When Colorado voters approved the reintroduction of gray wolves in 2020, livestock owners were promised fair compensation for damages and deaths to their animals caused by wolves.
But if Colorado mirrors the experiences of livestock owners in states like Idaho and Washington, ranchers around the state fear that promise may be hollow.
Angelo “Butch” Theos, 74, and his son Anthony, 42, run a sheep operation producing fine-quality Merino wool in northwestern Colorado near Meeker. They are concerned about the future of their family’s century-old wool-growing operation when the wolf reintroduction goes into full swing.
“It's not a positive outlook. It's not,” Anthony Theos said. “We don't have much that we can do other than we have herders with them all the time. We have our livestock protection dogs, so we have that going for us, but as far as what to expect, I guess we'll just have to find out, and it's a scary situation for us.”
The United States Fish & Wildlife Service's final rule removing gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act became effective Jan. 4, 2021. Wolves are now managed by the states. In Colorado they are still classified as an endangered species under state law.
The USFWS estimates the gray wolf population in the lower 48 states at more than 6,000, "greatly exceeding the combined recovery goals for the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes populations." Mexican wolves remain federally listed as endangered.
Since the natural migration of gray wolves into northwestern Colorado was confirmed in 2019 by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, the number of wolves present in the state today is estimated to be between six and eight adults, with at least one breeding pair with three pups seen in June.
After last fall's election, in which wolf reintroduction won by 56,986 votes out of more than 3.1 million votes cast, the Colorado Wildlife Commission directed its staff to begin creating "a robust, adaptive management plan to reintroduce wolves in Colorado" by the end of 2023.
The program may introduce as many as 10 wolves per year for an undetermined number of years. But those details are very much a work in progress, said Eric Odell, species conservation program manager for CDPW. "We've begun our public engagement phase, and so we're going out and having numerous public meetings all around the state, primarily focused in the western areas, seeking input in terms of what the plan should cover.
"We'd certainly like to hear what (sheep and cattle) producers would like to hear about, or what they would consider a good program, and we would take that into consideration," Odell said.
Odell also said that this phase would be ending sometime in August.
Flourishing in the lower 48
According to the National Park Service, eight wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park on Jan. 12, 1995. By the end of 1996, 31 wolves had been released in the park and another 35 were released in central Idaho as part of a “nonessential, experimental” population under the Endangered Species Act. In the ensuing 25 years, wolf numbers in the region have burgeoned.
As of 2020, Idaho estimates its wolf population at 1,556 with 80-100 wolf packs concentrated in the central and northern mountains. Idaho’s existing wolf management plan calls for about 15 packs and about 150 wolves at a minimum.
According to Jace Hogg, federal land coordinator for the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, his office disburses about $100,000 to $150,000 annually for wolf predation claims from money provided by the federal Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. In 2020, APHIS agents killed 82 wolves in Idaho.
In response to this abundance of gray wolves and rising predation complaints, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed a controversial bill into law May 5 that adjusts hunting regulations to allow unlimited wolf tags to be issued during a year-round wolf hunting season and allows trapping and killing of wolves on private property without a tag.
Colorado statutes currently permit landowners to kill “bears, mountain lions or dogs without a permit in situations when it is necessary to prevent them from inflicting death, damage or injury to livestock, real property, a motor vehicle or human life."
However, Parks and Wildlife's Odell said wolves are protected under Colorado's endangered species law. "So a landowner cannot kill a wolf,” he said, even if the livestock owner is witnessing the attack. The role of removing predatory wolves will fall to Wildlife field personnel.
Fear for the future
Butch Theos knows wolf reintroduction is coming, and he knows that the state is supposed to fairly compensate for wolf-related losses. But he worries that what fair means to a livestock owner and what it means to those who decide what's “fair” can be two different things.
The Colorado wolf law signed by Gov. Jared Polis on June 27 says the General Assembly “shall make such appropriations as are necessary to fund the programs authorized and obligations imposed by this section, including fair compensation for livestock losses that are authorized by this section” from any of three conservation or wildlife funds and the general fund.
Butch Theos is highly skeptical.
“I mean they always come out with these programs and say they're going to have funds for them, but once you start filing on your losses, all of a sudden they don't have any funds,” he said. “And then what do you do? That's just an empty cave you’re going into.”
Said Odell, "We are required through the statute to provide fair compensation to livestock owners that suffer losses. And so that concern is not founded. There will be compensation programs specific to wolf depredation."
However, there is no statutory minimum amount the Legislature is required to appropriate for wolf management, says Rick Enstrom, who served on the state wildlife commission from 2000 to 2008 and was chairman for three years. Furthermore, legislative appropriations are political acts, so the question of what happens if legislators fail to adequately fund the program remains open.
Rob Edward, the president of Rocky Mountain Wolf Action, the advocacy organization that drove passage of Proposition 114, said he wasn't surprised to hear that ranchers' concerns about predation and financial loss remain.
He said his organization is deeply committed to finding a path forward that helps people who grow livestock on the Western Slope learn to live with wolves and to have economic systems in place that promote coexistence.
That's a tough sell to ranchers.
“We're five generations into our operation and it's something that could devastate our livelihood in generations to come,“ Anthony Theos said. “It won't happen right away. But we've had neighbors and friends in Idaho who have had a hundred sheep that were slaughtered by a pack of wolves because they pushed them off into a hole.”
He was referring to Cindy Siddoway and the Siddoway Sheep Company of Terreton, Idaho, in an incident that occurred in August 2013. Siddoway said she was horrified to learn that 176 sheep had been driven off a cliff by a wolf attack that panicked her flock of some 2,400 sheep.
At 1 a.m., two of the company’s sheepherders called to say there was a wolf attack in progress, she said. The next morning Siddoway’s son JC went to the camp and found the sheep piled up at the bottom of a cliff. One of the guard dogs was also killed by the wolves.
“Guard dogs are no match for a wolf pack,” Siddoway said.
The company did not receive any compensation for the loss, estimated at about $30,000.
“There were no funds,” Siddoway said. “There's the Office of Species Conservation that is with the state of Idaho, and it does receive federal funds from year to year. There were a few funds in 2012. No money in 2013, when this happened."
In a statement to the Denver Gazette, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Rifle, who represents the Western Slope territory where reintroduction is being planned, said the voters' decision to reintroduce gray wolves into Colorado flies in the face of science and poses a large risk of negatively impacting farming, ranching, local ecosystems and even the broader economy.
"Livestock owners should definitely be compensated fairly for any losses in which gray wolves kill or injure their animals," Boebert said. "Hopefully, the state program will provide adequate compensation, unlike the federal program, which is a bureaucratic nightmare and fails to cover a fraction of the losses that result from wolf depredation.”
Even when money is available, when all that is left of an animal is a skeleton, it can be difficult or impossible for wildlife investigators to determine the cause of death, which must be proven to be wolf-caused for any compensation to be paid. Time is the critical element when it comes to gathering evidence of a predator kill.
“They can have all the dollars in a war-chest they want, but the verification system is what is going to be most important for us,” Anthony Theos said. “Without that verification system, that’s what some producers up to the north said, they can't get people in time, and therefore they can't get compensated because they won't chalk it up to a wolf kill.”
One issue with verification is Colorado's vast tracts of public lands, 66.3 million acres, with 31.8 million acres leased, primarily for grazing, by 38,893 farms and ranches, according to the USDA in a 2017 report.
That means cattle ranchers might not see some animals for weeks or longer, and when they catch up to a carcass, they will have to prove it was a wolf and not a bear, mountain lion or dogs that did the deadly deed. Not infrequently range cows or calves go missing and are never found.
Sheep ranchers have the small advantage of having herders with the flocks constantly who can quickly report wolf attacks, Butch Theos said.
Enstrom said he is concerned that wildlife division field personnel are going to be diverted away from their regular duties managing other wildlife and habitat to respond to an ever-increasing demand for forensic investigations of potential wolf predation on livestock, leaving important work undone.
“There's never enough money, never enough people,” Enstrom said, “when you're talking about the hundreds of miles that a single person is expected to cover in a 40-hour work week.”
There are other costs to livestock owners that never enter the compensation equation, the ranchers said.
Len McIrvin, patriarch of the Diamond M Ranch near Laurier, Wash., an outspoken critic of wolf reintroduction, said that loss to predation is much greater than either Washington state officials or conservation organizations claim. McIrvin said out of some 2,000 head of mother cows, they have lost 75 to 100 cattle per year to wolves since 2008, costing the ranch about $1 million in lost revenue for direct kills.
A breeding cow killed outright by wolves is bad enough, says McIrvin, but it also deprives the ranch of 10 or more years of future calves from that cow, as well as damaging the ranch’s genetic breeding program.
But McIrvin says the biggest impact is on annual pregnancy and calf production.
“Where the wolves are attacking, a herd can run up to 25% or 30% non-pregnant cows at the end of the breeding season, whereas where wolves are not attacking it will be about 2% non-pregnant cows,” said McIrvin.
Butch Theos says sheep are no different from cattle in that respect.
“The hidden issue of the wolves coming back is when you mess with those sheep, or any livestock really, it's going to interfere with their breeding program,” he said. “Some of the sheep won't breed, I'm sure, because they're being harassed every night."
Anthony Theos said that with a 10% non-reproduction rate, the yearly loss could be $100,000 on today's market lamb price, not including the loss of as many as seven future fleeces, worth about $30-35 per animal per year.
“They like to say things like, ‘My cows didn't gain as much weight because they were stressed by the presence of wolves’,” said Edward of Rocky Mountain Wolf Action. “So far that hasn't been proven scientifically, but we don't dismiss it."
Edward said there are solutions that willing partners could work on together.
“It could, for example, look like paying a ranch for wolves that stand on their private lands, a proactive payment that says, ‘You take care of your livestock as you need to, to prevent depredation by the wolves that are here, and we will pay you some amount of money per cow based on whatever formula we come up with and agree upon, regardless of whether you suffer loss.’”
However, many ranchers, like the Theoses in Colorado, operate on leased federal grazing allotments during the summer months, often ones they’ve held for generations, moving their livestock to the home ranch and putting them on feed only over the winter.
“It’s true that, as their population recovers, wolves will prey on livestock in Colorado and there will be losses,” said Grant Spickelmier, executive director of the International Wolf Center, which is based in Minneapolis. “It's also true that sharing the landscape with wolves will create a better functioning ecosystem.
“It's often said that wolf depredation on livestock isn't a big problem unless it's happening to your farm," Spickelmier said. "Some farms are more affected than others, and it's possible to find a rancher who has had multiple calves killed by wolves. On a statewide level, though, Colorado should not see a significant impact on its livestock population from wolves.”
But it isn’t just about the sheep and cattle, Butch and Anthony Theos maintain.
“It's obviously not only the livestock that’s going to get hurt, but the wildlife are going to get decimated as well, as we've seen,” Anthony Theos said. “They talk about balance … in my opinion, it’s skewed to one side.”
According to the National Park Service, "The winter (elk) count, which was approximately 17,000 when wolf reintroduction began in 1995, fell below 10,000 in 2003" in Yellowstone. "It fluctuated between 6,000 and 7,000 as the wolf population on the park’s northern range declined from 94 in 2007 to 50 by the end of 2015. The elk count dropped to 3,915 in early 2013, the lowest since culling ended in the park in the 1960s.”
Former wildlife commissioner Enstrom said the reduction of Wyoming’s big game herds is evidence of the threat to Colorado’s wild game and multi-billion-dollar annual hunting economy.
According to the Colorado Wildlife Council, hunting and fishing bring more than $3.25 billion into the state annually and support more than 25,000 full-time jobs.
“The past director of the wildlife commission in Wyoming said there are two big problems: grizzlies and wolves," Enstrom said. "Their herds have been knocked back to 10% of what it was.”
North Woods experience
Some observers say Colorado's reintroduction experience may be analogous to that of Minnesota, which has a similar human population to Colorado and provides 3% of the nation’s beef. Colorado provides 5%.
In 2019, Minnesota verified 74 calf kills, 11 cow kills, two sheep kills, two dog kills and 10 “other” animals. The 2020 wolf population is estimated at 2,696 wolves in 631 packs, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Minnesota paid out about $107,000 last year for the previous year's loss. This does not include the annual cost of wolf management, expected to be just under half a million dollars this year.
Colorado is looking to spend much more than that, at least $2 million in the next two years just to set up the program.
Defending the herd
Colorado ranchers are necessarily wait-and-see on reintroduction's impacts.
Rick Randall runs cattle on 250,000 acres of Forest Service allotments in and around Union Park, west of Buena Vista, as part of the oldest cattle pooling operation in Colorado, where several ranchers run their livestock together.
He came to Colorado about 20 years ago from his family’s ranch some 80 miles north of Cheyenne, Wyo.
“I’ve been here 17 years,” said Randall. “We run 1,200 head.”
Randall said his family in Wyoming had passed down wolf stories dating back to the 1930s. “My family told me that the wolves would come through and kill 25, 30 calves at a time and not take a bite out of them, just kill them and go on,” he said.
The last wolf in Colorado was shot near Meeker by a government hunter in 1945.
Asked about the prospect of having to be armed against predators, Randall chuckled and said, “We go around armed anyway. We have bear and mountain lion, but it’s been 10 years since we killed a predator getting our livestock.”
Randall is not looking forward to having to deal with wolves.
“Wolves are pretty and interesting, but they are vicious,” he said. “Our livestock are our livelihood, our life.”
Colorado Politics' Joey Bunch contributed to this article.