Conservation Wildlife Management

Colorado Green-Lights Lethal Management of Gray Wolves, Under Certain Conditions

Ranchers in Colorado have long sought a lethal management option for wolves that repeatedly kill livestock. They will have that option starting in August, with some strings attached
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A wolf runs through a field in Colorado.
One of 10 gray wolves released in Colorado this winter as part of the state's reintroduction effort. At least 11 cows in Colorado have been killed by wolves since then, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Ranchers across Western Colorado breathed a collective sigh of relief on Thursday, when the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission approved new regulations allowing for the lethal management of wolves that depredate livestock. The commission’s decision was settled by a 6-4 vote following a public meeting in Grand County, and it marks a major shift in how the state seeks to manage its newly restored gray wolf population, which grew from two animals to 12 over the winter after 10 gray wolves were released in Grand and Summit Counties as part of a voter-led reintroduction effort.

Colorado’s ballot-led wolf reintroduction effort proved controversial from the start, as many residents of Colorado’s Western Slope, where the wolves were released and now live, voted against it. And even before the December release took place, rural Coloradans had been asking the state how it planned to deal with wolves that kill cows and other livestock. Those calls only grew louder during calving season this spring, as the number of cows killed by gray wolves in Colorado shot up from one calf on April 2 to eight head of cattle by the end of that month. Between December and June 17, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed 11 cattle depredations by gray wolves in Grand and Jackson Counties, although some ranchers have said the actual number is even higher.

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Until now CPW has prohibited livestock owners and their agents from killing or harming any gray wolves within the state — even those that are found to be depredating livestock. The agency has instead directed ranchers to use non-lethal management tools such as lights, fladry, guard dogs, and range riders to deter the predators. According to the new regulations that were just approved by commissioners, however, wildlife managers and ranchers will be able to kill depredating wolves under certain conditions. In some circumstances, thermal imaging, night vision, and other artificial lights can be used to kill wolves.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction to build back trust,” Grand County Commissioner Merrit Linke told Colorado Politics and the Denver Gazette. “It’s a win that the commission is giving us the tools and personnel.”

Under the new rules, Colorado ranchers can obtain an “In the Act” permit from CPW to kill a gray wolf that is caught in the act of attacking livestock or working dogs (but not any other pets or hunting dogs) on their land. CPW can issue these permits retroactively so long as the rancher provides the proper evidence to the agency and reports the killing within 72 hours.

“Acceptable physical evidence includes but is not limited to photographs or video with GPS coordinates attached,” the rules stipulate.

The new rules also establish a system for issuing Chronic Depredation Permits to ranchers who have documented repeated depredation and harassment of their livestock by wolves. To qualify, a livestock owner must show that they’ve tried using a variety of non-lethal tools to minimize conflict with wolves, and that they haven’t lured the wolves intentionally or unintentionally with bait or other attractants. They also must prove that there’s a likelihood the depredations will continue without lethal management. Interestingly, the CPWC did not include a definition for “chronic depredation” in the suite of regulations, and it says these permits will be issued on a case-by-case basis.

This important detail could become a point of controversy going forward, and a spokesperson with CPW did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on how these permits will be issued. However, the agency told the Denver Post on Monday that these decisions will be directed to the Colorado Wolf Restoration Temporary Working Group, which was established by CPW on June 13, just one day before the commission’s Thursday vote.

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The names of the people assigned to that working group have not been released. But the Post reports that the group will include a hired mediator, along with four ranchers, four wolf advocates, and four representatives from CPW and the state’s Department of Agriculture. The group will meet over the summer to discuss these and other controversial issues related to lethal management, and the clock is ticking to iron out the details. CPW public information officer Rachael Gonzalez confirmed with Outdoor Life in an email the new lethal take regulations will go into effect on Aug. 1.