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.
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.
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.