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'It works': Colorado's wolf conflict coordinator, ranchers find common ground protecting livestock from wolves

“It works. It works," the rancher said. "That's so hard to get across to other producers that haven't tried it. Until you try it, you don't know if it's gonna work or not.”
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Posted at 11:41 AM, Jun 13, 2024

JACKSON COUNTY, Colo. — Growing up on a ranch in northern Colorado, hard work was quickly rooted in Philip Anderson's life. It's a habit that he has carried ever since, and even more so now, as he operates a ranch and grapples with raising livestock while gray wolves roam the landscape.

That has been an ongoing adjustment for years in Colorado's Jackson County and North Park area after wolves trekked south from Wyoming. This came well before the controversial, but voter-mandated December 2023 reintroduction of 10 wolves in Grand and Summit counties.

Gray wolf movement tracker GIF from December 2023 to May 2024

The addition of more wolves has raised concerns for ranchers in north-central Colorado and beyond.

Anderson, 69, is one of just four ranchers in northern Colorado who has welcomed Colorado Park and Wildlife's (CPW) free help installing fladry — a line of bright, rectangular, heavy-duty flags hung on a wire surrounding a pasture perimeter — to spook predators during the calving period, a period from March to May when cows typically give birth. The smell of the placenta is a strong attractant for the wolves, Anderson said, making the cows and newborns extra vulnerable.

Fladry in Jackson County
Fladry, installed to keep gray wolves away from livestock, blows in the wind at a property in Jackson County.

"So, when they calve, that's kind of a calling card: 'Come on over and have some lunch,'" he said.

Ranchers who have accepted CPW's assistance installing devices to keep wolves away from livestock — technically called wolf-livestock conflict mitigation measures — are familiar with Adam Baca, the department's wolf conflict program coordinator. He installs and maintains non-lethal systems at those ranches in the region, and teaches other CPW wildlife officers how to do the same.

Baca has studied wolf and grizzly bear non-lethal conflict prevention for years and now lives in Jackson County, where he is keen on building relationships and finding common ground with the local ranch community.

CPW Wolf Conflict Program Coordinator Adam Baca checks on fladry at a property in Jackson County
CPW Wolf Conflict Program Coordinator Adam Baca checks on fladry at a property in Jackson County.

He admitted that the idea of half-a-centimeter-wide wire — which is electric in Anderson's case — and flags keeping wolves away is "kind of insane" and "crazy, but it works."

“Showing that creative out-of-the box thinking is how we're going to get through this and move into the future and keep ranches viable and keep that good habitat for wildlife," he said.

Watch Denver7's latest exclusive interviews with a local rancher and the CPW wolf conflict program coordinator below.

Colorado's wolf conflict coordinator and ranchers work to find common ground

Ranching is a family affair for Anderson.

“My great-great-grandparents homesteaded this ranch and another ranch just three miles away from here in 1919," he said, standing next to hay bales on his Jackson County property.

His father bought the ranch from Anderson's grandmother, married a woman from Chicago, and had three boys. Anderson is the youngest. His two brothers have passed away.

In 1973, he married his high school sweetheart and they raised two boys. While balancing responsibilities as a father, husband and rancher, he also taught agriculture education for 34 years, including 24 at a school near his home.

Livestock producer Philip Anderson_Jackson County
Livestock producer Philip Anderson explains why he decided to accept the state's help installing methods to keep wolves away from his calving livestock.

His establishment is one of about 38,800 farms and ranches across Colorado, about half of which are livestock and poultry operations, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 2017. It counted about 11,300 beef cattle in Jackson County in 2023.

Ranching is a good way of life, but profit margins sometimes don't "look any thicker than cellophane," Anderson said. It comes with long stretches of minimal sleep, bitter cold winters, and a trusty pickup truck with no back window, but he wouldn't trade it away.

"It's a good way to raise kids. It's a good way to raise your family," he said. "We have kids that come work for us in the summertime. It's just a great way to be part of this community. And there's a wonderful community we live in."

Calf and cattle in Jackson County
More than 80% of Jackson County voted against the wolves when the measure was put on the Colorado ballot in 2020.

So, when a wolf preys on livestock, it can feel personal. And word travels fast among neighbors.

The Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, which was finalized in May 2023 after years of meetings and discussions with community members, reads that the state is legally required to provide fair compensation to livestock owners for any economic losses if their animals are injured or killed by wolves, no matter if they are reintroduced wolves or the ones that naturally migrated to Colorado. In those cases, the wolf-livestock compensation program will pay for 100% of fair market value compensation, up to $15,000 per animal. Total statewide depredation claims of $25,000 are expected in fiscal year 2023-2024, increasing by about $5,000 in subsequent years as wolf numbers rise. This compensation program does not include coverage for stress on livestock living among wolves, which can result in lower weights and pregnancy rates.

Anderson explained that a heifer — a young, female cow — can live beyond a decade in the herd, so when one is killed by a predator, a rancher loses not just the animal but years of genetic improvement.

"One animal that is killed by a wolf, over a period of 10 or 12 years, could cost you $40,000," he said. "You know, just that one kill."

Livestock producers often underuse compensation programs, mainly due to "high costs and burden of proof to verify kills," Colorado State University's Center for Humane-Carnivore Coexistence reported, citing previous studies.

"Although wolf depredation on cattle and sheep accounts for less than 1% of the annual gross income from livestock operations in the Northern Rocky Mountains, these costs are unevenly distributed and localized," the center said. "As such, low average industry-wide costs could mask high costs for some individual producers."

The North Park wolves have not killed at Anderson's ranch since the fall of 2023, when he found three dead ewe lambs on the property.

"And we called our Game and Fish people. And they came out right away to inspect it," he said. "Sure enough — wolf kill. But they haven't been back."

There was no promise it would stay that way.

At that point, including the loss of those three lambs, Jackson County had seen 19 confirmed kills or serious injuries by wolves since December 2021, according to CPW's wolf depredation tracker. That spanned both livestock and dogs. The December 2021 wolf kill marked the first in more than 70 years in the state.

Wanting to prevent any more attacks, Anderson sat down with Baca to discuss what type of conflict resolution or minimization CPW could provide. Baca was upfront with the rancher — turbo, or electric, fladry had not been successful in Colorado yet. But they decided to give it a try at Anderson's ranch.

"He was willing to take that leap with me," Baca said.

Together, they agreed to install about a mile and a half of the fladry in March 2024.

Anderson Fladry Project 03-26-24_RGonzales

"I thought, 'Wow, is that the weirdest thing you ever saw? How's that gonna work?'" Anderson recalled. "I knew that flag whipping around on there, and especially when it blows... I guess if I was a wolf, I would probably stay away from it. But I'm not a wolf. But it's not just a flag in the wind. It's electrified."

Non-electric fladry is effective for about two weeks, while turbo fladry remains effective for about 45 to 90 days. If it's installed when cows begin to have their calves, that two-week period butts up against when wild ungulates, like mule deer and elk, start having their own babies, Baca said. Those animals are wolves' natural food source, so the hope is they would return to the normal diet after calving season ends and CPW can take the fladry down.

Last year, wolves came "pretty darn close" to Anderson's livestock during a blizzard, but they never attacked, he said. When Baca looked at the wolves' GPS collar data, he could see the animals had made a 90-degree turn at the fladry away from the cattle.

"That's pretty indicative of having some effect on their movement," Baca said.

"And when that happened, then we knew it worked," Anderson added.

Livestock producer Philip Anderson in Jackson County
On May 24, livestock producer Philip Anderson said that since he installed fladry on his property, he has not had any wolf depredations on his livestock.

Wolves have not attacked his livestock since the fladry was installed on the ranch.

“It works. It works," he said, softly. "That's so hard to get across to other producers that haven't tried it. Until you try it, you don't know if it's gonna work or not.”

CPW has not yet obtained a video of the electric fladry shocking a wolf, but Baca said he has seen videos of the animals moving parallel to the wire or investigating it.

“And the idea is just to bump them off their route, so they're not interacting with the livestock," he said.

CPW's Adam Baca checking on fladry in jackson county
Colorado Parks and Wildlife's Adam Baca checks on a line of fladry at a ranch in northern Colorado.

The number of flagship wolf kill prevention projects in northern Colorado is relatively low. Three ranches in Jackson County and one outside of it accepted CPW's support installing fladry, and Baca and other wildlife officers have assisted other producers implementing other non-lethal deterrents such as fox lights, critter getters, and cracker shells.

Baca said some ranchers question if any of the tools provided by the state will work.

“I can't force anybody to do anything they don't want to, especially on private lands," he said.

In talks with others in the community, Anderson has heard similar attitudes. He respects his fellow ranchers and their choices but adds it is unfair to claim something isn't going to work before giving it a try.

“So put it up, and if it works, that's great. If it doesn't work, then we're going to have to work on how to make it better, how to make it work in everybody's situation," Anderson said. "That upsets me as much as anything — is producers that aren't willing to step forward and take the help that we're given."

There is still a long way to go before, if ever, ranchers in northern Colorado will feel at ease with the wolves. And how the reintroduction started, plus some recent movements in Denver, have not eased their fears and frustrations.

Anderson mentioned Colorado House Bill 24-1375 "Wild Carnivores & Livestock Nonlethal Coexistence," which died in the legislature this past session, but pushed to require ranchers to use nonlethal strategies and dispose of any carcasses on their property if they wanted to receive compensation for a wolf kill.

Anderson said it is unreasonable to force ranchers into that decision, as many are calculating the best path forward for their specific ranch and coming to grips with a challenging new reality.

Young calf in Jackson County ranch
A calf born a few days before this photo was taken rests on ranch land in Jackson County.

“We didn't ask for it," he said. "We didn't vote yes."

That vote happened in the fall of 2020. Of the 64 counties in Colorado, the majority in 13 voted in support of Proposition 114, a measure that required CPW to create a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolves, which did not yet have an established population in the state. Most of those counties that voted in favor were around the Front Range, in addition to Summit, Pitkin, San Miguel, La Plata and San Juan counties.

Ultimately, the measure passed with 50.91% — 1,590,299 votes — of the public voting in favor of the proposition. Opposing voters made up 49.09%, or 1,533,313 votes.

In Jackson County, which Anderson has called home his whole life, 87% of residents voted against the proposition. It is the second-highest "no" percentage in the state, after Rio Blanco County. And the aftermath has felt like an attack on his home, Anderson said.

"The wolves — the opinion that you're going to hear from North Parkers is: 'Them bloody son-of-a-guns don't need to be here.' Right?" he said. "That's what you're going to hear. 'We go out and we will take care of it ourselves.' Well, that's hard to do."

That's because according to the finalized Colorado wolf management plan, a person can kill a wolf around their livestock only if they see it actively attacking or chasing the animals. If this happens, the person must provide evidence of the injured or killed livestock within 72 hours, but preferably 24 if possible. State or federal authorities will then confirm if the animal was taken or injured by a wolf, and if so, the person responsible will be issued a retroactive permit for killing the wolf.

The unauthorized killing of a wolf in Colorado is currently punishable with a fine up to $100,000, imprisonment for up to one year and possible restrictions on hunting and fishing privileges. If a person is convicted of this crime, CPW may suspend any license privileges, up to a lifetime ban.

Read the full wolf plan below or here.

Anderson said the key point of this is that somebody must see a wolf in the act.

“If you can take and prove that that happened, then we could probably do that right now," he said. "But can you imagine the amount of expense we'd have to go through? We'd have to get some lawyers, you know, to back us up. And all of that. "

It's a discussion he said ranchers will bring up at the June CPW Commission meeting, which runs Wednesday and Thursday.

“Are they giving us the answers that we want? No. But they're listening," he said of those near-monthly meetings.

Watch the video below, where Anderson acknowledges that killing a wolf is illegal in almost all circumstances, but stresses the importance of discussing and addressing issues surrounding problem wolves.

Philip Anderson: "How can we teach you to help us take care of this wolf issue?"

"So, am I going to bust the law or break the law by taking a wolf out? No," he said. "I will try to go ahead and follow what the Colorado voters said. They wanted wolves. And I will do what I can to keep them from taking away my livelihood, short of breaking the law and taking one out."

Simply put, the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan reads that if wolves are creating a conflict, CPW must resolve the problem on a case-by-case basis. As listed in the plan, this will include management tools like non-lethal conflict minimization, hazing of wolves, scare tactics, public education, damage payments and when necessary, lethal take of wolves. The first line of defense should be non-lethal, the plan reads.

"But we feel like we've been attacked, you know, by something that we can't control right now," Anderson continued. "And that's why we're talking to you, we’re talking to the rest of the CPW folks, we're talking to the rest of our friends. This is what we need to do to get it to come to a… not an end, but to get to a point where we can use the Colorado wolf management plan every year, and make it better every year.”

As he walked along a line of fladry on a windy May afternoon, Adam Baca gripped the wire as each red flag passed through his hand, leaving human scent behind. If a flag moved from its place or was tangled or torn, he leaned down and methodically fixed it.

As basic as they look, there's a specific science behind the flags.

CPW wolf conflict management coordinator checking fladry
CPW Wolf Conflict Program Manager Adam Baca checks fladry at a ranch in northern Colorado in May 2024.

"A lot of research went into the width of the flags, the length of the flags, and where that placement of the flag needs to be on that electrified poly wire," he explained. "And so, you need to run it at a minimum of 6,000 volts. And it needs to be properly maintained. There's an appropriate height that flag needs to be off the ground, which is about that" — he lowered his hand to just above his knee — "And so through the snow and everything topography, you got to make sure it stays pretty tight to that.”

Baca, who is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was hired as CPW's first statewide wolf conflict coordinator in June 2022 after working for years in a similar capacity in Montana. He is the point person for helping livestock producers minimize conflict with wolves on agricultural land and training CPW wildlife officers on the various deterrents.

"I just kind of meet people, see what the concerns are, figure out… how my knowledge of the tools can be meshed into their operation to not create that additional burden that Philip was talking about," he said. "So, trying to find that balance of what's going to work for each property is a huge part of my job. And I really liked problem-solving."

Colorado Parks and Wildlife CPW wolf conflict coordinator Adam Baca
Adam Baca, CPW's wolf conflict coordinator, visits ranchers often to learn more about their operations and how wolves are impacting their way of life.

With years of experience in this field, he recognizes how the wolves have added stress to ranchers' daily lives.

"(It is) another issue to deal with, outside of water, outside of rules that they have to follow. How much more labor is this going to cost? Does this mean camera crews are going to show up? Does this mean people are going to show up on my property?" he said. "I mean, we're getting people who don't want to do this (install fladry) because they're specifically concerned with the public coming and harassing them.”

The purpose of installing conflict mitigation at these ranches is to teach the wolves that it is an uncomfortable space and should be avoided. CPW provides some of those resources, namely cracker shells, fladry and foxlights, while the Colorado Department of Agriculture is leading the charge with carcass management and range riding, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing leadership on how to use guard dogs, Baca said.

Because each ranching operation is different, no one solution will work for everybody. That's part of the puzzle for Baca.

“And so CPW staff is having those conversations very regularly," he said. "And you know, if fladry is not going to work, then maybe guard dogs will or maybe range riding would."

Adam Baca: "Creative out-of-the box thinking is how we're gonna get through this"

He said CPW will continue experimenting with willing ranchers to see what works best on their land.

"Being honest with that conversation is all I can really do and provide materials as needed," he said.

Per Colorado law, CPW will continue to translocate gray wolves over the next few years, aiming to reintroduce 10 to 15 animals from multiple packs each year over a five-year period. In January, the state secured 15 wolves from tribal lands in northeastern Washington. They won't set foot in the state until the winter.

But they are coming.

"I'll be right up front and tell you that we don't need to have that extra stress on our cattle," Anderson said. "We don't need to have that extra time that we have to spend now to protect them. It's just another piece of labor in a market that's really never very good."

But he continues to meet CPW at the table. As the plan marches forward, open communication and the capacity to try new approaches will become only more vital.

“So, it's really important to have these working relationships, this collaborative effort," Baca said. "We're not Colorado Parks and Wolves. We're Colorado Parks and Wildlife."