Volunteer ‘wolf lovers’ as course riders at a Colorado cattle ranch
Dale Baker would like to see wolves while huddled in his Sprinter van any other time.
But on this freezing night in rancher Don Gittleson’s pasture, they’re the last thing he wants to see.
Baker is a wolf lover who has made several trips with his wife, Fay, to Yellowstone National Park to see the predator.
Baker, who retired and moved to Fort Collins from Steamboat Springs in June, is Gittleson’s first and so far only volunteer rider whose job is to keep wolves away from the county’s registered angus cattle herd. Jackson.
“I’d rather see them through my spyglass by day than my headlights at night,” Baker, 63, said while surveying Gittleson’s herd this week.
The goal in Yellowstone is to keep quiet and watch the meadows to increase your chances of seeing wolves.
Baker’s goal in Gittleson Pasture is to drive, occasionally turning the Sprinter’s headlights on and off in hopes of keeping the wolves to come back and kill more cattle.
Baker said he didn’t know Gittleson until he read newspaper stories about wolves killing three of his beasts in December and January. Since he loves wolves and has free time, Baker found Gittleson’s phone number online and decided to call the breeder.
“I thought maybe the right thing to do as someone who really loves wolves is to try to help him and the wolves,” Baker said. “We talked for about an hour. From the wolves’ point of view, they couldn’t have chosen a better herder to pursue. He hates to see them kill or injure his livestock, but at the same time he sees what the wolves like me see wolves and understand their role in nature.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers first helped Gittleson monitor the herd at night after wolves killed a calf Dec. 18. After that, the extra drudgery was mostly given to Gittleson because his wife, two sons, and their wives work in Steamboat Springs and are at the 11,000-acre ranch northeast of Walden only on weekends.
A month after the calf was killed, the nearby wolf pack killed a pregnant heifer and wounded another pregnant heifer badly enough that Gittleson had to shoot her. The three cattle were killed late at night.
After the January 18 and 19 killings of an adjacent rancher’s heifers and cattle dog, neighbors and United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services employees helped string about 3 miles of fladry around part of a pasture. Fladry is a thin electric wire fence with flags attached to keep wolves away from livestock.
Gittleson said the wolves had been back since the rise of the fladry, which he repeatedly had to put back in place after it was blown over, but they did not enter his herd by about 180.
Gittleson said wildlife services tried to hire a horse rider to help, but couldn’t find anyone who had received their COVID-19 vaccine to do so.
“I don’t really know why you would need to be vaccinated because it’s mostly me here and this whole country,” Gittleson said.
“A big babysitting job”
Last week, Baker took the night shift, from midnight to 4 a.m., and Gittleson the last shift.
Baker said Gittleson didn’t expect him to stand guard in the pasture until midnight, but would come out much earlier because his experience watching wolves in Yellowstone showed they start to hunt at night.
He said he had seen moose, deer and elk during his shifts, but had yet to see any wolves while riding or while off duty. hiking the nearby hills to catch a glimpse of the pack of two adults and six adult pups. He said Gittleson saw tracks around the perimeter of the pasture.
“I do 30-minute cycles of driving while pointing my headlights at cattle,” Baker said. “The biggest obstacles are frozen cow patties. It’s like walking up a riverbed.”
Gittleson said he appreciated the help, especially on nights like Wednesday when the temperature dropped to 32 degrees below zero.
“Now I only have to be there half the night, so that helps,” he said. “But he’s going to run out at some point.”
Baker said wolves kill low numbers of livestock, which studies have proven, but he understands ranchers’ concerns about wolves killing their livestock.
“You really start to think about it,” Baker said. “The sad thing here is that we are catching up. There was no hazing allowed until it was too late and now we are trying to get the wolves to unlearn this behavior. It will become a big job of baby-sitting.”
Until the The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission has passed emergency regulations allowing non-lethal hazing of wolves on January 12, there was no way for ranchers to legally protect their livestock from wolves.
Gittleson said area ranchers have been raising concerns with CPW officials about wolves since last spring. That’s when it was confirmed by CPW officials that two adult wolves that naturally migrated to Colorado from Wyoming gave birth to the the state’s first puppies in 80 years last spring.
Once the six puppies got big enough, the pack started preying on Gittleson’s cattle and trouble soon arose.
Wolves are expected to be reintroduced to the state no later than the end of 2023 after voters adopted a reintroduction measure in 2020.
Defenders of Wildlife donated fladry to Gittleson, and Working Circle, a nonprofit group whose mission is to help ranchers and wolves coexist, visited Gittleson this week to offer suggestions.
Baker isn’t sure how long he will be able to volunteer, saying he has a trip to Michigan planned for the near future. He said he was way behind on his sleep and the hours were difficult, but there seem to be plenty of helping hands ready to help Gittleson and other ranchers working with the issues the wolves present.
“People get emotional about wolves,” Baker said. “My experience is you either love wolves or you don’t. I love wolves and I want to keep them alive.”
Journalist Miles Blumhardt seeks stories that impact your life. Whether it’s news, outdoors, sports – you name it, it wants to report it. Do you have a story idea? Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Colorado journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.