Skip to content

Environment |
The wolves are coming to Colorado, and the state has stockpiled explosives and deterrents. How are ranchers preparing?

Prevention methods are costly and uncertain, ranchers say, as they await apex predator’s arrival

A wolf track is seen in the snow at Don and Kim Gittleston’s ranch
A wolf track is seen in the snow at Don and Kim Gittleston’s ranch on January 25, 2022, near Walden, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 8:  Elise Schmelzer - Staff portraits at the Denver Post studio.  (Photo by Eric Lutzens/The Denver Post)

Brian Anderson and his father were completing their early morning chores on the ranch and loading cattle into trailers when they found the dead sheep, 200 yards from his house.

A wolf killed the three lambs overnight on Nov. 17. One lamb was partially eaten. The wolf left the other two whole.

Anderson looked for tracks in the snow at the ranch, located just south of Walden. He found nothing. He called the local wildlife manager, who examined the carcasses and confirmed them as wolf kills.

Ranching with wolves has been a reality for people in Anderson’s community since 2019, when a wolf migrated south from Wyoming and established a small, now-dwindled pack.

In the coming weeks, ranchers in other parts of Colorado will have to learn to live with the apex predators, too, under the country’s first voter-mandated wolf reintroduction. After years of public meetings, planning and controversy, Colorado’s ranching community — bracing for the relocation of wolves to the state by Dec. 31 — is weighing methods to protect their livelihoods from a carnivore not seen in large numbers here in nearly a century.

“It’ll be interesting to see what December brings us,” Anderson said.

On the precipice of reintroduction, ranchers say they feel trapped by a bevy of unknowns. They don’t know exactly where the wolves will be released. They don’t know if any of the methods promoted by the state wildlife agency or nonprofits to prevent attacks will work for their ranches. They’re hesitant to invest in expensive prevention gear or make expansive, long-term changes to their operations without knowing more about how wolves will act here and where they will go.

“We don’t know what it’s going to be like,” said Renee Deal, a fourth-generation sheep rancher based in Gunnison County. “A lot of the stress is the unknown.”

This December 2018 photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows the breeding male of the new Chesnimnus Pack caught on camera during the winter survey on U.S. Forest Service land in northern Wallowa County, Oregon. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP, File)
This December 2018 photo provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows the breeding male of the new Chesnimnus Pack caught on camera during the winter survey on U.S. Forest Service land in northern Wallowa County, Oregon. (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP, File)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife plans to capture several wolves in Oregon and release them in Summit, Eagle or Grand counties by the end of the year. The wolves are expected to immediately disperse from the release site by up to 70 miles and stay on the move for weeks. The agency hopes to continue releasing more wolves through the winter — up to 10 — as they’re captured in Oregon.

Over the next five years, the plan is to bring up to 50 more wolves to Colorado from other states.

Voters in 2020 narrowly approved the reintroduction effort, which drew almost all of its support from urban voters. In the three years since, ranchers in the rural communities where the wolves will land first have reckoned with what the species means for their livelihoods and way of life.

“There are those of us who aren’t one way or the other — we’re just trying to carry out the tradition of a ranching operation as best we can,” Anderson said.

Interviews with Colorado ranchers and wildlife experts underscored the ways that conflicts over wolves often serve as proxies for deeper societal rifts.

The animals have become a flashpoint for disagreements about federal versus state control, the rural-urban divide and the use of public and private property, said Kevin Crooks, the director of the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University.

Matt Barnes, a rangeland scientist and former ranch manager, pointed to the creature’s symbolic value: “Wolves are referents for nature in general, and disparate views of what nature is and how we humans relate to or fit into it. How much wildness can be allowed in a working landscape? That’s a question that reflects a deeper question, like: How much wildness can be allowed in a civilized culture?”

An anti-wolf sign stands in a field on January 25, 2022 outside Walden, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
An anti-wolf sign stands in a field on January 25, 2022 outside Walden, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Deterring wolf attacks

But now ranchers are sorting through more immediate, and pragmatic, questions. And it’s Adam Baca’s job to help them navigate the coming change.

Hired in 2022, he is Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s first wolf conflict coordinator — one of several agency positions now dedicated to wolves. He’s tasked with helping ranchers use non-lethal tools to minimize conflict with the predators as well as answering their questions and working with outside groups that want to help.

He and others with the state’s wildlife agency have stockpiled stashes of wolf-deterrence supplies in the areas where they plan to release the transplants. The supplies to scare the canines away — LED lights, cracker shells, propane cannons and electrified fencing — will be lent out to ranchers who have wolves in their vicinity.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials previously said the agency would try to give at least 24 hours’ notice to ranchers living near the first release site in the north-central mountains, but they could not guarantee it.

Since 2019, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has confirmed that the wolves that migrated from Wyoming have killed five dogs, 13 cattle and Anderson’s three lambs. Wildlife officials believe two of the eight wolves in the North Park Pack remain in the area. At least four members of the pack were legally shot and killed just across the Wyoming border.

Baca has been living in a trailer in Jackson County since he was hired. Once the reintroduced Oregon wolves establish a territory, Baca will move to that area.

“I’m trying to lessen the learning curve that others might have to go through based on what happened in Jackson County,” he said.

Ranchers can try a variety of tools to ward off wolves. Dogs, donkeys and mounted riders can help scare them away. For a short period, bright flags tied on fencing or scare devices, such as motion-activated sirens and pyrotechnics, can keep the canines at bay.

But not all methods will work for all operations. And no method will work perfectly in perpetuity.

“As with all things science, trying to prevent things 100% is not possible,” Baca said.

When prevention fails, ranchers will be allowed to kill a wolf if it is caught in the act of attacking livestock or a person, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife rule finalized in November. State wildlife officers also will have the ability to kill or relocate wolves that repeatedly kill or injure livestock.

Ranchers can apply for compensation for animals killed by wolves. The agency will use money appropriated from the state’s general fund to pay a fair-market price of up to $15,000 for each animal killed. It also will cover veterinarian bills, up to $15,000, for injured animals. State lawmakers set aside $175,000 to pay for killed and injured animals in the first year and $350,000 for each year after.

Baca has been meeting with ranchers across the state to hear their concerns and talk about conflict prevention.

“You get a broad spectrum,” Baca said. “That’s part of meeting people where they’re at — some people are ready and willing to implement these tools, and some aren’t. Some will express frustration, and some won’t.”

CSU’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence also hopes to help ranchers pay for prevention methods. The Wolf Conflict Reduction Fund already paid for trail cameras in Jackson County to help monitor calving pastures.

“These are considerable costs for ranchers who are often on the edge economically,” said Crooks, the center’s director. “Some of this will take considerable funding, but less funding than trying to address conflict after it happens.”

Most ranchers won’t experience direct conflict with wolves, Crooks said, and the wild canines have a relatively small impact on the broader livestock industry.

“But some ranchers will experience conflict — and for those individual ranchers, the economic and emotional impacts are real,” he said.

Proposition 114 results map for Colorado wolf reintroduction ballot question

The fund is a chance for people who voted to reintroduce wolves to help pay for the consequences borne by those who voted against the reintroduction but now live with its impacts, Crooks said.

Only 13 of Colorado’s 64 counties in 2020 voted in favor of the reintroduction, which passed 51%-49% and by fewer than 60,000 votes. Eight of those counties are on the densely populated Front Range, whose residents are unlikely to have a wolf in their backyard.

“I would feel a lot differently about this issue if it weren’t a voter mandate from people who will have zero effect on their lives,” said Deal, the Gunnison County sheep rancher.

“An expensive proposition”

As reintroduction and its unknown consequences approach, ranchers are weighing risks: How much money should they spend preparing for wolves that may or may not come to their properties? Is waiting until an animal is killed or injured too late to act?

Lenny Klinglesmith ran the numbers on what it would cost to install fladry — bright red flags tied to fencing that are believed to keep wolves away — on all the calving pastures he uses in the spring: $150,000. He decided not to spend the money yet.

“Preparing for wolves, it’s an expensive proposition,” he said while moving cows last month.

In total, his combined operation of private land and leased public land near Meeker spans 80,000 acres — more than four times the land mass of Boulder. He’s looked at how much it would cost to hire more riders to supervise his herds, but that’s not cheap, either. While a greater human presence could ward off wolves, the likelihood that a rider would be in the right place at the right time to witness a wolf attacking a cow is extremely slim, he said.

It’s more likely the rider would find a carcass.

Klinglesmith is also worried that the elk and deer herds he helps by managing his animals’ grazing will draw more wolves to his vicinity. A lifelong resident of northwest Colorado, he enjoys having the wild animals around and contributing to their wellbeing. But if the wildlife become a draw for wolves, he may have to reconsider his practices.

Klinglesmith for two years helped form the state’s wolf management plan as a member of the state’s Stakeholder Advisory Group. During that time, he said he came to accept the wolves and changes that were coming, though other ranchers remain bitter.

“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “But we’ll get through it and we’ll find a way. We don’t have any choice.”

In March, Anderson used 1.5 miles of fladry borrowed from CPW to ward off wolves from his calving area near Walden. No animals were killed and Anderson said he thinks it’s the best tool to deter wolves in the short term.

“But it would be an astronomical amount for us to go out and buy fladry, if you can even find any,” he said.

Deal is running her own calculations. Her family runs about 6,000 sheep every summer on 20,000 acres of national forest land near McClure Pass, south of Carbondale.

Being proactive for the sake of being proactive, she said, doesn’t make financial sense.

“There’s not a lot we can do to prepare,” Deal said. “Everyone says you need to prevent, prevent, prevent. But there are major challenges with that.”

The family already uses guard dogs, and sheepherders stay with its two herds. But many of the other tools promoted by CPW and others won’t work well for summer operations, she said.

Lights and sound equipment wouldn’t be effective on large swaths of land. There are no roads to their permitted grazing land — everything must be packed in by horse, and their permit allows only two horses per herd of sheep. It would be near impossible to bring in fencing and relocate it when the sheep are moved on to their next grazing spot.

And their U.S. Forest Service permit regulates those movements. So if they wanted to change their grazing plans to avoid wolves, they’d have to obtain approval first.

“Kind of getting the cart before the horse is difficult,” Deal said.

Beyond “glorified scarecrows”

Beyond flags and fencing and explosive tools to scare off wolves, some are advocating for a more long-term solution to minimize conflict with livestock.

“They’re all glorified scarecrows,” Barnes, the rangeland scientist, said of deterrence tools such as fladry. “Just like a scarecrow, the effect wears off in time.”

State officials have helped Don and Kim Gittleston install an electric fence to help protect their herd from wolves on January 25, 2022, near Walden, Colorado. The Gittlestons have lost three cows to wolves, said Don Gittleston. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
State officials have helped Don and Kim Gittleston install an electric fence to help protect their herd from wolves on January 25, 2022, near Walden, Colorado. The Gittlestons have lost three cows to wolves, said Don Gittleston. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

One strategy? Teaching cows and sheep to act more like bison.

Here’s how proponents say it works: Ranchers train their herds to respond calmly to stresses and to learn that they are safest from threats when they gather close together. Wolves prey on animals that panic, flee and separate from others. Training livestock to stick closer together and face wolves as a group, instead of scattering, can reduce killings.

The wolves, seeing that the herd is a more difficult meal, would search for something less risky to eat.

The training takes weeks and must be redone periodically, but the method works well even on Colorado’s vast rangelands, said Karin Vardaman, a co-founder of Working Circle, a nonprofit that aims to help ranchers successfully coexist with wolves. Vardaman traveled to North Park to work with ranchers there, and she said they have had success with the methods.

Other longer-term options include trying to time calving season with the months when deer and elk also are giving birth, providing wolves with more non-livestock prey options. Or ranchers could move cattle away from deer and elk entirely so the wild animals won’t draw wolves to their herds.

But reconstructing how a large operation handles its animals, grazing and birthing is easier said than done — and often comes with other consequences, Deal said.

For example, ranchers could condense their herds since it’s easier to protect calving cows on a 40-acre pasture than an 80-acre pasture. But calving in a smaller space heightens the risk of disease.

“I think in peoples’ minds who aren’t in the producer business and don’t really understand it — which is most people — they don’t realize all these other factors in play,” she said. “Everyone around us is saying what we should or shouldn’t be doing.”

Instead of fladry and lights, Deal is focusing on getting her records in order so that if animals go missing or are killed, she will be ready to apply for state compensation. She’s encouraged other ranchers to get to know their local district wildlife managers.

“There’s not really a whole lot more we can do, physically,” she said.

Part of the stress from the reintroduction is the potential to lose animals and income, Deal said. Part of it is the unknown. Another slice is the negativity the ranching community in Colorado has felt over the highly visible and highly contentious issue.

Ranchers are viewed by some as bloodthirsty, she said, and she’s seen and heard hateful comments online and at public meetings.

“I just want people to understand the amount of stress and heartburn and worry in our whole community,” Deal said. “It’s a huge unknown. There’s a general lack of empathy in our society and trying to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Ranching and wildlife can coexist, Klinglesmith said. His family has worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife for more than 15 years to make its lands the best habitat possible for elk, deer, sage grouse, trout, waterfowl and native plants. He fears that if ranching becomes less sustainable, western Colorado’s vast open spaces will slowly be sold off and developed.

“They like to paint ranchers out as wolf haters,” he said. “But the open space has to keep producing enough of a living to make it possible to keep it an open space.”

Get more Colorado news by signing up for our Mile High Roundup email newsletter.