CPW insists wolf killings not their fault

Even as officials of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife insist the recent killing of a calf by wolf is not their fault, the relationship with ranchers has soured to the point private landowners have begun considering to restrict state access to their properties, potentially jeopardizing programs that rely on the latter’s help. Notably, private landowners play a significant role in the state’s conservation work. Indeed, the state’s private land program says without that support, “modern-day Colorado’s remarkable wildlife abundance — and equally rich hunting and fishing opportunities — simply would not exist.”  That support is now in jeopardy.

Last week, as CPW officials maintained they were just trying to do their jobs, a letter from the Yuma County Cattlemen’s Association said ranchers will be less likely to help Colorado Parks and Wildlife and open land to the public because of how the wolf reintroduction transpired. One or more of the wolves released in Grand County in December — which came from wolf packs in Oregon with a history of killing livestock — killed a calf near Kremmling on April 2. It was the first kill by one of the December wolves, although the predators from Wyoming who moved into Jackson County have already killed at least 16 livestock, sheep, and working dogs.

Commissioner Marie Haskett of Meeker addressed the wolf kill and CPW’s involvement during an April 5 commission meeting. “It’s been quiet, but depredation has begun,” she said. “I would like to ask people not to blame CPW for the wolf depredations. What we did was mandated (by law).” Haskett said the wolf introduction was the people’s will, adding, “We need everybody to work with us, so please remember that. And don’t hold it against CPW. It was just something that we had to do by law.” CPW Director Jeff Davis echoed Haskett, saying, “CPW is just implementing the law” Folks, he said, tend to see the agency as “doing this to them.”

Erin Karney, executive vice president for the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, isn’t buying that argument. Karney said the state agency decided which wolves would be brought to Colorado, including animals that came from packs with a history of killing livestock. As an agency, officials must take responsibility for releasing the wolves, Karney said, adding the officials know wolves are apex predators – that’s animals atop the food chain with no natural predators. Hence, Karney argued, it’s not reasonable for agency officials to claim they aren’t responsible.

During the April 2 hearing, Davis claimed that wildlife staff have attempted to minimize the conflicts, adding that the agency stands with ranchers “in their anger and their fear.” Davis, at times, became emotional when he spoke. “It’s so hard for me to hear what our staff are going through, being threatened, to be alienated in your own community because you’re doing your job,” he said.  To his staff, Davis said the executive management team has their backs. They would be there to pick one another up, learn from it, move forward, and adapt, he said.

Davis did not mention that ranchers and their allies have been asking the agency for months for a definition of “chronic depredation” that would allow ranchers who lose livestock to wolves to be able to use lethal methods to manage it .So far, the agency’s response is to suggest nonlethal methods that ranchers say don’t work. Don Gittleson, a rancher from Jackson County, told lawmakers a few days ago that it’s cheaper to lose a cow to a wolf than to pay for those nonlethal methods.

While CPW officials said they are not to blame for what has transpired since the wolves were reintroduced in Colorado, state ranchers have argued that is not entirely true. Davis and his staff told the House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee last fall they would do everything possible not to bring “problem” wolves to Colorado.  In fact, the state of Oregon reported that half of the 10 wolves sent to Colorado came from packs that attacked livestock eight times in 2023 alone. Two of those attacks took place last May, killing one five-week-old calf and injuring two four-to-six-week-old calves.

As ranchers prepare for calving season, which will continue from March through June, Colorado Parks and Wildlife urges nonlethal options for dealing with problem wolves. The agency has also pledged to hire range riders to patrol ranches. However, with 1,800 square miles and 70 ranches in Grand County, questions have surfaced about whether those range riders would be in the same part of the county as the wolves and if the agency is notifying ranchers when wolves are nearby. The agency’s black eye isn’t only about wolves. Lawmakers have sharply criticized the agency over its failure to communicate plans with ranchers and continued delay in coming up with a definition of “chronic depredation.”  On April 3, the agency advocated for a bill to add rare plants and invertebrates to species that may be studied and conserved during a hearing before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The bill is part of the “Nongame, Endangered, or Threatened Species Conservation Act.” House Bill 1117 won a 4-3 party-line vote from the committee, which sent it on to the appropriations committee, along with a nearly $1 million state cost.

The success of such a program will rely heavily on the agency’s relationships with private landowners, including ranchers. The state’s private land program notes how private landowners “partner with Colorado Parks and Wildlife on a myriad of research efforts through providing access, information sharing, and even financial contributions for research including studying population dynamics in species from mountain lions to elk.” Such a partnership could eventually include invertebrates. But given the soured relationship that occurred through the wolf restoration, programs reliant on private landowner partnerships could now be in jeopardy.  The letter from the Yuma County Cattlemen’s Association said across the state, landowners, including ranchers, “have opened our gates to CPW and members of the public who respectfully enjoy the use of our lands, be it for hunting, bird watching, recreation, and even star gazing.” That’s changing, the letter said, adding, “Private gates are being locked to CPW, making cooperation and management of wildlife incredibly difficult.”

The cattlemen’s group had demanded in February that the agency come up with a definition of chronic depredation within a week and stop denying help to ranchers, such as Gittleson, who have pleaded for the state to take action on wolves killing livestock.  Failure to define chronic depredation “will not only be another in a string of violations of trust but a significant disappointment,” the group said.

“We have all enjoyed working relationships with CPW in the past and would like to continue that relationship. Still, the failure to provide a proposed definition of chronic depredation would prompt our membership to support our fellow livestock producers most affected by these failures and lock our gates to CPW and the public, as well,” the group added.  The private land program boasts two million acres of private land that have been open to the public for hunting, fishing, and other activities.

Karney said Eastern Plains ranchers have been on the verge of potentially shutting the gates to wildlife officers, but that the development with the wolves and appointments to the wildlife commission that included animal rights activists have become the last straw. “It’s not just about wolves,” Karney told Colorado Politics. “It’s affecting everything that happened throughout the agency.”

A spokesman for CPW told Colorado Politics Monday that wildlife staffers are working on the definition of “chronic depredation.” It will go through the state’s regulatory process and will most likely be heard by the commission in June or July, the agency said.

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Article courtesy of ColoradoPolitics

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