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This June 3, 2020, file image released by Colorado Parks and Wildlife shows a wolf on a CPW-owned game camera in Moffat County. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife via AP, File)

A wolf advocate and a Colorado cattle rancher who has lost several cows to wolves walk side by side against the picturesque backdrop of the northern Colorado mountains. 

In the minidocumentary produced by a national nonprofit working to overcome “extreme political and cultural division in America,” ecologist Karin Vardaman and Walden rancher Don Gittleson speak of common ground and ways that wolves and cattle ranchers can peacefully coexist. 

It’s touching and hopeful. Too bad it’s not the whole story.

In reality, the long-time rancher, whose cattle operation near Walden has been ground zero in Colorado’s wolf debate, and the well-known wolf advocate are no longer on good terms. 

Vardaman is the executive director of Working Circle, a group formed with California and Oregon ranchers in 2016 to protect cattle from wolves and help ranchers develop long-term strategies to reduce livestock depredation by large carnivores. The group provided Gittleson with a nighttime range rider last spring after wolves that migrated across the Wyoming state line attacked his cows. 

Kim Gittleson, in center, witnesses the investigation by Colorado Parks and Wildlife district managers surrounding a heifer carcass, killed by wolves that migrated from Wyoming, on the ranch outside Walden. on Jan. 19. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

That partnership started off well, and things were good when the minidocumentary from the group Starts With Us was filmed. Gittleson helped Vardaman with her horse and spent many days working with her on the ranch. 

But after a few months, that partnership began to deteriorate.

Three calves were killed on three separate nights and the night riders on duty didn’t even know it, Gittleson told The Sun. “The only reason people were riding around was to see a wolf, and if you see a wolf, you are not doing your job.”

Then Vardaman asked if Gittleson wanted to move on from emergency-response mode, which mostly entailed keeping watch for wolves, to long-term stockmanship strategies that she said would make the cows less vulnerable to predators. But Gittleson resisted. 

Then came the videos Vardaman accidentally left behind when she loaned Gittleson her game cameras last spring. 

He was furious to see old video of Vardaman putting drops of lure, a pungent liquid made of animal glands, on a rock to entice wolves in front of her camera. He deduced the videos were taken in northwestern Colorado, not on his ranch in north-central Colorado. But they were clearly filmed in cattle country, because they showed cows walking by the camera and sniffing the lure. 

Vardaman told The Colorado Sun she had intended to delete the videos before giving Gittleson the cameras and that she has not used the skunk-scented lure since Colorado Parks & Wildlife made it illegal in January. Also, she said, the lure doesn’t bring wolves into an area; it only makes them pause to sniff the substance if they are walking by, allowing the camera to capture their color and markings. 

Vardaman didn’t realize Gittleson had the videos until she was contacted by The Sun about the minidocumentary, because they haven’t talked in months. 

Clearly, things got messy when the two tried to work together on one of the most controversial issues in Colorado. The wolf debate has pitted ranchers on the west side of the state against wolf advocates nationwide since Colorado voters — mostly in Denver and other urban centers — voted in 2020 for the reintroduction of the gray wolf. The measure passed by a slim margin and specifically states that Colorado wildlife managers must put the wolves on the Western Slope by the end of 2023. 

The wolves that caused the deaths of three of Gittleson’s cows and a handful of spring calves came to Colorado on their own, migrating across the Wyoming stateline. The pack also has been blamed for killing two dogs and attacking cows at another ranch in Jackson County. 

Now, Colorado Parks & Wildlife is investigating whether a second pack of wolves migrated from Wyoming into northwestern Colorado after 18 calves were found dead this month at a ranch near Meeker, about 100 miles west of Walden. The carcasses were found the first week of October after the ranch owner, Lenny Klinglesmith, returned from attending a workshop in Montana about how to prepare for wolves.

18 calves killed near Meeker

State wildlife officials have not yet confirmed whether wolves attacked the 600-pound calves, but multiple sources told The Sun that the types of wounds point toward wolves or large dogs. Mountain lions go for the neck, suffocating their prey. Bears use their size to attack the top of an animal’s back and shoulders. Wolves, however, typically attack from behind, biting at the haunches. 

Klinglesmith’s ranch manager told The Sun they are holding off on talking publicly about what happened until wildlife officials make a determination. 

The loss of 18 calves, a huge financial blow, has ranchers in the area bracing for more attacks and is sure to come up multiple times as state wildlife managers work with cattle producers on the wolf reintroduction plan. It’s illegal, punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and a year in jail, for Colorado ranchers to kill a wolf, even if they see them chasing their cows. Some ranchers want to change that, as well as create a provision that allows state wildlife officials to kill wolves that consistently prey on cattle.

Cows on Don Gittleson’s ranch in the morning of Jan. 23, 2022, in Walden. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Ranchers also point out that Colorado will have to compensate them for predator losses much more frequently than the state does now. Gittleson so far has been reimbursed for the loss of two cows and one calf, but is waiting on more, including the killing of a calf by a bear in the spring. A game camera caught the bear, and CPW confirmed it was a bear that killed the calf. It was Gittleson’s first-ever loss to a bear. 

“The Meeker thing is going to be a big problem one way or another, whether it’s wolves or something else,” Gittleson said. “That’s a lot of animals to get killed. If it is wolves, it’s not one or two wolves.”

A rancher took this video of a wolf pack crossing Jackson County Road 28 on Sept. 18, outside of Walden. (Provided by Shannon Lukens, Steamboat Radio and KRAI)

As for the pack in north-central Colorado near Walden, their collars are no longer sending a signal to Colorado Parks & Wildlife. But Gittleson believes they’re still around. He said he saw wolf tracks on his ranch a few weeks ago. And about 10 days ago, when the cows started bellowing and skittering around in the night, he walked outside and fired off two shotgun shells into the sky. 

It’s the only thing that seems to scare off the wolves, he said. 

Making cows less vulnerable to wolves

Vardaman, who worked with Gittleson from March through May and helped him find a night rider funded by her organization, had hoped Gittleson would adopt cattle management practices that she said would teach his cows to behave more like bison when wolves came hunting. 

Bison huddle, their backs together in a tight circle, which reduces the likelihood of getting attacked from behind. This is different from elk, which take off running, leaving the weakest of the herd vulnerable to a wolf attack.

“He’s not ready,” Vardaman said. “We are not pushing him. It’s his ranch and the last thing we want is ranchers to think we are pushing things on them. We have no ego in this.”

She declined to say how much Working Circle invested in helping Gittleson. The group is now partnering with a few other ranches in northern Colorado on stockmanship strategies, including showing ranchers how to approach their cows on horseback so they are less likely to run and split up if they’re spooked. Working Circle also holds workshops and demonstrations each year in Colorado, including one last year attended by the owner of the Meeker ranch where the calves were killed.

Vardaman said they intend to offer help to the ranch in Meeker, once Colorado Parks & Wildlife finishes its investigation. 

She’s been working with wolves and ranchers for 12 years and believes the two can coexist by employing a variety of tools. “We can move forward in another direction,” Vardaman said. “It just takes a shift on everybody’s part.”

“We are very pro-ranch. We are also pro-wolf.” 

Gittleson, who is 64 and has been ranching since 1977, wasn’t sold on the stockmanship training, however, and he’s skeptical of the idea that ranchers need to teach cattle to form a protective circle. 

“When the wolves come around, the cows ball up tight,” he said. “It’s an instinct for them. No one taught them to do that. They didn’t do that when they first had wolves come in, but they do that now.” 

Also, he pointed out, bluntly, “wolves kill buffalo, too.” 

Gittleson said that if Vardaman wants to put on a demonstration on how to teach cows to protect themselves from wolves, he’ll bring dogs to test out her model. “We will see if the cows run,” he said. 

“Cattle are a prey animal and wolves are a predator. If they want to do a demonstration, I’m more than happy to cooperate with it. If they know how to do it, the ranchers would sure like to know.”

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her...