Eagle County ranchers: Wolf reintroduction is a bad idea | VailDaily.com

Eagle County ranchers: Wolf reintroduction is a bad idea

More predators could further damage already-fragile wildlife herds; damage ranchers' livelihoods

Ranchers say re-introducing wolves to Colorado could harm their operations and further deplete already-dwindling wildlife herds.
What’s the question? Colorado voters will be asked this fall to require state wildlife commissioners to reintroduce gray wolves to western Colorado by the end of 2023.

EAGLE COUNTY — Wolves were a problem for ranchers when Kip Gates’ great-great-grandfather homesteaded in the area. He doesn’t want the problem to return.

Local ranchers say they’re concerned about a November ballot question asking voters to approve restoring wolves to western Colorado.

Gates, part of a longtime area family, has a ranch on Derby Mesa in northwestern Eagle County. That operation includes cattle and horses. In the fall, the ranch opens to hunters willing to pay to hunt deer and elk on private land.

Wolves are a threat to every part of that operation, Gates said.

“It hits my livelihood,” Gates said.

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Gates said he and other ranchers are used to dealing with predators. Colorado Parks and Wildlife will allow limited hunts for mountain lions if those animals become a problem for ranchers.

“We can try to keep those numbers down,” he said.

A concern for town residents

Lloyd Gerard’s family has long ranched up Gypsum Creek south of Gypsum. The operation runs cattle on large public land permit areas.

“I think the public ought to be worried as much as me,” Gerard said. He noted the decline in deer and elk populations in Eagle County, and worried that wolves might start preying on livestock and other domestic animals.

“There’s no mule deer anywhere, and this was a trophy area a few years ago,” Gerard said. Given that wolves will eat what they can catch and kill, that means livestock will be in danger.

Gerard noted the irony of letting state voters — the vast majority of whom are on the Front Range — making wildlife decisions for the Western Slope.

“They’ve outlawed pit bulls in Denver, and they want to bring the wolf back here,” he said. “There’s nothing about it that makes a lot of sense.”

Dillon and Samantha Kujala run about 500 cow/calf pairs on Derby Mesa. Samantha Kujala said she believes the agricultural community is just about universally opposed to wolf reintroduction.

“I think Colorado already has a predator issue with mountain lions, bears and coyotes,” Kujala said. And, she added, the studies she’s seen from Colorado Parks and Wildlife indicate the state doesn’t have the wildlife to support the introduction of another predator.

When predators don’t have natural prey in their habitats, they turn to what’s available. If that’s a cow with a calf, it can be a big loss for a rancher.

Any loss is ‘devastating’

“Any kind of death loss is devastating,” Kujala said. Livestock gets stressed the same way prey animals do when there are predators in the area, Kujala said. Like wildlife, stress affects breeding success with livestock, she said. And livestock animals under stress don’t gain weight the way they should.

While Colorado Parks and Wildlife reimburses ranchers for predator losses — and loss reimbursement is part of the ballot issue — Kujala noted that much of that agency’s revenue comes from the sale of hunting licenses. Further depletion of the state’s wildlife populations could lead to fewer licenses being sold, and less revenue available for operations, she said. That means taxpayers could be responsible for paying for predation losses.

None of the ranchers interviewed for this story is anti-wolf. But all said Colorado isn’t the right place for them.

“In states with wolves, the population isn’t close to Colorado’s,” Kujala said, adding that development has taken much of the winter range for deer, elk and other species.

Then there’s the fact that a small group of wolves has already wandered into the northwest part of the state. Introducing more wolves will create a conflict between packs, Kujala said.

If wolves return to the state in any numbers, Gerard said he’s worried about the future of agriculture in western Colorado.

Ranching’s been good to me in Eagle County,” Gerard said. “That may be coming to an end.”

And given the way wolves wander, Gates wonders where packs will travel if given the chance.

“Once you get (wolves) back down here, you’ll never control them,” he said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

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