Don Gittleson was sitting in his pickup at 2:30 a.m. when he heard a cow and calf calling to each other, a nervous mooing and a commotion in the dark.
The Walden rancher started up the engine and began wildly honking the horn as he drove through the pasture toward the noise, where he spotted three wolves circling the calf and its mother.
The male wolf and its two pups abandoned the hunt only when Gittleson’s truck was upon them, and as they took off through the field, he chased them — horn blaring — as fast as he could without tearing up the front end of the pickup as he bounded over ditches.
That calf survived the May attack. But the wolf pack that killed two of Gittleson’s cows over the winter and injured a third so badly it was euthanized has returned this spring to kill three calves, the Jackson County rancher said. The latest calf was found on Memorial Day morning, its body eaten and its hind legs carried away.
Each time, wolf tracks circled the scene.
The ranch, only a few miles from the Wyoming state line, has been ground zero for Colorado’s wolf controversy, and Gittleson has been the test case for a host of new policies Colorado wildlife officials must put in place as wolves return to the state. The pack frequenting Gittleson’s ranch are descendants of a female wolf that migrated naturally from Wyoming just before Colorado voters — mostly those in the cities — approved a ballot measure to reintroduce the animals to the Western Slope.
“I’m kind of the friendly wolf diner,” said Gittleson, who is worn out after months of trying to protect his cattle. When the wolves first killed a cow last winter, Gittleson’s cattle were the only ones within miles.
“I’ve lost more animals to predators in the last six months and more animals to wolves than I have to any other predator in 40 years,” he said. “And I’m not sure it’s over yet.”
The same pack attacked a pregnant cow at the State Line Ranch in March, injuring it so badly that it was euthanized. The pack also is blamed for the deaths of two dogs that belonged to a neighbor a few miles from the Gittleson ranch.
Six months after the winter losses, Gittleson has yet to receive compensation from a state program intended to pay ranchers for livestock attacks by bears and mountain lions. And while Gittleson said he has not yet filed claims for the three recent calf deaths, he’s expecting a battle. Wildlife officials told him that the collared male was near the ranch when two of three calves were killed. But Colorado Parks and Wildlife told The Colorado Sun that “due to lack of evidence,” it was has not confirmed the calf deaths were the result of wolves.
Still, agency spokesman Travis Duncan said a wildlife officer found the third calf carcass about one-quarter mile from Gittleson’s home, and that the “depredation was likely caused by wolves.”
After months of back and forth with a state commission that handles the claims, Gittleson said the latest news is that he will receive $6,500 for a 3-year-old cow killed over the winter, $2,000 for another cow, and $150 to pay the veterinarian bill for the cow that was euthanized. CPW did not confirm that to The Sun, but said Gittleson has two pending claims.
The reason for the delay is that the wolves came before Colorado Parks and Wildlife had a formal process to deal with their damage. While that new process is in the works, wildlife officials are using the bear and mountain lion policy.
Gittleson said he was able to persuade wildlife officials to pay more than the $5,000 cap set in current policy by arguing the true value of a registered angus cow that was bred to survive at 8,200 feet and would have produced more calves, had it lived. He said he’s also trying to make a case that a newborn calf is worth much more to a rancher than the $200 value assigned right after birth. This spring’s calves are already under contract for up to about $1,250 when they are sold at 500 pounds.
Still, Gittleson hasn’t seen any money for his losses.
Meanwhile, his ranch is also the testing ground for wolf hazing. It’s illegal in Colorado to kill or trap a wolf, a protected species. After conferring with wolf experts in Colorado, Wyoming and beyond, Gittlelson has tried fladry — flapping flags along a fenceline — as well as night riders, wild burros delivered by state wildlife officials, fox lights and cracker shells that shoot out of a 12-gauge shotgun like fireworks.
Nothing has stopped the wolves from returning, he said.
Each new hazing method might scare them off for a couple of weeks, but then the wolves sneak back onto the ranch in search of food, he said.
The six wild burros arrived in February after roaming the Nevada high country. The animals, which kick and stomp predators, are getting along well with the cows but don’t engage with wolves that are trying to separate a cow or calf from the herd, Gittleson said. He’s hopeful that future generations of the burros, if they’re born on his ranch, will be more protective of the cows.
“We don’t have one or two wolves coming in; we have a pack of wolves,” he said last week. “Donkeys are intelligent animals and they are not going to get themselves hurt. One donkey is not going to go after five or seven wolves. Last night they were making a lot of noise. They did let me know that the wolves were out there, and the cows were making a lot of noise, too.”
And while Gittleson is appreciative of the night riders, who are hired through a nonprofit that supports wolf reintroduction efforts, calves have died while night riders were watching the property, he said. The wolves are no longer deterred by a running pickup with its lights shining in the night.
Fox lights, which flash haphazardly and create shapes and shadows in the dark, might have worked for about two weeks, Gittleson said.
Cracker shells, which explode with a bright light, have been working, but Gittleson used the last of those one night last week when the wolves arrived just after 11 p.m. and stirred up the cows. “That’s one of the few things that’s working still,” he said. “And I don’t know how long it will take before it doesn’t work anymore.”
Most of the hazing devices, whether or not they work, are hard to come by. Gittleson got enough fladry from wildlife officials to line only a portion of his fence, and no more is available. “There is a long list of things that we can use to haze wolves off, and there is a very short list of things that are available,” he said.
Gittleson is hoping that Colorado Parks and Wildlife will write a policy that allows for removal or death for problem wolves — those that have killed two or more livestock or pets.
“These animals should have been destroyed,” he said. “This pack is way past that.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, meanwhile, hired a new “mammals researcher” specializing in wolves last month. The agency also hired a statewide “wolf damage specialist” to help deal with livestock losses, Duncan said. Reintroduction is set to begin by the end of 2023.
North Park area ranchers and wildlife officials haven’t seen the original female wolf, the first known to roam into Colorado from Wyoming, in months. Her collar is dead. Some suspect she is dead. But Gittleson is among those who believe she’s in a den nearby with a new batch of pups, and that’s why the wolves left with the legs of the last calf they killed.
Gittleson won’t be surprised, he said, if new pups emerge from a den hidden in the hills surrounding his ranch in the next few weeks.