Importing wolves from Colorado hasn’t started yet, but one rancher already feels he’s at the epicenter Surroundings

The last known wolf in Colorado was killed in 1943, but now wolves have returned to Colorado through migration from Wyoming. In 2019, two lone wolves with radio collars were recorded in the state. As of 2021, a pack of six wolf cubs has been confirmed in Northwest Colorado.

Colorado rancher Don Gittleson has been at the epicenter of wolf predation—the animals are predators who don’t care if the prey belongs to ranchers. His ranch is north of Walden, about 100 miles west of Fort Collins near the Wyoming border.

Here’s your chance to comment on Colorado’s wolf reintroduction plan

He expects the situation for ranchers to get worse, not better, as the state introduces more wolves.

“If there are wolves in the landscape,[ranchers]have lost animals to wolves,” Gittleson said in an interview with The Denver Gazette. “And we haven’t figured out how to stop it yet. Chances are it won’t stop.”

So far, Gittleson has lost about 10 cows and calves since the wolves showed up. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has paid for some, refused others, and has yet to compensate a crippled cow.

He may not be the only rancher in the area who has lost cattle. The agency was investigating reports of the deaths of dozens of calves near Meeker that may be linked to wolves, according to a press release last October.

In 2020, Proposition 114 was presented to voters in Colorado, where it was approved by 56,986 votes. The proposal requires Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce and manage gray wolves west of the Continental Divide by December 31, 2023.

The agency held the first of five public hearings on the proposed wolf management plan in Colorado Springs last Thursday to update residents on the status of the draft plan and gather comments from the public.

Darlene Kobobel, a member of the agency’s Stakeholders Advisory Group and founder of the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center — a hybrid wolf and wolf sanctuary near Divide — is a proponent of reintroduction.

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“I think resettlement after almost 80 years away from the homeland should be a positive event in history. The wolf is a symbol of freedom, loyalty, strength and the spirit of nature,” Kobobel said in her testimony.

Michelle Smith, who lives in rural Fremont County in an area designated for wolf reintroduction, expressed concern about the number of wolves that would be released, saying the target of 200 wolves is far too small.

The agency has set 200 as the soil count that can be considered a viable population, above which the agency may consider controlled and limited wolf hunting.

“The very small numbers for the downgrade reflect fairly outdated science since reintroduction in Yellowstone and Idaho in the mid-1990s,” Smith said. “So, according to the wording of Prop 114, the best available science should be used to develop the plan, and data from the 1980s and 1990s does not appear to be the best available science.

“We know that Colorado can support about a thousand wolves. We don’t want Colorado to follow in the footsteps of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and so far it’s been disappointing to see CPW reaching out to these three states in the process.”

Wolf hunts have been authorized in areas of all three states. Montana has an estimated 1,100 wolves and Idaho has a wolf population estimated at 1,500 wolves. There are approximately 324 wolves in Wyoming, and along the Colorado border and in the vast majority of Wyoming, wolves are currently considered predators that can be sight shot at any time without a license.

Colorado officials suspect that some members of the pack that killed Gittleson’s livestock may have been killed by hunters as they ventured across the Wyoming border, about 12 miles north of Gittleson’s property.

The draft plan includes provisions for killing livestock-eating wolves when deemed necessary by the agency.

Kobobel and several others of the 27 citizen speakers at the meeting called on the commission to scrap lethal management provisions, as well as a provision that would allow licensed hunting if and when wolf populations warrant it.

“There should be no lethal management until non-lethal methods have been tried,” Kobobel said.

“The public is watching and trusting CPW that we are better than our neighboring states, especially those to the north,” said Ryan Cutts. “Can you imagine what the public and the children who follow the wolves would think if they saw our wolves being killed? We voted for them to live free, thrive and do their job as a key species and not be killed for sport.”

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Gittleson has over two years of experience using non-lethal methods to deter wolves.

With help from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, he tried Turbo Fladry—an electric fence with fluttering nylon flags sewn to it that some claim deters wolves. He also tried others.

Jennifer Sherry, a wildlife science and policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a 2020 blog post, “When used properly, Turbo Fladry is a highly effective tool in preventing wolf predation.”

But it didn’t work for long for Gittleson, and he spent a lot of money trying to deter wolves.

“I always hoped the non-lethal things would work for at least a year,” Gittleson told the commission. “They haven’t. I mean the wolves, anything we make they can get used to. It just takes a little time. The problem was that it didn’t take as long as I was hoping.”

He found that wolves adapt quickly to fear tactics. Even the use of firecrackers, lights, and physical human presence quickly became ineffective and could startle livestock. Nor are the costs of these efforts fully borne by the state.

“I probably spent about $12,000 to $15,000 of my own money on nonfatal ones,” Gittleson said.

Gittleson told the commission that wolves roam right through his ranch at night and are not deterred by pickup trucks and lights when hunting.

“So they got pretty brave when they came out to pasture the last time I was there. They attacked a cow and a calf. I had a truck that ran, it’s an old diesel truck that makes a lot of noise. And I had the lights on and I was about 400 meters from them,” Gittleson said in his statement. “I parked the truck to make sure I was hearing what I thought I was hearing and to know where they are. I’d restarted the truck, honking the horn right at them, afraid they’d kill the calf before I got there. They were still fighting that cow when I got there in the truck. I evicted two of the puppies. But as soon as I saw the male I stopped chasing her and chased him the entire length of the field.”

However, not all ranchers have the same gloomy opinion of wolves.

Cattleman and veterinarian Rick Leone has been raising Shorthorn cattle at his Peakview Ranch near Fowler in southeastern Colorado for 45 years.

In an interview on the National Western Stock Show, Leone said wolves are “absolutely beautiful animals,” but he acknowledges that they are predators and conflict with livestock and humans will be an issue as populations grow.

“How could you not love her? I feel like Wolves are being put in a very bad situation,” Leone said. “I think the people who love her and really care about her should think about it.”

“I feel bad about what’s possibly going to happen. If the numbers can be kept reasonably reasonable, then I imagine we could all live together and get along. But it’s hard to play God that much and to keep those numbers reasonable without putting them at risk to people, their pets and wildlife – they’re going to hunt wildlife,” Leone said.

Leone believes the predation on wildlife will benefit riparian areas along streams and rivers where moose, elk and deer like to congregate.

“It will grow scrub, it will allow beavers to come back,” Leone said. “So I understand all the wonderful things they’re doing, but when that population gets strong and starts growing exponentially, it’s going to be tough.”

For Gittleson, “rough” can mean being put out of business by wolves.

When asked by Commissioner Dallas May if the survival of this level of predators was sustainable, Gittleson said: “Sustainable. I hate that. I don’t like this question because it’s a very real question. I won’t answer for sure…it’s too personal. I know I couldn’t stand it in my situation.”

A comment form specific to the draft plan will be posted on the CPW website and by February 22. Five statewide hearings (four in-person, one virtual) will be held between Jan. 19 and Feb. 22 to gather information the public should consider in formulating the final plan. More information on session times and locations can be found here.

Face-to-face meetings will be held on January 25 in Gunnison, February 7 in Rifle, February 22 in Denver and at the regular Commission meeting on March 15-16 and April 6 in Steamboat Springs.

The final decision on the plan will be made by the commission on May 3-4 in Glenwood Springs.

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