Colorado’s wildlife authorities intend to introduce gray wolves within the following weeks, following the request of city dwellers and against the wishes of rural inhabitants who oppose the presence of these predators but hold less sway in the predominantly Democratic state.
The recent wolf reintroduction project in the U.S. is the most ambitious in almost 30 years and is a significant change from the previous approach of Republican-led states to reduce wolf populations. Additional releases are scheduled for Colorado in the coming years, helping to close one of the few remaining gaps in the western U.S. for a species that used to exist from northern Canada to the desert southwest.
The act of reintroducing wolves, which involved releasing a maximum of 10 wolves, became a divisive political topic when Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, all controlled by the Republican party, refused to contribute their wolves. In the end, Colorado authorities sought help from another Democratic state, Oregon, to obtain wolves.
As excitement builds among supporters of wildlife, who have initiated a competition to name the wolves, ranchers in the Rocky Mountains where the releases will take place are feeling anxious. They have already witnessed glimpses of what may come as a few wolves that migrated from Wyoming in the last couple of years have attacked and killed their livestock.
There is concern that these attacks will exacerbate the current trend of perceived attacks on rural areas in western Colorado. This is due to the state’s liberal leaders prioritizing clean energy and tourism over traditional economic pillars like fossil fuel extraction and agriculture.
It is especially frustrating for rancher Don Gittleson that his fellow Colorado residents, through their limited support of a 2020 ballot measure, have allowed for the reintroduction of wolves. Despite strong opposition in less populated counties where the wolves will be released, the vote was carried by suburbs and cities along Colorado’s Front Range, which includes Denver. This includes the district of conservative Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert.
According to Gittleson, the urban areas were the ones that supported the decision, despite the fact that many of those residents are unable to distinguish between a wolf, coyote, or dog. Gittleson, who runs the Sherman Creek Ranch in northern Colorado, has experienced at least six of his cows and calves being killed by wolves in recent years, marking the first recorded wolf attacks in the state in over 70 years.
In the year 2022, there were numerous incidents of gray wolves attacking domesticated animals in 10 states in the contiguous United States, including Colorado. This information was gathered from depredation data provided by state and federal agencies and reviewed by the Associated Press. The data shows that these attacks resulted in the death or injury of 425 cattle and calves, 313 sheep and lambs, 40 dogs, 10 chickens, five horses, and four goats. In some cases, the livestock was reported as missing, such as two calves that were said to have disappeared after wolves had been in the area, according to Gittleson.
The impact of these losses can be extremely damaging for ranchers and pet owners. However, when considering the entire industry, the effect is minimal: Based on a comparison of depredation data and state livestock inventories, the number of cattle affected in documented cases only accounts for 0.002% of herds in the affected states.
Ed Bangs, a former biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversaw the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, stated that 95% of ranchers in Colorado will not face any issues. He noted that approximately 4.5% may have occasional problems every few years, while only one or two individuals may experience issues every other year. He does not believe these incidents are significant enough to cause ranchers to go out of business.
“If it were my livestock and my livelihood, I would be angry,” he stated.
Elected officials like Boebert are using opposition towards wolves as a means to gain political advantage. Boebert, for example, proposed a bill to remove remaining federal safeguards for wolves. This tactic may not heavily influence an election, but it is advantageous for candidates like Boebert to exploit cultural grievances in order to garner support. Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, stated that this is often done when there are no other pressing issues available.
The Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife plans to release a population of 30 to 50 wolves over the course of the next five years.
In order to alleviate concerns from the livestock industry, ranchers who experience losses of livestock or herding/guard animals due to wolf attacks will receive compensation equivalent to fair market value, with a maximum of $15,000 per animal. However, residents of Colorado who supported the reintroduction of wolves will need to adjust to the idea of wildlife agents killing wolves that target livestock.
Several wolves have been slain after they entered Wyoming from Colorado. This state has designated a “predatory” area for wolves that encompasses a large portion of its territory, allowing them to be immediately shot.
According to Matt Barnes, a range scientist specializing in mitigating conflicts between carnivores and ranchers, the heated political discussions surrounding predators have been disconnected from the practical realities. As a former rancher himself, Barnes believes that there is a feasible solution that allows for both agricultural practices and wildlife to coexist on the same land.
According to Barnes, the debate is not primarily about the animals or land, but rather about conflicting beliefs on humanity’s role in a world that extends beyond just humans.
Officials in Colorado have a comprehensive plan in place to discourage wolves from attacking livestock. This includes using flashing lights along fence lines and propane cannons that emit loud noises. Another tactic is attaching fabric streamers to fences to dissuade wolves from entering ranches. However, these methods are only used for a limited amount of time as the predators can become accustomed to them.
The population of gray wolves in the United States drastically decreased in the 1930s due to government efforts to poison and trap them. In 1975, they were granted protection as an endangered species, with only an estimated 1,000 remaining in northern Minnesota.
Other states have fully embraced the presence of gray wolves since their reintroduction. Currently, there are approximately 7,500 wolves in 1,400 packs residing in various parts of the contiguous United States. The populations are notably growing at a faster rate in Oregon and Washington, both of which are Democratic states where wolves are naturally re-establishing themselves after being reintroduced to nearby states.
In states such as Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, where hunting wolves is permitted, there has been a push from Republican-dominated legislatures to decrease the wolf population by relaxing regulations on predator hunting and allowing individuals to take more kills. This resulted in an increase of wolves being killed in Yellowstone, but did not significantly impact the overall wolf population. Officials in these states claim that this approach has helped lower the number of livestock attacks as wolves have become more cautious of human interaction.
The increased number of killings has caught the eye of President Joseph Biden’s administration. They are contemplating reinstating federal protections for wolves in these states due to recent laws that have made it significantly easier to kill them. This area is the only part of the United States where wolves are not currently under federal protection.
For the past ten years, officials within the Interior Department have been attempting to eliminate protections for wolves in the rest of the contiguous United States. This effort began during former President Barack Obama’s administration and was ultimately achieved under former President Donald Trump, but was later overturned by a federal court ruling.
A proposal is expected to be submitted in early February. If the protected status of wolves is removed, it would allow for potential hunts of predators in Colorado and other states, with individual states making their own decisions.
Last month, Brain Anderson discovered three deceased lambs on his family’s ranch near Gittleson’s Sherman Creek Ranch. One had been partially consumed while the other two appeared to be untouched except for bloodstains on their wool.
According to Anderson, he will receive reimbursement, possibly at the market rate of approximately $300 per animal. However, he states that the monetary value is not his primary concern. He also mentions that he will be unable to provide three customers with lambs this year.
However, his main focus is not the potential long-term effects on ranching, as long as compensation is provided for livestock losses.
“Will there be an impact on individuals in the coming four years? Absolutely. Will farming and ranching continue to occur? Without a doubt,” he stated.
Brown wrote from Billings, Montana. Thomas Peipert in Denver and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming also contributed to this report for the Associated Press.
Connect with Brown on X, formerly known as Twitter, using his handle: @MatthewBrownAP.