Wolves in Grand County

written by

Aila Holley

posted on

April 25, 2024

Wolves and livestock…I’m going to start off by saying like most things I fall pretty moderate on the topic. I rarely believe that an all or nothing approach to anything is the answer, everything has a cost and a reward. I believe that a properly balanced ecosystem is critical for the health and sustainability of our environment, food system, economy and lifestyle. I see the challenges on both sides of this. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is in the position to uphold the laws of the state and farmers and ranchers are working day and night to be stewards of the land and the livestock in their care.

If you are not closely following this conversation, a little history as to why this is a very relevant topic right now for the farm.  In 2020, Colorado voters passed Proposition 114 to reintroduce gray wolves into Colorado.  There were already some wolves that have naturally moved into the state from other areas.  There have been reported sightings in our area and north of us in Jackson County for years.  In December, 10 wolves were captured in Oregon and released in Colorado, at least 6 in Grand County (the county where we are located).  Over the last few weeks, there have been 6 confirmed young cattle killed by wolves in the area. 

I want to address some the comments I’m seeing and share some of my thoughts.  

“The wolves came from a pack known for depredation of livestock”

I’ll admit I heard this ‘fact’ and latched on to it as many others have.  My initial reaction was disappointment, I felt like taking animals known for killing livestock and reintroducing them in Colorado was only setting both the wolves and ranchers up for failure.  Before sending this out I wanted to dig a little deeper into it.  In a January 2 article in Colorado Outdoor, this is addressed.  The article states:  “There were two depredation events by members of the Five Points pack in July 2023. The state of Oregon has a Wolf Management Plan that details how to respond to livestock depredation and per the Plan, ODFW provided the producer with a lethal removal permit after they requested it. The producer’s agent lethally removed four wolves from the pack in early August. The pack has not depredated since.”  The whole article is available here.  

So yes animals came from that pack, but the specific problem animals had been eliminated before the wolves that were selected to come to Colorado were captured.  That does not necessarily mean they will only know to kill livestock for food, but I do believe that genetics and developed traits of a herd or pack do influence individuals.  

An example of this could be, if you’ve driven by our cow field recently, you may have seen a black heifer out on the road.  Her tag number is 1 because she was born first, due to the fact that her sire broke out of the neighbor’s field and got in with our cows.  Can I prove that she breaks out because of the genetic traits of her father?  No, but I still curse him when she’s on the road :) 

 “Farmers and ranchers will be paid $15,000 for losses” or “What’s a couple calves out of 1,000’s?”

Yes, ranchers and farmers with confirmed wolf kills are supposed to be compensated for at “fair market’ value.  That’s a hard number to come to in my opinion.  My guess is it will be based on commodity beef prices when the losses take place.  The market price for a cow, calf, steer or bull coming out of a feedlot is nowhere near the cost or value to us small, independent producers.  We don’t use commodity pricing as we are raising a very different product and offering it directly to you, making our ‘market value’ very different from the commercial cattle industry.

Our overall costs per head are far higher because smaller scale farms and ranches have few head.  We have time, energy, lack of sleep built into the value of each animal.  Not to mention at our altitude and climate, there’s an added value of replacement calves from cows that do well with both.  That’s not something that’s simply replaced with a check and a run to the sale barn.  It’s also important to account for the time, fuel and other expenses associated with going to buy 1 or 2 replacements after we invested the time, resources and energy in getting the calf’s we had born in our herds.  

Most of the people I know raising cattle in our area have dozens at most.  There are a few with a few hundred or more, but for many of us losing a calf or 2 is a big hit to our overall production for the year.  The stress of an attack within our fields causes stress for animals that were not necessarily injured.  In order to get the best ‘reimbursement’ we need to have health records dating back 3 years prior to ‘wolf pressure’ in the area.  We did not learn about this requirement until just weeks before the wolves were released in our area.  I only know of one family that has records detailed enough to meet the requirement.

Additionally the time and resources needed by both the producer and the state to confirm and verify these losses and the value is a cost neither side can afford right now.  Plus the CPW investigation must be 51% sure it was wolf activity leading to the loss.

 You can see the compensation amounts to ranchers with losses here.  So far only one that was for $15,000, it was for a working dog and the first report following the release of the relocated wolves.  I know the most recent losses say “No claim submitted”, I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that it just has not been filed yet, most likely due to the time required to get it all submitted.  The ranchers that get the payments for lost animals are getting a small amount to offset what they truly lost, it’s in no way making any of them ‘rich’



“Wolves belong and cattle don’t” 

I guess there was a time where that may have been very true for the soil in which our state and county are on.  Cattle were introduced to North America by European settlers in the early 1500’s.  Long before towns, roads, football stadiums, factories, ski resorts and most settlers of European, African and Asian decent.   Before cattle and everything else we have developed in the last 500 years, bison roamed the plains with packs of wolves following them.   That movement kept the soil healthy and drought resistant.  The human population was limited and food was hunted and gathered.

When we talk about the rotational grazing of our cattle to help better balance the cycles of plant, soil and water to closely mimic the ancient herds, Asa will often say the we “act as the wolf” in the way we keep the cows moving to new ground daily.  We do this on about 100 acres vs 100s of thousands like the wild packs used to.  The only way to go back to a truly ancient ecosystem is to go back to an ancient way of life.  Hunting and gathering for your own family or tribe.  No roads, cars, cell phones or restaurants.

“Wolves help balance wildlife”  

I feel like we will see this eventually to some degree.  For quite sometime the deer and elk populations in our area have had minimal pressure from apex predators.  Though especially in our area the herd faced some great stresses following the changes after the fires of recent years, we have been seeing more and more deer, elk, and moose in town than in years prior to the Troublesome fire.

The wild grazing herds no longer move great distances, they are able to stay in more concentrated areas.  While hunting is one way to help manage population, I don’t think most hunting is done in a holistic manner.  Meaning a good number of the animals harvested by the top apex predator of all, humans, are hunted for being some of the biggest and strongest animals in a herd, actually reducing the overall herd health.  Wild predators often kills the older and weaker animals in a herd which helps to strengthen the herd.  

The flip side to this is cattle and other livestock are much easier prey than wild animals.  Wild herds are  accustomed to having to travel distance to stay safe.  Our domestic animals often can’t escape a predator because they are fenced in.  The very thing we use to try to keep them safe and contained, actually can be a detriment in this case.  I liken it to the difference between cooking a meal from scratch and going though a drive-thru for a dinner that’s already prepared.  The home cooked meal is clearly the better choice but sometimes the easier option is so appealing and once that habit starts it’s so hard to change. 

“It’s the responsibility of farmers and ranchers to protect their livestock”

Absolutely!  Livestock are domesticated animals, they depend on our care and protection.  Just like we don’t make Archie, our ‘farm’ dog hunt for his own food and we don’t make the farmhands hunt or trap for hides to make clothing, we have a responsibility as livestock producers to help our animals survive in the environment they live in.  Every farm and ranch is different and then is no one size fits all approach to protecting livestock.  What is possible and successful for one area may not work in another.   I will speak to some of the measures we have taken in the past and are adding now.

One challenge I see is we have generations of both ranchers and livestock that have not had to coexist with an apex predator.  We raise mostly Scottish Highland cattle which are very well suited for our climate and have the added protection of thick heavy coats and horns.  That puts them in a better position to protect themselves and their calves than most cattle.  We also keep a mixed age herd, meaning our first time heifers are calving along side cows with years of experience and along with them young feisty steers.   We are adding “fox lights” to our cow field, a tool we have used for years with the poultry we raise and we hope they will add a layer of protection.  All livestock owners in our are working to add layer of protection as we all adjust to this new paradigm. 

Our cow and calves are in a field separate both our home and other livestock, we make many trips a day during calving season to check them. In the summer move them to new paddocks using managed grazing, which is one of the suggested anti-conflict tools suggested by Colorado Parks & Wildlife.  Ultimately we can’t be with the stock 24 hours a day and  don’t know a rancher that could and would be able to raise a product that would be in any way affordable. We do our best to protect the animals in our care.  

In the case of the protected wolves, we have lost one of the oldest methods of protecting our livestock: lethal force for active or recurring predators.  I truly believe that a number of the wolves that have naturally migrated to Colorado from Wyoming have come because while they are fully protected in Colorado they can  legally hunted in ‘Predatory Animal Management Areas’ in Wyoming.   On our farm, we use lethal force as a last form of protection.  We often allow fox and coyotes to travel though our fields since in many cases they offer more benefits than harms, but if they become opportunistic predators we take steps to protect our domestic animals.

“Wolves kill for fun or sport” 

Humans and the animals that we have domesticated, are really the only species that are able to live lives of abundance and general pleasure.  Animals in the wild have a single focus: survival.  So they must eat, procreate and adapt to the environment.  For us to project our ability to hunt, eat, and live with the idea of ‘fun’ in mind is to foist our way of life onto natural (or rather wild) environments where it does not belong.

It takes a great deal of energy for wild animals to hunt wild prey, so while it happens occasionally, surplus kills are very rare.  In nature things rarely go to waste.  When a wolf kills more than they can eat at that time what’s left is cleaned up by other scavengers.  A large number of domestic animals contained by pens or fences will appear to be a surplus to a wild animals accustomed to hunting prey that can scatter great distances as a defense.

A wolf can eat up to 20lbs at one time, so they will often eat that much at the time of the kill.  Since there are limited numbers of wolves, they are not hunting in packs and so will only be able to consume a small portion of the animal killed, making it look like it was done in sport.  When a prey animal is found with only organs consumed, that to me, is a big sign that it’s a kill of survival.  The hunter got the absolute most nutrition possible from the energy used to make that kill.  Again humans are the only ones that can look at the most nutrient dense part of the animal as waste. 

The thought that bringing animals back to the land where they once lived is ‘returning’ them is false.  We must consider our modifications to that environment in the time the wolves were gone.  We can’t just change one factor and think we will balance an ecosystem that has undergone hundreds of changes in that time.

Two big issues come into play when the wolves start hunting domestic animals.  1: since the domestic prey - cattle, sheep and the like are not used to being hunted, they often start to run in circles triggering the prey response in the predator.  Which can lead to more animals being injured or killed than would happen when hunting wild prey.  2: the wolf can be startled off before it has a chance to eat its fill when it makes a kill on a farm or ranch and means that other scavengers don’t eat of the carcass the same way wild prey would be.  I referenced National Geographic and Living with Wolves for information on this topic.

If cases occur that a specific animals is engaging in surplus kills, it’s an animal that has become urbanized and is presenting more domestic traits. It would make sense to remove that animal from breeding so that it’s not a continued trait.

Thoughts?

There are no easy answers around this topic.   Ultimately we live in this complex democracy, where nothing is perfect and we often have to adjust to rules that don’t make sense 100% of the time.   I feel for both sides trying to muddle our way though this new context.  The Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers are in a position where they are working to protect the wildlife and lands under their care.  In this case they are in the position of interpreting and upholding the law, no matter their personal feelings on it.  CPW is helping livestock producers to reduce conflict with the wolves.  Farmers and ranchers are working so hard to maintain a historical way of life, to feed our communities, protect lands, water, soil and the animals in our care.  Those of us who have picked this way of life are committed to making the absolute best of it.  Losses in our fields are felt deep and personally, we don’t do it for fame or riches but because we truly believe it’s a way of life that should be preserved for future generations.  

My biggest hope with this is we can have respectful conversations about this topic. In order for us to all coexist, we have to find common ground.  That starts with respect and the willingness to understand others’ points of view.  

What are your thoughts on wolves being reintroduced in Colorado?

Aila

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