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Livestock attacks become a flash point in Colorado’s wolf restoration effort

 Colorado Parks and Wildlife released five gray wolves onto public land in Grand County, Colorado on Monday, December 18, 2023. Pictured is wolf 2302-OR.
Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Colorado Parks and Wildlife released five gray wolves onto public land in Grand County, Colorado on Monday, December 18, 2023. Pictured is wolf 2302-OR.

Wildlife biologists were excited last winter when they watched five wolves from Oregon sprint out of their cages into a snowy meadow in Grand County.

“They’re majestic animals,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife species conservation manager Eric Odell told KUNC hours after the release in December. “It’s a pretty awesome thing to see.”

And for about four months, things were relatively quiet as the wolves traveled hundreds of miles around the state, from northwest Colorado all the way east to Larimer County.

But in April the restoration project started to see a few setbacks.

One wolf was killed last month, likely by a mountain lion. Another two are facing growing calls to be killed because they’ve been implicated in several attacks on cows in Grand County.

A map shows which watersheds in Colorado wolves have visited in May, 2024. Livestock attacks in Grand County have prompted calls for some of the wolves to be killed.
Courtesy/Colorado Parks and Wildlife
A map shows which watersheds in Colorado wolves have visited in May, 2024. Livestock attacks in Grand County have prompted calls for some of the wolves to be killed.

The killings have become a flash point in the restoration and ignited a high-stakes debate about wolf management and the question of lethal control.

‘A breaking point’

Ranchers in the area of the livestock attacks in Grand County are anxious.

“We're trying to get water on, we're trying to brand cattle and yet here we are having to worry about a wolf eating our livelihood,” Tim Ritschard, leader of the Middle Park Stockgrowers Association, said last week. “We start losing too many (cows), you're gonna go out of business.”

He said the constant threat of another attack is stressful.

“We got to remove these two wolves because we're just going to have more issues,” he said.

The state is paying for a range rider to help patrol the fields at night in a truck. Ritschard rode along and said May 10 the patrols were helping keep the wolves away from the livestock. But he said the extra vigilance didn’t stop a wolf from attacking another cow in the area on May 11.

“I really seriously feel like this is a bad dream,” Ritschard said. “And I feel like every day I'm going to wake up and the dream is going to be over. But it's not. I think if we could solve something and do something with this problem wolf, it would change a little bit.”

Every wolf matters

Conservationists are urging patience and warning that removing any of the 11 wolves in Colorado so early in the voter-mandated restoration could hurt the chances of success.

“Those animals are extremely valuable to the state of Colorado. They might be the most valuable individual animals in all of western North America right now,” rangeland scientist and conservationist Matt Barnes said. “It'll be different a decade from now when there are hundreds of wolves. But right now, every wolf really matters.”

Barnes, a research associate with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, helped write the state’s wolf management plan.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife so far has denied the requests to take lethal action against any of the wolves in the state. Last month, they said there was a wolf den in the area of the Grand County livestock attacks, and killing the suspected wolf could put pups at risk.

Instead, the state has invested $20,000 in range rider patrols at affected ranches and is promoting other non-lethal deterrents.

However, the attacks have prompted some of Colorado's state lawmakers to put pressure on state wildlife officials to start taking lethal action and defining the circumstances that such action will be taken.

Other western states, including Oregon and Washington, have defined what constitutes “chronic depredation.” They also publicize guidelines for when they would take lethal action.

In Washington, for example, wolves can become targets of lethal control after three livestock attacks in 30 days, or four in a 10-month rolling window.

The rules also say that at least two "proactive deterrence measures" must have failed before the wolves can be killed.

But Colorado’s wolf management plan purposefully did not define exactly when wolves should be killed over depredations. Barnes and the other drafters of it wanted to give wildlife officials more flexibility to decide the fate of wolves on a case-by-case basis.

A female wolf pup is seen in North Park, Colo, in this February 2022 photograph. A handful of the predators have wandered into Colorado from Wyoming in recent years.
Eric Odell/AP
/
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
A female wolf pup is seen in North Park, Colo, in this February 2022 photograph. A handful of the predators have wandered into Colorado from Wyoming in recent years.

“For this program to be successful, for conservation on working landscapes to be successful, we need to be able to trust our state agencies to implement the plan, and to make decisions on a case-by-case basis considering all relevant factors,” Barnes said.

There are many factors that should be considered, Barnes said, including whether non-lethal prevention measures such as fencing and lights are being used correctly in the area, how close the livestock are to a den site, and whether cattle are being repeatedly attacked in a single location.

"And that's important, because if if it's focused on one herd of livestock, there's probably something about that herd, rather than something about those wolves that's causing the situation," Barnes said. "And we've seen this multiple times and actually in multiple different states, where one ranch or one allotment had the lion's share of depredations for that state for that year. And it usually can be traced to something about that place, or that herd that's making it particularly vulnerable."

Barnes also said that lethally removing a wolf might not solve the issue.

“Chances are even if those wolves were lethally removed, they would be replaced by other wolves sooner or later,” he said. “And as other wolves would probably find and exploit the same vulnerability.”

Barnes said because he’s not familiar with the ranch where the livestock attacks have occurred or the details about what prevention measures have been utilized in Grand County, he’s not sure whether lethal control is warranted.

“We all need to take a deep breath and realize that the sky isn't falling,” he said. “There will be ranching, there will be hunting, and there will be wolves. Some cattle will die, and some wolves will die. Coexistence will not always be peaceful.”

Oregonians watching

People in Oregon are also invested in the fate of Colorado’s wolves. The state donated 10 of them to Colorado’s cause.

Bethany Cotton, the conservation director for Cascadia Wildlands in Eugene, said she hopes non-lethal deterrents will stem the livestock attacks.

“I will be heartbroken if Colorado let some of those wolves be killed, you know, less than in the first year they're on the ground and before we have a chance to help folks learn to coexist,” she said.

A chart shows which predators were responsible for livestock game damage claims in Colorado in 2022, the most recent report available. Through May 22 of this year, wolves in Colorado are suspected of attacking 28 livestock and dogs in the state.
Scott Franz
A chart shows which predators were responsible for livestock game damage claims in Colorado in 2022, the most recent report available. Through May 22 of this year, wolves in Colorado are suspected of attacking 28 livestock and dogs in the state.

She also pointed to data putting livestock deaths in a greater context.

In Oregon, for example, she said wolves are responsible for much less than 1% of livestock deaths.

“It is an easy thing to look at a wolf and think the big bad wolf, but in the grand scheme of the (livestock) industry it is a tiny percentage of their loss,” she said.

Steve Pedery, the conservation director for Oregon Wild, said wolf conservation has unfortunately “gotten wrapped around the axles of the culture wars of the United States.”

“It is a little silly to think that 10 animals are creating a massive headache for the livestock industry in your state,” Pedery said. “Here, what we've seen is even today with approaching 200 (wolves), the actual impact on our (livestock) industry is minuscule. It's dwarfed by losses to noxious weeds and getting hit by cars and any number of other reasons that cattle and sheep die.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials say they’re working on a proposed definition for “chronic depredation” in their wolf management plan.

A state wildlife board is expected to consider it this summer.
Copyright 2024 KUNC

Scott Franz
Scott Franz is a government watchdog reporter and photographer from Steamboat Springs. He spent the last seven years covering politics and government for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, a daily newspaper in northwest Colorado. His reporting in Steamboat stopped a police station from being built in a city park, saved a historic barn from being destroyed and helped a small town pastor quickly find a kidney donor. His favorite workday in Steamboat was Tuesday, when he could spend many of his mornings skiing untracked powder and his evenings covering city council meetings. Scott received his journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an outdoorsman who spends at least 20 nights a year in a tent. He spoke his first word, 'outside', as a toddler in Edmonds, Washington. Scott visits the Great Sand Dunes, his favorite Colorado backpacking destination, twice a year. Scott's reporting is part of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

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