Let’s tell the truth about those big, bad wolves

By Story Warren

The return of wolves to the West has always been contentious, and the deaths last fall of more than 40 cattle really in western Colorado alarmed ranchers. But here’s the true story: Wolves did not kill those cattle found dead near Meeker.

After months of investigation, the state agency, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, found no evidence of wolves in the area at all.

Yet when the news of the cattle deaths went public last October, the agency issued a press release stating it was “investigating a report of dead domestic cow calves on White River National Forest lands near Meeker that show damage consistent with wolf depredation.”

A month later, the agency’s Northwest regional manager testified before the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission that though some of the cattle had injuries that appeared to come from wolves, he added: “It’s perplexing; it’s confusing; it’s frustrating, trying to figure out exactly what occurred in this incident.” The story of wolves as the culprits, however, made national headlines.

Wolves are coming back to the state naturally and because in 2020, the public passed Prop 114, mandating restoration of wolves by the end of this year. Through a Colorado Open Records Act request, the Humane Society of the United States obtained documents and photos about the livestock deaths, and shared them with Carter Niemeyer, an expert on wolf-livestock conflict. He is also a member of the state’s Technical Working Group on wolf restoration.

In his February 14 report, Niemeyer found that “the evidence at Meeker is inconsistent with wolf attacks.” Niemeyer and veterinarians concluded that the cattle more likely died from “brisket disease,” which commonly afflicts cattle living at high altitudes.

Misunderstandings like this one, which lasted weeks, aren’t helpful. Do wolves ever come into conflict with livestock? Yes, but it is relatively rare. In the Northern Rockies where wolves are established, they account for less than 1% of cattle losses. Disease, birthing problems, weather and theft take nine times as many cattle than all predators combined, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

In Washington state, which is home to at least 33 wolf packs after nearly 15 years of wolf recovery, more than 80% of the packs have no conflict with livestock in an average year. 

Overall, the threat of wolves to the livestock industry is negligible. For the few livestock producers who are impacted by wolves, it is, of course, economically painful and time consuming.

But options exist for ranchers to safeguard their livestock. Old-fashioned riding the range to drive off wolf packs, cleaning up carcasses so they don’t attract wolves, penning up livestock at night, installing scare devices, and using guard dogs are all deterrents that can work.

Unfortunately, data from the United States Department of Agriculture suggest that few livestock owners use these effective, non-lethal mitigation measures.

But many livestock producers across the west — in southern Alberta, the Big Wood River Drainage of Idaho, the Tom Miner Basin and Blackfoot Valley of Montana and elsewhere — do use a variety of these deterrents, which make it possible for their herds to live alongside both wolves and grizzly bears.

To its credit, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has produced a resource guide for livestock producers. To do an even better job as wolves integrate into western Colorado, the state must improve the way it investigates livestock deaths.

These investigations must be timely and transparent — as in other Western states such as Washington — and withoutscapegoating. The Colorado legislature could do its part, too, by providing funding for a trained, rapid-response team that would immediately investigate livestock injuries and deaths.

According to Niemeyer, authorities must respond as if they were investigating a crime scene — checking out dead livestock within 24 hours to prevent losing evidence from tissue decomposition or scavengers.

Only when a cause is determined, based on evidence, should information be made public. If wolf recovery is going to be successful for both wolves and people, everyone involved — livestock producers, wolf advocates, agencies — must work together. What happened in Meeker has been a valuable lesson in what not to do.

Story Warren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a program manager in wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States.

Hans Veth via Unsplash

This column was published in the following newspapers:

03/13/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
03/14/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
03/14/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
03/14/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
03/14/2023 Delta County Independent Delta CO
03/14/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
03/14/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
03/14/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
03/14/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
03/14/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
03/14/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
03/15/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
03/15/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
03/15/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
03/16/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
03/15/2023 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
03/16/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
03/16/2023 Taos News Taos NM
03/16/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
03/17/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
03/16/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
03/18/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
03/13/2023 Mountain Journal Bozeman MT
03/19/2023 Daily Interlake Kalispell MT
03/21/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
03/22/2023 Arvada Press Arvada Co
03/23/2023 Boulder Weekly Boulder CO
03/21/2023 Newport Miner Newport WA
03/23/2023 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
03/23/2023 Jeffco Transcript Jefferson County CO
03/21/2023 The Golden Transcript Golden Co
03/21/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
03/21/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
03/20/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
03/26/2023 Teton Valley News Driggs ID
03/28/2023 Colorado Springs Tribune Colorado Springs CO
03/30/2023 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
03/30/2023 Clear Creek Current Idaho Springs Co
04/04/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
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J. Perry
1 year ago

We have a ranch in Steamboat Springs that my grandfather homesteaded in 1908. My husband and I saw a wolf come across our meadow 6 years ago. They are migrating naturally. No need to introduce them, and it should have been a rural vote.

K. Henrich
1 year ago
Reply to  J. Perry

Don’t bother. These people don’t deal in reality. I would bet most are city dwellers who don’t have to deal with the situation they are creating. Most recently collared wolves killing family dogs and cattle. This was investigated and proven. But they will tell you it’s only 1%.
Statistics are fine when they don’t effect you personally. Rob Edward should be directly responsible for every animal lost. Maybe then that 1% would have meaning.

Mark Grissom
1 year ago

Yes, Story Warren, let’s do tell the truth about wolves. Please read the article “Loss of ‘right-hand man’ hits rancher hard” in the Colorado Springs Gazette on March 27, 2023. That article tells the truth about wolves and what they are doing to ranchers and their dogs as opposed to your feel good article.

Note from the administrator, here is a good column with the statistics for wolves killing livestock and dogs. https://www.coloradoan.com/story/news/2023/03/15/colorado-wolves-kill-cattle-dog-fatally-injure-pet-dog/70011975007/

Nature and Stuff – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
1 year ago

[…] You can learn more about it here, in an excellent short article from Writers on the Range, “Let’s Tell the Truth about those Big, Bad, Wolves.” Here’s an […]

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