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Wolf deterrent methods aren’t working, ranchers say, after seventh cow is killed

Funding for a range rider hasn’t stopped wolves from killing calves
Colorado Parks and Wildlife released five gray wolves onto public land in Grand County on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Grand County ranchers say three calves were killed by wolves in the month since they were given $20,000 to hire a range rider to protect their cattle, and they’re demanding more action from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. But CPW says there’s not enough proof to confirm wolves transplanted to Colorado were responsible for more than one of the three dead calves found on May 11 and remains unwilling to kill the large predators, according to ranchers.

The stockgrowers wrote yet another angry letter to CPW director Jeff Davis requesting wolf No. 2309 and wolf No. 2312 be removed from the Williams Fork River Basin. Their request, dated May 23, references a rule in the Colorado Wolf Restoration Plan that lays out certain conditions under which a wolf can be killed even in phase one of the plan, “when there are fewer than 50 wolves anywhere in the state for four consecutive years.”

Wolves captured in Oregon were released on Colorado’s Western Slope in December, as directed by voters. Five were placed in southwestern Grand County. Five others were released in Summit County. Since then, CPW has released maps each month showing the animals ranging into drainages south of Interstate 70 in Eagle County and to the Wyoming border and well into Larimer County in the north.

If ranchers catch a wolf in the act of killing livestock or stock dogs, they can legally shoot and kill the predators. But several ranchers have said they would prefer the state solve the problem.

The stockgrowers say they remain “extremely frustrated” by CPW’s “repeated refusal to resolve the conflict these wolves are causing,” especially given the wolf management plan’s requirement that restoration of wolves in Colorado “must be designed to resolve conflicts with persons engaged in ranching and farming.”

The stockgrowers wrote that even if only one calf was killed on May 11, the agency now has the evidence it needs to remove the two wolves, based on criteria in the wolf management plan.

The circumstances include the following, the ranchers wrote:

  • Documented repeated depredation and harassment in a limited geography

The stockgrowers say six of the seven confirmed cattle kills since April 2 were on the same ranch in the Williams Fork River Basin, meeting the limited geography criteria. An eighth confirmed kill occurred Saturday in Jackson County, according to a CPW register of confirmed depredations.

  • The likelihood that additional and continued wolf-related mortality would continue if control were or is not implemented

Ranchers say the wolves have averaged one kill per week since April 2 on the Williams Fork ranch, and that when multiple ranchers in the vicinity of the wolf killings move close to 2,500 cows to the area in the coming weeks, it will “bring the male and female wolves into conflict with a much larger number of livestock” and increase the potential for attacks.

  • Previously implemented practices failing to reduce depredation

Stockgrowers say previously implemented practices of deterring wolves, including the use of nonlethal methods like firecrackers, spotlights and fladry have not only failed to keep wolves out off their ranches, but range riding – a method in which riders guard cattle by disrupting wolves’ hunting patterns – has also failed to stop the killing.

Range rider is struggling to be effective

Tim Ritschard, president of the stockgrowers association, said the ranchers hired a range rider after the Colorado agriculture department in April gave Grand County ranchers $20,000 to try to stop wolves from harassing and killing their cattle.

The range rider, whose identity Ritschard declined to release, “is a local, born and raised here, so they’ve been around cattle basically their whole life,” he said. “That was one of the big reasons we went the route we did.”

The rider goes out seven nights a week starting at 10 or 11 p.m. and ending around 4 or 5 a.m., he added. They carry cracker shells, a nonlethal munition that sounds like a bullet firing, and spotlights to deter the wolves if they see them.

The rider uses thermal imaging to document wolves if they are spotted. Ritschard emailed two such pictures to The Colorado Sun, both taken from a distance and slightly hard to decipher. He said they show a wolf at a distance of about 600 yards away.

Ritschard said things haven’t been going as well as some might have hoped, however, “because the producer and their family have been seeing the wolves sometimes at 7, 8, or 9 o’clock, right before dark. And then they’re seeing them again in the morning, as soon as the range rider leaves.”

“So that’s why we’re saying they’re becoming habituated,” he added. “They’re starting to get adjusted to range riders. The rider is finding the cracker shells aren’t really working.”

He added he is hearing from producers that “CPW is not helping the range rider do their job,” even though, “when we agreed to this with the department of ag, we said we want CPW to be in constant communication with our range rider.”

Rachael Gonzales, CPW spokesperson, said the agency does update ranchers on wolf locations but “locations are general and not point specific, because wolves can move great distances and we do not know precise locations at any particular point in time.” She added CPW staff answer to ranchers fairly regularly on inquiries of wolf locations, either confirming wolves are in the area based on collar location data, or answering that there are no known wolves in the area in question.

However, CPW will not provide specific location or specific animal information related to depredation incidents, she added, nodding to a regulatory exception that allows CPW to withhold information that “reveals the specific location or could be used to determine the specific location of ... an individual animal or group of animals.”

Ritschard said his CPW area wildlife manager was helping the range rider but left due to mental hardships from the strain of wolf reintroduction. Ritschard was then instructed to contact the regional manager, who told him to “keep the range rider in the Williams Fork (area),” he said.

Ritschard said he followed CPW’s instructions. “And now I think we need to change that because these wolves are getting smarter. They don’t run off like a coyote would when the range rider fires cracker shells at them. They just lay down in the sagebrush or walk off.”

Nonlethal deterrents aren’t working, he said. And that’s a big reason why the stockgrowers are again asking CPW to step in and kill wolf No. 2309 and wolf No. 2312.

In the letter sent May 23, the stockgrowers demanded a response from CPW over the long holiday weekend. “But we expect they’re not going to respond,” Ritschard said. “Or they’re going to just say the same thing they’ve been saying.”

On Tuesday evening, CPW’s deputy director Heather Disney Dugan responded. She wrote “lethal control of the identified wolves by CPW is not appropriate under the circumstances” and that the agency “has a different perspective than the association on some of the things stated in the letter.”

Dugan added that Davis, on leave this week, is looking forward to meeting with the stockgrowers to tour the area in June, “to get a better understanding of your members’ operations and how the members have been impacted by wolf reintroduction.”

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

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