Don Gittleson, on Dec. 26, 2021, discusses how the wolves entered his ranch outside Walden from the steep hillside and where he found the carcass of a heifer calf inside the corral during the previous week. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The wolves aren’t waiting.

It’s been a year since mostly urban Colorado voters narrowly approved Proposition 114, a plan to reintroduce wolves to the Western Slope’s public lands — a plan with a deadline that’s still two years away.

But on Dec. 19, Don Gittleson, a rancher in North Park near the Wyoming border, lost a heifer to a wolf — the first confirmed wolf killing of livestock in Colorado in more than 70 years.

The wolf that brought down the heifer was one of a pair that have settled in Jackson County and is the parent of pups discovered in June, officials with Colorado Parks and Wildlife said. Colorado law prohibits killing wolves, which Gittleson said leaves him with insufficient options to protect his herd. 

“I can’t stay up all night to watch my cattle,” said Gittleson, who runs about 170 mother cows on his Jackson County ranch. “If the pro-wolf people want to come up here and do it for me, that would be fine.”

Now, as state officials move forward with a planning process to reintroduce wolves no later than the end of 2023, Gittleson’s heifer raises questions about how to bridge a stubborn urban-rural divide. 

Proposition 114 passed in 2020 with just 50.9% of the vote, largely thanks to urban Front Range voters. In Denver and Boulder counties alone, two-thirds of voters cast “yes” votes. But in rural Colorado — including much of the Western Slope, where the measure calls for wolves to be reintroduced — the vote swung hard the other way. In Jackson County, where Gittleson’s ranch is located, 86% of voters said “no.”

The prohibition on killing wolves loomed large in a public engagement report released in November that summarized meetings and comments from more than 3,400 people as state officials sought feedback on how to implement the law. 

The report largely found the same divisions that defined the wolf debate before the vote: advocates say reintroducing wolves will help restore balance to Colorado’s wild ecosystems. But those who will live closer to wolves are far more wary — and want the legal right to kill wolves that threaten livestock. 

Count Gittleson among them. 

“There will be conflict” between ranchers and wolves, Gittleson told The Colorado Sun. “Pro-wolf people think we’ll kill them all. But when we’ve had coyotes that go after our cattle during calving season, if we shoot a couple, the rest get the message and move on.”

The recent wolf kill has made life harder, said Gittleson, who runs the ranch with his wife, Kim, and occasional help from his sons. 

“I work the cows alone with dogs, but now they don’t like dogs anymore,” he said. He brought the cows off the rangeland he leases from the state and has been keeping them penned up, which he says increases their risk of disease. 

“They’re like scared kids,” he said. “It will take time to get them calmed down again.”

Angus steers feed on hay during the snowstorm on Don Gittleson’s ranch at the bottom of Medicine Bow Mountains on, Dec. 26, 2021, near Walden. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Meanwhile, the wolves continue to prowl around the ranch, mostly at night, Gittleson said, offering photos of tracks and animals he says are wolves as evidence.

“Now that they’ve figured out there’s a food source here, they’re probably going to keep coming back,” he said. 

Gittleson first spotted a wolf near his ranch last January. In June, wildlife officials determined the male wolf Gittleson saw was one of a breeding pair, later dubbed John and Jane Wolf by Gov. Jared Polis, a wolf reintroduction advocate

The last wild wolf was likely killed in Colorado in 1945, but as Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have reintroduced them, a handful have wandered into Colorado. A group of at least six was documented wandering through the state’s far northwestern corner in 2020, though several of the group are believed to have been shot in southern Wyoming. 

Hunting wolves is legal in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Alaska. Gray wolves were delisted from the federal Endangered Species Act in 2020, though they still are considered endangered under Colorado law. 

Much of Colorado’s wolf reintroduction plans are still in the works. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has yet to announce how many wolves they plan to release, what their target population size will be, or where on the Western Slope they’ll be released, CPW spokesman Travis Duncan said. A final plan isn’t expected until late 2022 or early 2023. 

Also in the works: figuring out how to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to wolves, a requirement of Proposition 114. Gittleson said he’s been working with CPW staff to be paid for the heifer he lost, which he values at $2,000-3,000. 

Colorado has long compensated ranchers fair market value for income loss to wild animals, a fund Gittleson has previously drawn from after elk got into his feed hay.

Don Gittleson allows a working dog hop in the tractor with him before transporting the hay on the ranch, Dec. 27, 2021, outside Walden. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Other states that have reintroduced wolves have developed similar programs.

Montana lawmakers in 2007 created the Livestock Loss Program to compensate ranchers who lost cows, sheep and other livestock to wolves and grizzly bears. They added mountain lions to the list in 2019 and upped the livestock loss program’s funding to $300,000, from $200,000.

In 2020 Montana’s Livestock Loss Board distributed $192,000 to about 100 ranchers for 155 cattle, 92 sheep and 26 goats killed by predators. The board counted 58 of those cows and 49 sheep killed by wolves.

In 2021 the board distributed more than $270,000 to repay more than 100 ranchers who have lost 169 head of cattle, 147 sheep and 20 goats. Wolves were responsible for killing 49 of those cows and 15 of the sheep. The board expects the value of lost livestock to eclipse its annual budget in 2021.  

“How is there not room for wolves?”

The troubles of Colorado ranchers must be balanced against the potential benefits of wolf reintroduction, said Rob Edward, a strategic advisor for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project,  a nonprofit consortium that championed Proposition 114 and helped write the ballot language.

“Wolves are a critical player in the evolutionary arc of wild North America,” Edward said. “Because of the way they hunt, they have an outsized impact on keeping the landscape healthy.”

Unlike ambush hunters like mountain lions, wolves “get in the face” of prey, Edward said, helping move deer and elk populations around

“It prevents overgrazing, and keeps plants and animals healthy,” Edward said. “On a long-term timescale, that’s important.”

Wolves are a crucial piece of restoring functioning landscapes in the face of climate change, Edward said. 

“In riparian areas where beaver have been allowed to thrive, they create strips of rich habitat that are protected from wildfire,” he said. “The forest may burn, but those swaths of biodiversity are proving to be essential to resilience. You know what’s important to beaver? Stands of willow and aspen. You know what helps maintain stands of willow and aspen? Wolves moving elk around to keep them from browsing saplings to the ground. There’s a complex web of life at work here.”

The wolves wandering into Colorado aren’t plentiful enough to reestablish a thriving population in the state, Edward said.

“We’ve been blessed to have a few come here and reproduce, but they’re on thin ice,” Edward said. “In order to ensure wolves have a fair chance at reestablishing a foothold as an ecological force, we have to physically transport them here.”

Edward pushed back on concerns raised by commenters in the public engagement report that Colorado has grown too crowded to successfully reintroduce wolves, unlike more sparsely populated states to the north.

“We have a mind-boggling amount of public land,” he said. “We have the largest elk population in North America. How is there not room for wolves?”

Allowing ranchers to kill wolves that threaten livestock could have troublesome downstream consequences, Edward said. 

Two gray wolves in northwestern Montana are captured on camera by wildlife biologists. (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)

“Depredation might initially go down, but if you’re talking about killing an alpha of a litter of pups, those pups aren’t going to learn to hunt elk – they’re going to start going after easier prey like cows and sheep.”

Edward said he would tell Gittleson, “This is not going to be easy. You’ve lost one cow, and you might lose more. But there are ways we can help mitigate and prevent future losses.”

Edward endorsed a number of mitigation methods, including the possibility of providing state funding for a team of range riders to patrol grazing allotments, or paying ranchers for the presence of wolves on their private property.

The public engagement process also asked concerned ranchers about other non-lethal methods of keeping wolves at bay, including keeping cattle herds more tightly bunched, employing more guard dogs, and making sure killed livestock are swiftly buried or removed from the range.

Each of the methods met with significant skepticism from ranchers, according to the report. Respondents often said the methods sounded expensive, ineffective or impractical given the constraints of labor, time and distance. 

Commenters on either side of the issue, the report says, “frequently felt that the other side was perpetuating a myth or misperception of the likely ecological impacts of wolves in Colorado.” 

Bridging the chasm won’t be simple, but it’s possible, said John Sanderson, who heads the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University. 

Bridging the chasm

“If we’re going to succeed with conservation, we can’t approach it as a partisan issue,” said Sanderson, who sits on CPW’s Wolf Engagement Technical Working Group, an advisory board helping to draft wolf reintroduction recommendations. “This isn’t even a purely ecological issue. It’s fundamentally a human issue.”

Despite the closeness of the wolf vote, Sanderson said public opinion polls consistently find a vast majority of Coloradans care about wild places, consider themselves conservation-minded, and want the state to maintain or increase funding to care for public lands.

“Colorado is more open-minded than the rhetoric would have you believe,” he said. “People make a bunch of assumptions, and there are few things people feel as passionately about as wolves. But they’re coming, and not everyone can get what they want.”

Sanderson said the Center for Collaborative Conservation is focused not on advocating one way or another for wolves, but in helping battling camps find common ground. There’s precedent for compromise and coexistence, he said. 

“Take black bears,” he said. “Over the decades Coloradans have gotten much better at living alongside bears. We’re better at storing food safely, keeping trash locked up, and learning proper camping practices. And, sometimes, CPW has to put down a bear that’s become too habituated to humans.”

In the past year, the center published a series of informational packages on living alongside wolves, and hosted a speaker series that featured wolf advocates and opponents at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. 

The science and practice of predator coexistence has come a long way since wolves began to be reintroduced in the northern Rockies in the 1990s, he said. 

“None of these methods are perfect, and many of them cost time and money,” he said. “But they provide a lot of value.”

Sanderson said he sees hope for consensus building in recent developments with the Technical Working Group, like broad support for a proposal to allow ranchers to more directly haze wolves that approach livestock.

Wolf tracks in the snow at Don Gittleson’s ranch. (Photo courtesy Don Gittleson)

“If we want to keep Colorado an incredibly special place in coming decades, we have to work together,” Sanderson said. “It means doing the work of listening to each other and getting over assumptions about where someone’s coming from.”

Gittleson, the rancher whose heifer was killed, is willing to give it a shot. He’s skeptical of hazing wolves — he says he’s concerned they’ll eventually learn ranchers are more bark than bite, and grow emboldened. 

But in the meantime, he’s trying other methods. He’s sending his cattle back out to graze alongside horses, who he said “would kick the head off” a wolf.

Still, he said the distance between wolf advocates and opponents is going to be tough to cross. 

“A lot of the pro-wolf folks don’t understand livestock,” he said. “But, that’s probably the other way around, too. People on the livestock side could stand to be better educated. Our sides don’t necessarily trust each other, but I’m trying to be level headed. Did I vote for this? Nope, but that’s how elections work. I’ve got to learn to live with it.”

Gittleson said since the news broke about his heifer, he’s been playing phone tag with a wildlife advocate who wants to break bread with him.

“I don’t know if we’ll see common ground or not,” Gittleson said. “But if I don’t try, then I know we won’t.”

Jason Blevins contributed to this report.

David is a former Colorado Sun staff writer.