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New wolf attack in North Park puts cattle ranchers back on edge as reintroduction looms

The rancher will be reimbursed for the loss of the pregnant cow. Meanwhile, six protective burros were delivered to a nearby ranch that lost three cows to wolves earlier this winter.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife district manager, Zach Weaver, investigates a 1,200-pound cow carcass, killed by the wolves earlier in the morning of Jan. 19, 2022, on a ranch outside Walden. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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Wolves attacked another cow this week outside of Walden, where ranchers have been on alert since a string of attacks on cattle earlier this winter. 

Ranch hands at the State Line Ranch, between Walden in far northwest Colorado and the Wyoming state line, put down an 8-year-old pregnant cow after finding her bloodied and unable to walk. 

The ranch is not far from a cattle operation run by Don Gittleson, who lost three cows to wolves in December and January. The attacks by wolves that have naturally migrated from Wyoming come ahead of Colorado’s planned reintroduction of gray wolves to the state, an initiative passed in 2020. 

Ben Zak, a cowboy who takes care of the 700 cows at State Line, got up at daylight Tuesday to discover one cow that had not come in for hay and was instead lying on the ground. He drove a tractor through 2 feet of snow to reach the cow, then called a veterinarian and “put her out of her misery as soon as we could,” he said. 

Wolf tracks surrounded the cow, and the animal had bite marks on its body. “Horrible. She was in bad shape,” said Zak, one of several ranch hands on the corporate-owned, Jackson County operation. “It was really tore up on the back end.”

An 8-year-old pregnant cow had to be euthanized after she was attacked on the hind end by wolves this week at State Line Ranch, outside of Walden. A ranch hand found the cow on a sand bar above the snow. (Provided by the ranch)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which has been working for months to develop a plan for gray wolf introduction, confirmed the wolf predation. 

Wildlife managers identified wolf tracks around the cow and a necropsy confirmed “bite marks consistent with wolves,” said Travis Duncan with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The state agency will reimburse the ranch for the loss, the amount of which has not yet been determined. 

The state agency also recently delivered six wild burros — two gelded jacks and four jennies — to Gittleson’s ranch in the hopes they will fend off wolves. After they adjust to the high elevation and winter temperatures of North Park, the burros will join Gittleson’s cattle herd. For now, the wild burros are hanging out with a small group of calves on the ranch. 

“They’re still in a corral with access to heat, but he’s beginning to acclimate them,” wildlife officer Zach Weaver, who lives in Walden, said in a news release. “Don is monitoring the animals. He’s paying attention to how much they’re going inside to warm up. They’ll gain more hair as they need it.”

The burros, which are accustomed to protecting themselves from mountain lions and coyotes in the wild by chasing, stomping and kicking, are from the Nevada high country, wildlife managers said. “The idea is to make the burros become a part of the cattle herd to where they will start to protect or consider the cattle as a member of its family,” Weaver said. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife delivered six wild burros to Don Gittleson’s ranch outside of Walden to help fend off wolves that have migrated from Wyoming. Wild burros are known to chase, stomp and kick at predators. (Provided by CPW)

The Gittlesons also are using a fence fitted with flags and electricity that fellow North Park ranchers helped the Gittlesons install after the December and January wolf attacks. And a nonprofit is providing nighttime watch over the Gittlesons’ herd. Wolves have returned to the ranch in recent weeks, as evidenced by tracks and photos on a game camera, but there have been no new attacks, the Gittlesons told The Sun.

Colorado’s wolf reintroduction initiative passed with just 50.9% of the vote, largely thanks to urban Front Range voters. In Denver and Boulder counties alone, two-thirds of voters supported the measure. 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, 86% of voters said no.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has not yet determined how many wolves it will release. Reintroduction is required to take place by the end of 2023.

The last wild wolf was likely killed in Colorado in 1945. A lone wolf wandered into Colorado from Wyoming in 2019, and was joined by a mate. Last summer the pair produced six pups. Hunting wolves is legal in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. 

Gray wolves were delisted from the federal Endangered Species Act in 2020, but last month, that ruling was vacated by a federal court. The ruling returned management authority of the gray wolf to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which means that Colorado wildlife managers will now have a “close partnership” with federal officials as they develop a plan to reintroduce the gray wolf, Duncan said. 

In addition to the federal protection, gray wolves are listed as an endangered species in Colorado. They cannot be killed except in an act of self defense. The penalty for killing a wolf includes jail time and a fine up to $100,000.


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