Colorado to hire range riders to protect livestock in wake of wolf depredation in Grand County

A rancher who has lost livestock to wolves say it’s another tactic that doesn’t work.

It’s spring, and for cattle ranchers, that means calving season. It’s also the time of year when those newborns are most susceptible to all kinds of dangers.  In Colorado — and for the past several years — that danger includes wolves.

Initially, it was the wolves that came into Jackson County from Wyoming and killed 16 cows, working dogs and sheep. Most of them belonged to rancher Don Gittleson. Those kills included calves, as reported by Gittleston two years ago, right in the middle of calving season. This week, a calf in Grand County was killed by one or more of the wolves released in that county last December by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The wolf reintroduction came after voters, almost entirely along the Front Range, voted narrowly to approve releasing wolves west of the Continental Divide in 2022.

The agency would not say which wolves from the Oregon pack were responsible. Some of the 10 wolves that came from Oregon came from packs with a history of livestock kills, although Colorado Parks and Wildlife would not say whether the wolf or wolves that killed the calf earlier this week came from one of those depredating packs.

The rollout of the wolf reintroduction has earned the state, including Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a black eye from ranchers who say the agency failed to communicate with ranchers, local officials and anyone else during the reintroduction.

The agency’s response to ranchers asking for help has so far been to recommend “nonlethal” management techniques, which ranchers say is no deterrent. That’s included fox “strobe” lights, flags and even donkeys, sent by the state, to ward off wolves.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Agriculture announced last night they’re hiring range riders to protect livestock.  Gittleston said that’s just another tactic that doesn’t work. Gittleson, who has lost at least six or seven cows to wolves, and possibly more, told a House committee earlier this week nothing has proven effective enough at keeping the wolves away. He estimated that his ranch has invested as much as $90,000 in “nonlethal coexistence strategies,” including range riders and strobe lights .”It is cheaper to lose the animals and not get paid for them than it is to pay for the nonlethal,” he said.

The two agencies announced they are “working on a plan to get on-the-ground assistance within the next two weeks with range riders.” A Colorado Parks and Wildlife statement said “a human presence like a range rider can help detect wolves and deploy non-lethal deterrents to avoid depredation of livestock.” “While this request for range riders is pending at the legislature, CDA and CPW are deploying other available resources to provide immediate support and are working on a plan to deploy on the ground assistance through range riders this month,” the agency said.  But unless the agencies are planning to hire dozens of range riders, it may have little effect in Grand County, according to Commissioner Merrit Linke, himself a rancher. He said he has not heard from either agency since the news broke about the wolf kill yesterday, although he believes they have been talking to the ranchers.  Linke said there have been wolf sightings and location information that says the wolves were spotted near housing developments near Granby and even entered the grounds of Snow Mountain Ranch, a popular YMCA facility.  He estimated there are 70 ranches with at least 10,000 female cows in his 1,800-square mile county, and most are calving. At this time of year, the livestock are congregated in the lower elevation parts of the county because of the snow, Linke said. He believes that makes them easier pickings for the wolves, he said.

Logistically, where would the range riders be placed? Linke asked.  The other problem, he said, is getting real-time information about wolf locations, which would help producers know when they need to patrol. Otherwise, it’s a “crapshoot” he said. “We appreciate the help and want to work with CPW and the Department of Agriculture, but logistically it’s going to be really tough to figure out how to make it effective,” he told Colorado Politics.

But there’s another concern for his ranchers — what happens in the fall, when calves are weaned. Ranchers will keep a few heifers — the younger cows that haven’t had offspring yet — but they lack the protective instincts of a mother cow. The second problem is that in the fall, that’s when mother wolves are teaching their cubs how to hunt. Nobody’s thinking about that, Linke said. And those young cubs are not getting collared, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Then there’s a third issue, and that’s the history of the wolves that came from Oregon, a state with a population that’s close to Colorado’s, with big and small communities, according to Linke.  The wolves that came from Wyoming know how to fear people and houses, Linke said. The wolves from Oregon could be desensitized to people and human activity. That the wolves have already been near housing developments in Granby and Snow Mountain Ranch shows they are desensitized to humans. “They’re not necessarily scared of people” or wary of being around housing developments, Linke said.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife statement pointed out the state’s wolf depredation compensation fund has $175,000 available and will receive another $350,000 in the 2024-25 state budget. The agency is also seeking nearly $500,000 for “nonlethal” wolf depredation assistance. “Following the recent incident in Grand County, CPW staff will continue contacting producers in the area, and encouraging the use of appropriate non-lethal deterrents available through the agency,” the agency said.

Article by: Marianne Goodland

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