Cat Urbigkit: The Colorado Wolf Mess

Columnist Cat Urbigkit writes: "In the current situation, it doesnt matter how many times those wolves kill cattle, or dogs in ranch yards, the wolves can suffer no consequences."

Cat Urbigkit

July 06, 202210 min read

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by Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon with cattle producers in North Park, Colorado at a gathering to discuss the wolf situation in that area. I met a community of ranchers who are struggling to understand how they can continue their cow/calf ranch operations amid a fully protected wolf population.

Thanks to a court order issued by a Northern California federal judge, wolves in Colorado are granted full endangered species status, so that wolves can only be “taken” in an act of self-defense, or in defense of others. Taking is defined to include “harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, or collecting.”

This is the most restrictive management regime for any species. Even when wolves were under federal protection during the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction program, they were treated as though they were a threatened population, allowing more management flexibility.

But that’s not what Colorado producers are dealing with. Colorado’s wolf population originated when wolves crossed the state line from the predator zone in Wyoming, stepping into Colorado and into the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Confounding the problem is Colorado’s ballot-box-biology that requires state officials to release additional wolves in the state by the end of next year. Those additional animals will acquire full “endangered” status the second their paws hit the ground.

According to a letter to Colorado officials from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, harassing wolves is prohibited, and harass is defined as “an intentional or negligent act or omission which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavior patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”

Instead, Colorado officials and landowners are to minimize wolf-conflict risk “in an opportunist and non-injurious manner” through “appropriate hazing methods and techniques” to “discourage wolves from the immediate vicinity of livestock, a human-occupied residence, or other human-occupied area on both public and private lands.”

According to FWS, hazing methods that may be used “include, but are not limited to, carcass management, physical barriers (i.e., fencing and electrified fencing), guard animals, auditory and visual scare tactics (i.e., fladry, lights, sirens, cracker shells), increased human presence/vigilance, or any combination of these measures.”

Guardian Dogs

I was invited to meet with the North Park group because there is an interest in using livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) as well as other non-lethal measures to help protect area cattle herds. But LGDs don’t just arrive prepackaged and ready to go. Using LGDs with range cattle is a new challenge in the United States, as cattle generally don’t have the flocking behavior that allows the dogs to work so well with sheep or goats. While there are some circumstances where guardian dogs work well with cattle, I’m afraid that for most of the North Park producers, it doesn’t seem a great fit.

It is critical to set livestock guardian dogs up for success, and the process begins with they are young pups, bonding them to the livestock species they will grow up to protect. But these North Park ranches are already within the territory of a pack of six wolves, and that pack has already killed a herding dog, and injured another, inside a ranch kennel.

How is a livestock producer supposed to start a pup and ensure its survival into adulthood in the middle of a wolf pack? The North Park pack has repeatedly killed cattle on several ranches. How many guardian dogs would be needed to hold that 6-member pack out of the cattle? The odds for success is stacked against the producers, and the risk to young livestock guardian dogs would be substantial. It takes time to obtain a pup, raise it, and build up a LGD pack that would be capable of protecting livestock against a pack of six wolves. What if that pack produces pups again this year, and becomes larger?

How can I advise North Park cattle producers to start a LGD program under these circumstances? I can’t. It may be an option for some producers, but it not a cure-all for the current situation, and isn’t a viable option for ranches already within a wolf pack’s territory.

We toured one ranch just north of Walden where the cattle weaning pens would provide a fairly defensible space when the cattle are held there in the winter – but it is adjacent to a busy highway. It takes a lot of time and supervision to get a LGD into adulthood where it can really be effective – but to do it next to a highway would almost surely end in tragedy. In sum, while some individual livestock producers may be willing to try developing their own LGD program, it isn’t necessarily the answer for the majority of ranches in the area.

Other Methods

We also talked about guardian donkeys, another non-lethal deterrent that ranchers can try, but are known for generally limited effectiveness when it comes to wolves. In some areas, donkeys become preferred prey for wolves (rather than a deterrent).

We talked about a wide variety of grazing practices, livestock husbandry practices, human interference methods, and physical barriers like night pens and corrals, and other deterrents – from visual and sound devices, and the use of fladry. Most of these methods hold promise for small pastures, but generally aren’t viable for range cattle production.

Human presence has traditionally been the best deterrent, but even that has its limits. Wolves in our area simply changed their habits, making kills of our livestock and engaging in fights with our livestock guardian dogs between midnight and 4 a.m. – the few hours of the night we humans are sleeping. Our colleagues in France report that when they night-penned their sheep in electrified pens, the wolves began killing sheep during the daylight hours. When herdsmen refused to take their herds into mountain pastures because of depredations, wolves moved to begin killing stock outside of lowland villages. Wolves are intelligent creatures, and as we try to adapt to them, they adapt to us and our tactics.

Wolf advocates will claim that livestock producers need to take simple steps to protect their livestock, but they ignore the difficult reality on the ground. They also claim that “only” a small number of livestock are killed, and producers are reimbursed for their kills, so it’s really not a big deal. That conveniently ignores the myriad of problems and impacts that are caused by wolf attacks on domestic livestock. The reality is that indirect costs nearly always exceed the direct death loss from wolf depredations.

What’s Needed

North Park cattle producers are already in an impossible situation. The tools that are offered to them have very limited effectiveness, and wolves quickly adapt to our tactics. In the current situation, it doesn’t matter how many times those wolves kill cattle, or dogs in ranch yards, the wolves can suffer no consequences. They will learn that, and the situation could certainly get worse.

Even knowing all this, the North Park Cattle Association members I met with were committed to doing their best to minimize conflicts. Not once did anyone say that they hated wolves. In fact, with one producer told the group that he finds wolves to be fascinating creatures, but he hated the position livestock producers were in under current federal wolf management.

Producers talked about their concerns for basic livestock husbandry while stewarding their lands with this new challenge. They also noted the inequity of impacts caused by wolves, with producers tending to larger herds just as concerned with small herd owners. It was noted that an investment banker who owns a ranch may be able to invest considerable money for applying non-lethal tools, and can sustain a higher level of losses, than a young couple trying to grow their agricultural enterprise.

These cattle producers understand the need to minimize conflicts with wolves, but the options available to them are limited. The conflict reduction framework outlined by the Western Landowners Alliance provides a more comprehensive system to support conservation of wildlife in working landscapes. It includes interconnected components of conflict prevention measures such as the hazing methods suggested by FWS, lethal control to reduce damage, compensation, and local collaboration. Colorado producers need access to all 4C’s (compensation, conflict prevention, control & collaboration), and wildlife managers should be empowered with all these tools to reduce conflicts.

The Future

Since wolves produced a litter of pups in Colorado last year, North Park cattle producers have been inundated with outsiders advising them to take simple measures to protect their herds. I say that anyone who begins a sentence with “you should …”  should themselves shut the hell up – you know not of which you speak. No two ranches are alike, and what works on one outfit might not be appropriate for another. One thing I am sure of though, is that the North Park producers will remain stewards of the land and the animals they share their lives with, while they try to navigate this difficult conflict.

As Colorado officials move forward with the voter mandate to release more wolves, there are two potential actions that could provide relief to cattle producers. The first is that FWS may allow the wolf release under a 10j rule of the Endangered Species Act, which would designate Colorado’s wolf population as “experimental” and treated as though it were a threatened species rather than an endangered species. The second is that FWS is currently conducting a status review on wolves, which more than likely will recommend a downlisting or delisting for wolves in Colorado since the agency had already determined that wolves in the Northern Rockies no longer need federal protection.

But either of those measures that could allow wildlife managers more flexibility in dealing with wolves that repeatedly kill livestock could be protested by wolf advocates. After all, it was the wolf advocates that took legal action leading to the current mess for Colorado livestock producers.

The federal decision that brought fully endangered status to wolves in Colorado was the result of lawsuits filed by certain non-governmental organizations. The list includes Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Humane Society of the United States, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, and the National Resources Defense Council.

I’ve yet to see any of these organizations express support for the 4C’s conflict reduction framework to ensure landscapes where people, livestock, and wildlife all thrive. They should step up and do that now – unless conflict reduction isn’t one of their priorities.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist