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Colorado ranchers who have lost livestock to wolves want to know if anyone hears them

Cattlemen say lethal force needed to get rid of the problem
At the end of the night watch shift, Don Gittleson closes the gate Jan. 23, in Walden. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

WALDEN – Sunrise is burning off the fog that hovers over the flatlands and above the frozen creeks, leaving a pink glow on the snow.

The wolves usually come under the cover of fog, just before dawn. The black ones are easier to spot against the white backdrop of miles and miles of snow-covered ranchland.

Don Gittleson, his wife, Kim, and their son, Dave, take turns sitting in a pickup truck through the night, keeping their eyes on the cows for signs that they’re nervous, that maybe the wolves are back. Dave Gittleson’s dog fogs up the truck windows, but she knows before he does if the wolves are nearby, and she sits up at attention in the dark.

Three of the Gittlesons’ cows are dead and a fourth was injured because of the wolf pack. A neighbor a few miles away said two of his dogs were killed by wolves – one that died on the front porch after dragging itself home in December, the other torn apart about 200 yards from their house in January.

Other residents of North Park, a hunting and ranching community where there is less than one person per square mile, have spotted the wolves chasing antelope. Even before the livestock kills in December and January, the pack that moved down from Wyoming was the talk of town among the locals eating breakfast burgers and green chile burritos at Mad Moose Cafe on Main Street.

North Park is ground zero in Colorado’s wolf controversy. Almost no one here supported the 2020 ballot measure to reintroduce wolves to the state. And now that the wolves have arrived on their own, wandering across the Wyoming state line and helping themselves to cattle, residents here are wondering whether the city dwellers who voted to bring back wolves will finally understand what they’ve been saying.

“I don’t think they care, no matter what we say to them,” said Kim Gittleson, sitting at her kitchen table with tired eyes after another night on wolf watch. “These cows are our living. We don’t want to see that happen to our cows, not just because it’s our livelihood. It’s just sad to see any animal tortured that way that you cared for.”

It would be easier, many locals say, to “shoot, shovel and shut up” when wolves prey on their livestock, although getting caught shooting a protected species could mean a $100,000 fine and a year in jail. The Gittlesons, though, said they are reporting every wolf sighting and attack to their local Colorado Parks and Wildlife agents, seeking government compensation for their dead cows, and asking for help to scare the pack away from the ranch.

Heads up. This story contains graphic imagery of livestock after a wolf attack. Discretion advised.

The Gittleson ranch has become the case-in-point for what can happen when wolves learn they can take down a cow and keep coming back for more. Some unlucky rancher has to talk about it in the hopes of swaying public opinion, even a little, Don Gittleson said. Ranchers get that wolves are coming – through natural migration and next year, government reintroduction – but they want the right to use lethal force to defend their livestock and livelihood. Otherwise, North Parkers will quietly shoot wolves.

“If we wanted to shoot the wolves, we could have stopped this day one,” Dave Gittleson said. “We could’ve gone out there and wiped out the pack. Done. But that’s not a long-term solution. Don’t shoot the wolves. Everything we just lost would be for nothing.”

Instead, North Parkers are working together to protect their cattle – and to make a point.

A group of 14 came to the Gittlesons on Monday to surround the pasture perimeter with an electric line of red flags that the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered from Montana. All day, they trudged through 2 feet of snow, planting posts in frozen ground.

Don Gittleson, who runs the ranch alone on weekdays while his wife and son work other jobs more than an hour away in Steamboat Springs, is exhausted from staying up most of the night for weeks. They’re hoping Colorado Parks and Wildlife will come through on hiring a range rider, someone to patrol the ranch in the dark, but they have their doubts.

It makes the Gittlesons chuckle that the state would require the range rider to have a COVID vaccination. It’s just one more example, they say, of how urban Colorado and its government does not “get” them, seeing as how the range rider would sit alone on a four-wheeler or in a truck on a ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Like the infamous “MeatOut Day” controversy of last spring and the proposed ballot measure that would have defined artificial insemination of cows as a criminal sex act, the wolf debate has widened the cultural divide. Ranchers feel their way of life is under attack, or at the least, misunderstood.

“It’s not just a Democrat-versus-Republican divide. It’s urban versus rural,” said Coby Corkle, who grew up in Walden and is a Jackson County commissioner. “Rural Colorado is really just trying to hold on.”

Gov. Jared Polis is not popular here. Neither is First Gentleman Marlon Reis, an animal rights advocate. North Park ranchers were fuming last week after governor-appointed State Board of Veterinary Medicine member Ellen Kessler called ranchers “lazy and nasty” and accused them of using a cow to bait wolves in a comment on Reis’ Facebook page. They cheered when she apologized and resigned from the board a few days later.

The sentiment up here, in the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado,” is made clear by a sign east of Walden. “If you voted for reintroduction of wolves,” it says, “Do not recreate here. You are not welcome!”

A tractor transports hay for cattle on a ranch outside Walden on Jan. 19. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
‘They’re out there’

Don Gittleson was one of the first to report to wildlife officials that wolves had returned to Colorado after being killed off about 70 years ago. Elk hunters staying in a cabin on the ranch saw a wolf in the hills in the fall of 2020. Don and his grandson saw one on a mountain near the ranch that fall, too. And then last February, they found wolf tracks in their driveway.

The day after the Gittlesons reported the tracks to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the agency spied a male wolf from a plane, then tranquilized and collared him. The wolf, officially known as M2101, was with a female that had already been collared by Wyoming officials. She is known as F1084.

The pair, named “John and Jane” by Gov. Polis, soon had six pups, and now they are a pack of eight. Meanwhile, the Gittlesons say there are two other, uncollared adult wolves – one black, one gray – each traveling alone.

That makes 10.

So even before the Gittlesons lost their first cow, they were worried.

It was a few days before Christmas, and Don Gittleson thought he heard noises in the night. All was quiet when he walked out onto the front porch, but he woke up in the morning to find some of his 250 cows in the wrong place, including a calf that was in his front yard. Magpies and crows were circling. “I knew there was going to be a problem because there were too many birds,” he said.

A 600-pound heifer – a female cow that was weaned in the fall – was devoured down to the ribs. Blood covered the snow and hundreds of wolf tracks circled the body, pieces of which were dragged off into nearby piles.

Since then, Don Gittleson has slept only a few hours each night, usually waking up multiple times to listen from the front porch.

A Wolf Moon on Jan. 18, in Walden. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
Don Gittleson during a night watch on his ranch on Jan. 23, in Walden. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

After the heifer was killed, the Gittlesons moved adult cows into the pasture with heifers, thinking that larger cows would deter the wolves. For a couple weeks, they thought they had solved the problem. They found wolf tracks, and photo evidence from the game camera that they were there, but no cows were attacked.

Then on Jan. 18, Don awoke to again find cows on the wrong side of the fence. “I had cows where I thought they weren’t supposed to be, then I saw six wolves come up out of the bottom of the creek,” he said.

After watching the wolves emerge from the willows and run across a snowy field, Don called their local wildlife agent and he and Kim hopped in their tractor. In a creek bed, they found an injured, pregnant cow standing atop bloody snow. Her hamstrings were ripped up, and her back end was so damaged that she could not defecate or urinate. The cow was in shock and shaking.

Don consulted two veterinarians and, hours later after a vet visited the ranch and CPW investigated, put her out of her misery. “She got to suffer the whole day,” Kim said. Wildlife officials hauled off the body.

A second cow had an injured back leg, but was put on antibiotics and survived. An elk was injured by wolves on the same night, the Gittlesons said.

And the next morning, they woke up to more dread.

Another 1,200-pound, pregnant cow was dead in a pasture a few hundred yards from the Gittlesons’ home. Magpies and crows were circling pink snow. The wolf pack had eaten most of her, including the calf she was carrying, which the Gittlesons say could have sold for up to $5,000.

Kim was crying under her sunglasses. Don was angry, forced to spend another entire day dealing with an investigation and a carcass.

“They chased an elk into the cows and made the cows run,” he said. “Then it was game on. They figured out how to kill big cows.”

Don left this one lying in the snow, in the hopes that if the wolves returned for a third night in a row they would eat the leftovers instead of going for another cow. A game camera they set up next to the carcass captured only smaller scavengers – birds and a fox.

But Dave Gittleson, sitting in his truck with binoculars, spotted the wolves at 3:30 a.m. by the light of January’s full moon, called a wolf moon. His mother, who took the 4:30-7:30 a.m. shift, heard the cattle scatter about 5:30 a.m. She immediately turned on her headlights and started to drive. At least one wolf was there, because CPW confirmed the collared male was at the ranch.

Since then, Kim and Dave have taken as many days as they can off work in Steamboat to stay at the ranch, helping Don with night watch. When Dave Gittleson is in Steamboat, where he works as an excavator, he checks his phone first thing for photos from the game camera. When he sees a wolf, he immediately calls his dad. “They’re out there,” he tells him.

Don Gittleson awaits help from another tractor after his gets stuck in the snow while gathering his cows closer to his house on the ranch the morning of Jan. 19, in Walden. The cows were chased miles apart overnight during the wolf attack. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
‘We could put it to a revote’

A few miles south of the Gittlesons, Carlos Atencio doesn’t let his dogs or his son get far from the house anymore. He believes wolves killed two of his four dogs, though only one was confirmed by wildlife officials as a wolf kill.

In early December, their rescue pup, Scooby Doo, named by Atencio’s 12-year-old son, was “ripped up and left for dead.” The dog crawled home, even though his hamstrings were torn up, and died on the porch. At the time, about two weeks before wolves killed Gittleson’s heifer, Atencio figured Scooby Doo was a victim of coyotes. He didn’t report the dog’s death.

About a month later, his border collie Buster was torn to pieces, his body surrounded by wolf tracks in the snow. The tracks led up to the door of the insulated doghouse where two collies, Buster and Izzy, used to sleep. Izzy showed up on the front porch at 5 a.m. full of snow, “looking like she had been rolled a couple of times.”

Atencio’s mind was on coyotes as he looked for Buster, who wasn’t coming despite Atencio’s whistles and calls. But when he saw the size of the tracks that packed down the snow, he was sure it was wolves. The paw prints were the size of grapefruits, he said, not lemons.

“I called CPW the minute I saw the wolf tracks,” he said. Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed that wolves had killed Buster.

Like many in North Park, Atencio would like the right to shoot a wolf that’s preying on his animals. By spring, his ranch will have 2,500 to 3,000 cattle whose owners lease the land. Even if he were to see a wolf chasing a cow or one of his two remaining dogs, he could not kill it.

Don Gittleson makes a phone call with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife to report a heifer carcass, killed by wolves, on his ranch early Jan. 19, outside Walden. The CPW district managers later investigated to confirm the cow was killed by a pack of wolves that migrated from Wyoming. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

“That’s what puts us on the front line of this thing in a bad spot,” she said. “When you’re far removed from the places that we’re living, you are not seeing the reality we face. We can’t let our dogs out of the house.”

When wildlife officials came to investigate Buster’s death, Atencio asked them if they could check whether the collared male wolf was in the area the night Scooby Doo died. He was.

Atencio wonders what will happen after Colorado releases more wolves to the Western Slope, since the ones that migrated naturally have already killed livestock and dogs. “When you go hiking in Colorado, most people bring their dog. I believe a dog will attract a wolf to you,” he said. “Eventually there is going to be a human-wolf interaction.” (Wolf attacks on humans are rare but have been documented in Canada and a few U.S. states, including Minnesota and Idaho.)

He and others wish there was a way to stop or postpone the reintroduction.

“If there was any sort of legal way we could put it to a revote,” he said, “or maybe the governor could put it on pause for now.”

‘They’re forcing our hand to become criminals’

Don and Kim Gittleson, who both grew up in Steamboat, have been ranching together for 40 years, including the last five on the 11,000-acre ranch less than 20 miles from the Wyoming border. They lease the public land from the state and live in a small house just across the driveway from the pasture.

Kim jokes that Don, now in his 60s, is still obsessed with his “hobby.” The lease costs them $80,000 per year, and that’s not counting their ranching expenses, including the tractor and hay bale spinner and the rest.

They’re filling out the necessary paperwork to get reimbursed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife for the dead cows, which are valued at what they would have sold for on the day they died. Ranchers in North Park are quick to explain that that’s not the true cost of their loss. With the two pregnant cow deaths, the Gittlesons lost out on the chance to sell those calves, as well as the future years that those cows could have more calves.

And the wolf kills have stressed out the herd, which could lead to lower weight gain and a higher rate of miscarriage. One cow lost her calf after the heifer was killed, though it’s impossible to prove it was related, the Gittlesons said.

“These cows are stressed. They were all over this place, bellering, a low, stress beller,” said Kim, describing the morning the last cow was killed. Don shakes his head. “They smell blood,” he said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife district manager, Zach Weaver, investigates the 1,200-pound cow carcass, killed by the wolves earlier in the morning, on Jan. 19, in Walden. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
A wolf track, near a heifer carcass, with a sharpie-sized pen placed in the snow for scale seen Jan. 19, in Walden. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
Colorado Parks and Wildlife district manager, Zach Weaver, picks up urine sample during the investigation of the heifer carcass, killed by the wolves earlier in the morning, on the ranch Jan. 19, in Walden. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Phillip Anderson, a Walden rancher and president-elect of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, loses four or five lambs and one or two calves per year to predators, usually coyotes. He’s never seen a wolf on his ranch, and never lost an adult cow to a predator. When a coyote took down a ewe, wildlife officials gave Anderson and his son permission to set a trap. They caught the coyote the next night.

“The people in the city, they are so far removed from agricultural life anymore,” he said. “The majority of them, they don’t understand that come October, November, that’s the only paycheck we get. If the wolf has eaten part of my paycheck, there are some things that you have to go without. We don’t get paid for what we don’t take to the sale barn.”

Anderson, a retired ag teacher whose ranch was homesteaded in 1919 by his ancestors, fought against the wolf reintroduction measure, which passed by just 1% of the vote. Voters statewide got a say, even though the question was whether to release wolves on the west side of the Continental Divide.

“There are probably not a whole handful of people here in North Park that are in favor of reintroducing wolves,” Anderson said of the area, which has a population of about 1,600.

“We are trying our hardest to work with CPW. We have not gone out there and shot them. We have not harassed them,” he said. Ranchers weren’t given permission by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to haze wolves – either by shooting rubber bullets, chasing them in vehicles or four-wheelers, or putting up the electric-flag fence now on the Gittleson ranch – until this month, soon after wolves killed Antencio’s second dog.

Anderson, and many others, doubt the hazing efforts will be enough. Ranchers are being backed into a corner, he said.

“I don’t want to tell you what will happen,” he said, while sitting in his tractor. “If we see a wolf without a collar depredating livestock, how is CPW going to figure out who shot it? They are forcing our hand to become criminals.”

Colorado wildlife and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are scrambling to tamp down the wolf controversy, and CPW’s statewide community meetings set up to plan for reintroduction by the end of 2023 have taken on an unexpected urgency.

Adam Van Valkenburg, president of the North Park Stockgrowers and a rancher with 200 head of cattle, said he was shocked to learn that Colorado had no wolf-deterrent fence – called turbo fladry – in the state.

“We are overwhelmed right now. Everybody is behind,” said Van Valkenburg, who was among those who helped the Gittlesons put up the flag fence last week, digging up frozen ground at 10-below zero. “We are tired. We are worn out. We have jobs to do, too. We are trying to do the right thing for the wolf. But everybody is overwhelmed with the wolves we have now, let alone reintroduction.”

If the wolves come to his ranch, Van Valkenburg would need help from the rest of the ranching community, too, he said. “We came together to do the right thing.”

Like others, he wishes folks from Denver could experience ranch work for even a day. “It would be great to have those people see that and understand that,” Van Valkenburg said. “People don’t get what they are asking for.”

“There is just a lot of politics, a lot of emotion on both sides. We want the wolves to be managed. You go to Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, where lethal control is an option, every wolf up there that is doing the same thing undoubtedly, unquestionably would be taken care of.”

“This is just a confirmed eight wolves. We know there are more out here.”

For the Gittlesons, the wolf watch is fraying their nerves. When Kim Gittleson loads her truck before dawn on Monday mornings to head back to her job at the sheriff’s office in Steamboat, she’s watching over her shoulder.

“The problem is we all have to go back to work,” she said. “You have one man here who is trying to watch his cows all night, feed them, take care of them all day. And according to (the USDA,) if he watches them all night and sleeps in the day, they’ll just come kill them in the day.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

Heifer cattle move across the ranch outside Walden on Jan. 19. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)