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Colorado wolf kills calf in Grand County, first report since wolf reintroduction

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials confirmed the kill, which was reported April 2

UPDATE: APRIL 8, 2024  BY Marianne Goodland, Colorado Politics

As calving season reaches its mid-point, Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported on Monday that another calf was killed by a wolf, this time in Jackson County,

Wolf tracks were found in the area on Sunday, along with a dead calf with a partially consumed hindquarter. 

  • By Marianne Goodland, Colorado Politics April 4,2024 Gray wolf at Wild Animal Sanctuary. Photo by Kent Kanouse

The wolves officially reintroduced in Colorado last December — or one of them — killed a calf in Grand County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed Wednesday.  The report of the kill was made on April 2. A livestock producer contacted the state agency, which conducted a field investigation and confirmed the calf had been killed by a wolf, based on "multiple tooth rake marks on the calf's hindquarters and neck, and hemorrhaging under the hide," all consistent with an attack by the apex predator.  The Colorado Parks and Wildlife report said wolf tracks were found nearby. The agency's statement did not identify the wolf. The agency also did not say how many wolves were involved. This is the first report of a wolf killing livestock in Grand County since the state released the wolves in December.

Wolves in Jackson County have killed 16 cows and calves, working dogs and sheep. Those wolves, however, came into Colorado several years ago from Wyoming. Two wolves from that original group are still believed to be in Colorado. The dozen wolves in Colorado are all collared, although their offspring would not be. Colorado Parks and Wildlife said the producer would be eligible for fair market value compensation if a claim is submitted. More specifically, the calf’s owner can be compensated by the state for the animal’s market value up to $15,000.

Still, ranchers argued it's just not enough. “The incident, which resulted in the loss of livestock, underscores the ongoing challenges faced by ranchers in managing conflicts between livestock and wildlife," Tatum Swink, spokesperson for Colorado Cattlemen's Association, said in a statement. Colorado's reintroduction of wolves, which narrowly won in a 2020 ballot measure, created political shockwaves throughout the state. Ranchers and farmers lambasted the proposal as “ballot biology,” arguing that the animals would chomp into their businesses and the industry at large. And nearby Republican states including Wyoming, Idaho and Montana refused to provide wolves to Colorado, which eventually got them from Oregon.

Proponents argued that the apex predators would reestablish a healthy balance in the habitat. They said the gray wolves perform an important ecological function that affect other plants and animals; that, without them, deer and elk would overgraze sensitive areas, such as riverbanks; and, that their leftover prey serve as food for other scavengers.  Wolves were largely hunted out of existence in the state by the 1940s.

The wolf killing in Grand County occurred just as tension over their reintroduction swelled at the state Capitol and as relationships between wildlife officials and ranchers and farmers frayed. In January, Colorado lawmakers grilled officials from the Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, who found themselves on the hot seat after policymakers described communication failures and problems tied to the release of the wolves in Grand and Summit counties in December. The lawmakers said the state mishandled communications over the release and that destroyed trust with ranchers and landowners. They added those ranchers and landers are now saying they will no longer work with the agency on conservation issues. Dan Gibbs, chief of the Department of Natural Resources, apologized for the communication failures.  Lawmakers also hammered agency representatives over their refusal to come up with a definition of "chronic depredation" that would allow a Jackson County rancher to deal with two wolves — unrelated to the released wolves — that have killed 16 livestock and four working cattle dogs. And earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis' appointees to the state's parks and wildlife commission faced tough questions from the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which ultimately rejected two of the three, claiming they lacked the necessary qualifications to represent the constituents tied to those seats and as required by state law. Notably, Gary Skiba, a former wildlife biologist who was appointed to represent sportspersons, primarily hunting and fishing interests, faced the toughest queries, given his support and association with the state's wolf reintroduction efforts. Skiba ultimately withdrew his nomination and the Senate confirmed the other two nominees.  Fear of depredation had permeated Colorado's Western Slope following the decision of voters, almost entirely along the Front Range, to approve a ballot measure in 2020 to reintroduce wolves west of the Continental Divide.

In 2022, gray wolves attacked domesticated animals hundreds of times across 10 states in the contiguous U.S., including in Colorado, according to an Associated Press review of depredation data from state and federal agencies. The attacks killed or injured at least 425 cattle and calves, 313 sheep and lambs, 40 dogs, 10 chickens, five horses and four goats, according to the data. Other times livestock simply goes missing, such as two calves that Don Gittleson, a rancher from Walden, Colorado, said disappeared after wolves had passed through. Their industry-wide impact is negligible: The number of cattle killed or injured in the documented cases equals 0.002% of herds in the affected states, according to a comparison of depredation data with state livestock inventories. But such losses can be devastating to individual ranchers or pet owners.  Gittleson's experience epitomizes the worst fears among Colorado's ranchers — that, as wolves begin to make the valleys, lakes and peaks of the north-central Rocky Mountains their new home, depredation would intensify. They also worry that the Polis administration would renege on the state's promise to manage and remove wolves that prey on their cattle and sheep. They earlier complained that Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the agency tasked to manage the state's new wolf population, has become less cooperative and less transparent with ranchers.  Last Monday, Gittleson spoke in committee about a proposal that would have required livestock owners to use "nonlethal" deterrent tactics in order to get compensated for livestock killed by gray wolves. Despite implementing various "nonlethal" strategies recommended by the bill, such as range riders and fox lights, Gittleson said 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."

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