Colorado ranchers are facing a challenge absent since WWII: wolves. Attacks on livestock, so far mostly in Jackson County, are stirring up political discussions in the state; discussions that started with Proposition 114. This policy, passed in 2020 by a razor-thin less than 2% majority, will kick off in 2023. A group of several state agencies and task forces will submit a final plan to artificially recreate Colorado’s wolf population.
Present wolf attacks on animals, however, are apparently the result of a female wolf wandering in from Wyoming and breeding with a male from parts unknown. The full scope of the attacks–those that have been reported–is a few cattle and dogs.
The number of wolves is small. The number of attacks is small. But the wolf population, with the backing of the state, will be encouraged to grow. More than the real prospect of losing cattle, farmers, ranchers and others in the Western Slope are frustrated by something else. The elaborate and very expensive wolf-attack prevention measures needed for safety add a lot to operating costs during a shabby economy.
Further, those few attacks so far could be a preview of Prop 114’s implementation for ranchers along the Western Slope. These non-lethal prevention measures that might become the norm in the Western part of Colorado are costly and impermanent. But it’s not just the hassle of more work, it’s how the decision to reintroduce wolves was made and where they’re going.
Voting demographics for Prop 114 broke down roughly along rural/urban patterns: Eight of the thirteen counties voting yes are located in the Eastern half of Colorado.
That central-eastern, mostly urban crush ultimately decided the measure. This common micro-electoral split is electrified by a key factor.
The intended repopulation area for Prop 114 is the Western Slope.
In the last several decades, states in the Pacific Northwest and those surrounding Colorado have repopulated the gray wolf in their own territories. The canine is often cited by ecologists as a necessary apex predator. The classic example is the re-populating of wolves in Yellowstone during the 1990s.
Wolf predations are often cited as having a beneficial trophic cascade that (among other things) culled elk populations in America’s first national park. The narrative is roughly that fewer elk meant less grazing of river-shading trees. More shade meant cooler rivers and more fish. All this, and other benefits. While there was a noticeable effect on the ecosystem, the magnitude has been overstated and oversimplified. Even proponents have said so.
Tom Hobbs studies, tracks and creates workups of large-mammal effects on ecosystems. In High Country News, the Colorado State University professor laid out that Yellowstone has not been restored because of wolves (and that certain parts may be lost forever). Regarding a 43-million-view video about the supposed panacea effect of wolves, he told Accuweather.com, “It’s a lovely story, and I would love this to be true, but it isn’t.”
Three cows on one Walden ranch had already been killed by wolves by the end of January. That became five, along with two dogs, in the first half of this year. Those are, however, just the kills being reported. From those numbers, losses in the macro look small. But there are other numbers.
The practices to protect livestock from wolves in Colorado are negative reinforcement behavioral techniques. But livestock behavior can also be modified. It can be modified, negatively, by the wolves themselves.
Studies can be dry and abstruse (and sometimes misleading). But, in policy discussions, which gray wolves have become, they are often the lingua franca. And there are studies relevant to the discussion.
The idea that wolves can directly affect livestock behavior is hard to research. But there is some evidence. While the obvious main loss is cattle killed by wolves, there are secondary effects of the animal’s presence.
A fifteen-year-encompassing, multi-dimensional American Journal of Agricultural Economics study found that a single wolf kill of livestock on a ranch can directly affect later calf birth weights. Included in the study were eighteen Montana ranches. The average birth-weight loss for calves was 22 pounds. In today’s money, that’s a large sum when spread out across dozens or hundreds of birthing heifers.
The often unrecorded, unmeasurable practices on the part of farmers or less academic experts have merit as well.
Smaller, non-scientific studies, such as one in the Western Livestock Journal, dealt with simulated wolf encounters. They showed a measurable difference in the stress hormone cortisol and the body temperature of the cows before and after. This change indicated stress among the cattle.
David Bohnert, Ruminant Nutritionist and Beef Cattle specialist with Oregon State University said in the journal, “We can’t really quantify it right now, but I am confident that there is an economic effect in decreased pregnancy rates and decreased production; the wolves are having a negative effect on cattle production.”
Certain state agencies have offered some support to the struggling ranchers. They can make a claim for livestock probably killed by wolves and Prop 114 seeks to do so as well. They cannot claim compensation for working dogs.
Nonlethal wolf deterrents are being used. These preventions are necessary as killing a gray wolf, except to save a human life, can mean a year in jail plus fines and loss of hunting privileges.
Electric fences are one solution to keep wolves away. Non-commercial, residential electrified fences can cost up to 7.03 per linear foot, depending on the vendor and the location. With gray wolves growing past six feet on hind legs, that means a higher, agricultural-grade fence. A square acre means almost 1,000 linear feet of fence. Calculating, this means a professionally installed electrified fence could easily reach five figures grand total for a small-medium ranch operation.
Sound and visual sensory distress devices can repel wolves. One sonic bird and deer repeller is $49 before tax. It’s advertised as pet/livestock friendly with a range of 4,000 square feet. That’s $550 for these devices to cover one square acre (before C batteries).
Propane cannons are a non-lethal deterrent. For less than $1,000, these can cover several acres and run for weeks on a single consumer-sized propane tank. However, they emit 110 to 120 decibels. which is roughly the same as a jackhammer or thunderclap. The settings on most models are for 30-minute or fewer intervals, indicating they require frequent use. These loud cannons powered by combustion are problematic if pastures are close to the home or close to wolf habitats, like the forest.
Range riders are another way to keep wolves out. Rural farm jobs may not typically be advertised online, but the salary range is instructive. The bottom hourly wage for four ranch hand jobs on Indeed is $14 per hour. The hazard of being tasked with deterring wolves would drive up the compensation. Even at the bottom pay rate from Indeed, the salary runs over $2,000 minimum per month.
Looking closer at agcareers.com, a cattle manager’s salary, for a Colorado job, is $80,000 per year. On this same forum, a ranch manager earns $48,000 per year, and a ranch herdsman earns $60,000 per year.
Chasing away wolves could be a discrete task. It’s not the same as managing a ranch which would denote a higher salary. But, even for a simple wolf-chaser, the job has inherent hazards. Further, being on a ranch, the job will likely be in a remote location. It doesn’t take an expert to see that simple workplace economics means finding and hiring a wolf-chaser is a non-negligible cost.
To complicate things further, as of July, the GPS/VHF collars on these migrant wolves shut off. The reasons for that remain unclear. These may have been natural deaths, the wolves may have been killed, or the collars may have had a technical failure.
Wolf proponents say those in agriculture need to integrate new costs and new practices into their farming to keep up with modern ecology. Wolf proponents, for their part, will need to integrate and consider the effects that one pack of wolves has already had.
The proposal for wolf reintroduction is due to be released next year.
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There are at least a couple of points to be considered, without which the article is rather misleading. First, most wolves don’t kill livestock, but some do. The last report by the USFWS covering the Northern Rocky Mountain states found that 17% of wolf packs were known to be involved in at least one depredation (USFWS 2016). Second, the (unfortunate) depredations that happened in North Park are old news. The real news now is that many months have elapsed without a depredation even though the wolves are regularly encountering livestock. That can be attributed in part to the coexistence work being done by both ranchers and wildlife conservationists. Colorado can and will have ranching continue alongside the restoration of wolves. It won’t always be peaceful, and Colorado will have a plan to manage the impacts.
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