably need to be giving them another million dollars a year,” said Gittleson.

A recent meeting held in Steamboat brought in out-of-state ranchers who live areas with high wolf predation, and they offered insight for Colorado ranchers.

Cameron Krebs is a 5th generation farmer out of Oregon who has adopted new ways to protect his livestock.

“I believe if we’re going to be successful in having a biological diverse ecosystem, that we need to adapt change. And I reflect that my grandfather’s way of production is no longer available today because of the world we live in. But, with that, I also recognize that the tools available today to live and operate in a challenging ecosystem are continuing to be evolved and created,” said Krebs.

“Current conflict mitigation programs are coming usually from our MGO’s or out of our conservation sciences, and I believe strongly that we as producers, we need to shift that dialogue and shift the research to animal sciences. We have a much bigger control over our husbandry tactics than we do ever do at controlling wildlife. So, when we can move the conversations from producers to animal science and animal husbandry, have the researchers ask and answer those questions, we are going to see an exponential opportunity on the landscape to continue to evolve with this new direction that we are going down, which is a more diverse ecosystem.”

Gittleson says he has spoken to multiple ranchers in other states, and he understands what needs to be done to protect his livestock. He says once wolves learn to prey on livestock, it becomes an easy food source for them, and they teach their pack to do just that.

Gittleson’s advice for ranchers who are worried about wolf encounters down the road is to start taking preventative measures now.

“It’s a lot easier to keep them away from the cattle before they actually kill cattle. Once they figure out how to kill cattle, cattle become their food source. And that is a whole lot harder to teach them not to do,” said Gittleson.

Sharon O’Toole, who owns the Ladder Ranch in Wyoming and Colorado, says guard dogs are an effective wolf deterrent.

“You know, they’re not like your dog. They’re like your colleague and I always say if you tell it to sit and he’s been trained to know what “sit” means, he’ll think about it. And if he sees a reason to sit, he might sit. But they work and they’re effective because they’re independent thinkers and they have to make decisions. I mean they really are the opposite of a border collie who just lives to herd something. Lives to please you,” said O’Toole.

She went on to say that lethal control has also been an effective method to keep wolves off her ranch.

“What really has to be done is you have to have lethal control of the bad actors. As they talked about today, wolves learn, they train their family members, their pack members what to kill. So, if they’re learning on Mr. Gittleson’s cattle, that’s what the whole pack is going to do,” said O’Toole.

However, lethal control isn’t an option for Colorado ranchers who would face a fine and jail time if they were to harm the wolves entering their property.

Since these wolf encounters, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has issued emergency hazing tools for ranchers to use.

Ranchers can use rubber bullets, lights, and electrical fencing to fend off wolves. The CPW also encourages ranchers to invest in guard animals. Gittleson says the tools given to ranchers are only effective for a short amount of time.

Gittleson set up an electric fence that cost him 15,000 dollars. He is unsure how long the fence will keep the wolves out. Another tool is non-lethal ammunition.

“We can use rubber buck shots or rubber bullets on the wolves, so that stuff is effective to about maybe 30 yards. The closest I've ever been to a wolf in daylight is 300 yards. So that’s not a useful tool. The fencing out there, that’s an electric flagged fence, so that’s useful depending on the animals. So, maybe a couple weeks, maybe up to 90 days and then they’re going to get used to it and figure out how to cross it. There’s a few lights out there that shine to help keep them away but all of those things, they’ll get used to,” said Gittleson.

“They travel great distances in a short period of time. So, to chase those, I’d need to be on a machine, chasing them at a high rated speed in the middle of the night, across fence lines, ditches, creeks, so the possibility of a person chasing them at night and getting injured is very high.”

As for Atencio, he thinks the cost of investing in the hazing tools is going to hurt ranchers.

“It’s tough to make a living in the ranching industry already with $4 diesel and feed costs and everything else. It’s a pretty tough to deal to make a living and then you add to it the costs of preventing the wolves attacking your livestock, whether it be fencing, whether it be guard dogs, whether it putting someone here permanently as a watch, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s tough for a rancher to I guess to justify that kind of cost and to come up with that money off hand,” said Atencio.
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