Unlikely partnerships could help Colorado wolf reintroduction succeed

WALDEN, Colo. — Many would agree that saving endangered animals is important, but that mission gets complicated when endangered animals are predators.

The gray wolf once roamed nearly two dozen states in the United States. After decades of overhunting, they have been reintroduced to a handful of states in hopes of restoring ecological balance.

But balance for some means chaos for others. In the case of the gray wolf, the reintroduction in multiple states has led to contentious legal battles and polarizing arguments between conservationists and ranchers, whose farms often lie adjacent to wolf territory.

Don Gittleson’s ranch in Walden, Colorado is one of them.

“My grandparents raised Angus cattle when I was a kid,” Gittleson said.

Ranching is in his blood, but wolves threaten to make his livelihood much harder to earn.

“They came one night and they killed a calf,” Gittleson said.

Wolves have attacked and killed three of his cows in the past two weeks.

“The worst thing is the cow that they didn’t kill because they tore it up, and I knew when I saw it that it would have to be put down.”

Gittleson fears this will become a common sight on his Colorado ranch and others like him.

In 2020, voters decided to reintroduce animals to Colorado. In recent years they have been reintroduced in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Conservationists are thrilled to see the wolf population increase, but that’s not the case for many ranchers.

“It’s not Idaho; it’s not Montana, it’s not Wyoming,” Gittleson said. “There are a lot more people in this state, and once the wolves come, it will be a far bigger mess than any of these states.”

Gittleson said reintroduction to Colorado at be different for it to work. He must protect the wolves and support businesses. In past reintroduction efforts, he said ranchers were largely left out of the conversation.

“If they want to have the wolves and they want it to work, they’re going to have to compensate the breeders.”

He hopes the compensation will go beyond just paying for the animal that was killed.

“I cannot replace the cows, because I will only be paid for the cow. I’m not going to be paid for her production, I’m not going to be paid for the calf I lose from her. I can’t stay in business this way.

The fight for better remuneration for herders is only the first step in protecting your herd. Gittleson changes the way he manages his ranch, moves cattle differently, and builds specific physical barriers around his pastures to keep wolves out. He’s never had to go to such extremes before.

Above the fortifications, he also builds bridges: he invites the defenders of the wolves to his ranch.

It’s an unusual partnership. Together, ranchers and conservationists will advise the Colorado Department of Wildlife on how to safely reintroduce wolves.

“For wolves to succeed in this landscape, we need to make sure that the ranchers, the stewards of this landscape, can also succeed,” said Karin Vardaman who leads the wolf advocacy group, Working Circle.

She and her staff volunteer to protect the herds at night.

“It’s kind of an emergency response, so you know how to provide that round-the-clock surveillance,” Vardaman said.

She will stay in the pasture until sunrise to keep the wolves away. It’s not a permanent fix, but for these animal advocates, it’s a show of good faith to breeders that they’re committed to coming up with a better reintroduction plan.

This first-hand experience on a ranch is something wolf advocates have never had before.

“I got into wolf work because I love wolves, but I’m just grateful because I feel like the veil has been lifted for me. I fell in love with the ranching community and of their way of life,” Vardaman said.

She doesn’t know how long her team can help like this, but she says it’s the understanding and collaboration that happens here that will help make this reintroduction of a conservation model on a national scale.