Wolf attacks overwhelming resources as commission rule leaves management’s hands tied
Rancher Don Gittleson is tired. The fallout of wolves is playing out in real time on his Walden, Colo., ranch before the first introduced wolf ever hits the ground.
Gittleson, who runs a commercial and purebred Angus operation, said he has had wolf activity within 100 yards of his home but the single wolf, a collared black female, hadn’t previously bothered so much as a barn cat. He reported seeing a second wolf that Colorado Parks and Wildlife was able to locate and collar, a male. Together, the two would make the cattle nervous but no damage was done. As time went on, he began seeing more wolves, sometimes as many as six together. He moved some large mature cows into a pasture with the heifers to dissuade the wolves, which worked temporarily until a Christmastime attack.
“There’s an elk herd not far from me and we’re pretty sure they were chasing them,” he said. “When we went out to find the two cows that were injured, there was an elk in the bottom down by the cow carcass. It got up and moved off and wasn’t limping, but you could tell it was injured. I think the elk ran into the cows and they didn’t kill anything — some of them stayed and chewed on the elk, some chewed on one cow, and some chewed on another cow. One cow must have had more wolves on her, but they didn’t kill anything to eat.”
On Jan. 18, two of Gittleson’s mature bred cows were attacked, one had to be euthanized and another was able to be treated for injuries to a hind leg and flank. He said his instinct was to leave the carcass so the wolves might feed on it rather than killing another cow, but he listened to the experts. The wolves returned and killed another mature bred cow. These attacks are in addition to the working dogs attacked- one of which was killed — on a neighboring ranch. This brings his losses up to three head.
Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association said Gittleson and other ranchers are left with their hands tied without lethal means to protect their herds. Just a few miles to the north in Wyoming, wolves can be shot to protect livestock.
“These wolves are teaching their offspring to kill whatever they need to survive,” he said. “The reason this turned on like a light bulb is those pups are of age at a level where they are learning other prey bases. This is going to continue, but by the time they’re done teaching this generation, there are three more wolf litters from the same pack that will begin the same cycle.”
Fankhauser said he appreciates the level of cooperation between the agencies even though their hands are tied. Notably, the Parks and Wildlife Commission could adjust their rule to allow lethal means to control wolf depredation.
“These are a non-listed species federally and Colorado has tied its own hands by keeping them listed in the state and not managing them,” he said. “That is a Wildlife Commission decision. They could untie partially their hands with a simple vote of the commission and give the commission management ability, regardless of this introduction hanging over our heads.”
The bottom line, he said, is if people want to have wolves in Colorado, they must be managed to avoid livestock losses, animal welfare issues, and major financial losses.
“This isn’t helping the cause of those who voted for the introduction,” he said. “They’re villainizing the wolf because they’re not allowing the wolf to be managed.”
Each attack, he said, dominates an entire day for multiple wildlife officers and for the Gittlesons. Outside of the man hours and the cattle losses, the costs of animal stress resulting in lower calf weights and lost pregnancies.
“Today was a fiasco,” Gittleson said. “They scattered the cows all over and into small bunches. We spent a good portion of the day to get them back into the pasture they had been in, they absolutely did not want to return to that pasture.”
Even after tempting the cows with feed, moving them through pastures took all day and he ultimately had to mix bred cows, bulls, and open heifers together which he said is far from ideal.
ALLOWING HAZING TOOLS
Gittleson said wildlife officials are working to get hazing tools to him, but none of the solutions are effective long term and with April calving several months away, he hopes to keep some tools for use during that season. Range riders to ride through the cattle at night are being brought in, and the Gittlesons are spending inordinate amounts of time with the cattle in attempts to protect and care for them.
He has observed wolves going under fences to move between pastures and said he thought strengthening the bottom strand of wire might help until he saw one wolf clear a tall four wire fence “as easily as any deer.”
“As big a mess as this is turning out to be, all the state needs is about 30 more of them,” he said. “The general public needs to leave the wildlife management to the people who manage wildlife.”
CPW Director Dan Prinzlow was in a meeting with multiple stakeholders and departments Thursday morning to discuss recent wolf depredation. He said the dommission did recently pass an emergency non-injurious wolf hazing rule to help livestock owners dealing with recent attacks.
While attempting to manage these migratory wolves from Wyoming, the agency is also working on Proposition 114 and the introduction of wolves to the state. CPW staff, he said, will draft a plan of action for damage and a plan of action for management based on feedback from various working groups. That draft plan will be delivered to the commission in November of 2022 and at that time, the commission will gather stakeholder feedback and make a decision no later than May, 2023 so of the CPW may take action on the plan in the winter of 2023.
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