Wildlife officials find no evidence of wolves near Meeker, where 40 cattle were found dead inexplicably

Dylan Anderson
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Bill Fales and Marj Perry raise cattle near Carbondale, pictured here. They fear that the presence of wolves in Colorado would come with a significant economic hit to their ranching operations.
Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have little explanation for why as many as 40 cattle near Meeker have shown up dead in recent months in a situation described as “perplexing” to the agency’s governing board this month.

While wolves were an early target for blame, Parks and Wildlife’s Northwest Regional Director Travis Black said just “a handful,” of the dead cattle have any signs that could be consistent with a wolf attack, there was no sign of feeding and they haven’t found any evidence of wolves in the area.

“It’s perplexing; it’s confusing; it’s frustrating, trying to figure out exactly what occurred in this incident,” Black told the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission on Nov. 17. “We have no evidence of wolves in that area. That doesn’t mean they are not there.”

“We’re going to continue to work with the livestock producer to investigate this,” he continued. “In time, we may find other evidence to help support one way or another.”

The livestock deaths come as Parks and Wildlife officials have been working to craft a plan to reintroduce wolves in Colorado by the end of next year after voters narrowly approved bringing the killed-off carnivore back to the state in 2020. That plan will be presented to the Parks and Wildlife Commission on Dec. 9.

Initial reports from early October blamed wolves for the death of 18 calves on White River National Forest land where cattle were grazing, which, if confirmed, would have meant there was another wolf pack making a return to Colorado ahead of schedule.

But Black said trail cameras, howling surveys and aerial flights haven’t located any trace of wolves — “We have no tracks.”

Rancher Lenny Klinglesmith told The Fence Post in October that all 18 of those calves had “trauma indicative of a wolf pack killing,” but Black said the investigation has only found “injuries, some contusions, some hemorrhaging that were somewhat consistent with wolf depredation,” on as many as five calves.

As more cattle were gathered from the range, Black said more were found dead, though few of the 40 show signs of wolf killing and there was no sign of wolves feeding on any of the dead animals.

Black said they consulted with a veterinarian to see if there was a health component causing the deaths such as Clostridium bacteria, which he said can be exacerbated by the presence of wolves. But reviews by Colorado State University and Texas A&M University didn’t turn up much evidence for that either.

“We’re scratching our heads,” Black said.

This case differs from the wolf pack in North Park near Walden because that case had evidence of feeding, making it easy to jump to conclusions, Black said. That pack killed several cattle and attacked two dogs last winter, though Parks and Wildlife officials suspect three of those wolves were killed legally in Wyoming since.

“What we’re lacking (in the Meeker case), in my opinion, is that typical feeding behavior that we would see … typically wolves would come back and feed on a carcass,” Black said.

Parks and Wildlife officials hoped that more evidence of wolves near Meeker would have surfaced during hunting season, as there are more folks out in the woods, but that hasn’t been the case. There have been a handful of livestock predation reports in the area, but none of them appear to be wolves, Black said.

Black said they would continue to investigate, and admitted it can take time to find evidence of wolves.

“We’re trying not to jump to conclusions here,” Black said.

Several speakers in public comment pointed toward the Meeker case as why any livestock reimbursement program established when wolves are officially reintroduced in Colorado needs to be broad, and account for cattle indirectly killed by wolves.

Reid DeWalt, Parks and Wildlife’s assistant director of aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources, said issues like livestock compensation are addressed in the plan, which will be presented to the Parks and Wildlife Commission in a webinar on Dec. 9 at 8:30 a.m. That webinar will be livestreamed on YouTube, and the plan will be available to the public for comment.

As for North Park, DeWalt said Parks and Wildlife officials continue to see wolves in the area, though there are a lot of indications that three wolves killed in Wyoming were members of that pack. The wolves killed legally were all a year and a half old, black females without a tracking collar, DeWalt said.

“There will be all kinds of twists and turns in this story, and this is just one of those,” DeWalt said.

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