The latest line of defense against wolves on this Colorado ranch? guard donkeys

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“What we want to create in the wolves’ minds is a possibility that if you get into the cows, you could be killed or injured,” Gittleson said.

Gittleson knows that ranchers and wildlife advocates alike are watching his experiment with donkey defenders. It comes as Colorado wildlife officials finalize plans to turn the state into a safe haven for the endangered predators, both over active release of gray wolves and to protect others who arrive alone. Any tool used to limit livestock losses could help ranchers decide whether the canines are a tolerable nuisance or an existential threat.

Sam Brasch/CPR News
The Gittleson Angus and Gittleson Family Cattle Company in Jackson County, outside of Walden, Colorado, March 18, 2022.

Wolves have posed a threat to livestock since their return to the region

Recent events in Colorado’s rugged North Park region haven’t given ranchers much reason to calm down. Last year, a pair of wolves migrated to the region without human help and settled in a den. A group of pups later emerged, providing the first evidence of gray wolf reproduction in the state since hunters and trappers eradicated the species in the 1940s.

The wolves have since proved adept at hunting wildlife, domestic animals, and livestock on other ranches. The pack likely killed another cow and dog on neighboring properties, according to state wildlife officials.

Gittleson’s preferred response would be to shoot the predators, but that is illegal under federal and state law. He has instead opted for non-lethal deterrents, such as electric fences and night vigils, to deter any wolves entering the property. He credits that effort for the lack of attacks over the past month, but doesn’t expect the luck to last.

“All of these things wolves will get used to, so it’s going to have a shelf life,” he said. “You won’t be afraid of it forever.”

Gittleston Ranch in Jackson County, outside of Walden, Colorado, March 18, 2022.Sam Brasch/CPR News
Don and Kim Gittleston at their ranch in Jackson County, outside of Walden, Colorado, March 18, 2022.

Instead of guard dogs, guard donkeys

Gittleson knew that guard animals could provide another layer of protection for his livestock. Huge dogs were an option, but he decided against it after learning the high price of their food. Through discussions with state and federal wildlife officials, Gittleson discovered that guard donkeys might be a better choice. A tide of wild donkeys are already foraging on state-managed public lands, confronting predators in the process.

His first attempts to get donkeys from the US Bureau of Land Management encountered bureaucratic hurdles. It was at this point that he mentioned his ambitions to Zach Weaver, a local Colorado Parks and Wildlife official.

Weaver soon identified six wild donkeys from the Nevada highlands who were available for adoption. He picked up the animals at a facility in Utah and brought them to the family ranch in late February.

videos approved by state wildlife agencies Show the moment the donkeys arrive at the property. The set of six trotted off a trailer and began eating some hay that was laid out on the dirt. Others stood in complete silence.

Gittleston Ranch in Jackson County, outside of Walden, Colorado, March 18, 2022.Sam Brasch/CPR News
The Gittleson Angus and Gittleson Family Cattle Company in Jackson County, outside of Walden, Colorado, March 18, 2022.

According to Don Gittleson’s grandson, 13-year-old Esten Gittleson, the donkeys’ behavior hasn’t changed much. Before spring break, which he spent helping out on the ranch, he approached the guard animals with his school friends. Eisten told his schoolmates that his family got some “cool donkeys that are going to go after those wolves.”

As Eisen pulled string from the haystack, he admitted that the donkeys seemed a little too calm to be effective wolf repellents. Even a dog entering the pen didn’t wake the donkeys, he said.

Other wolfland ranchers say donkeys’ calm demeanor can be deceiving. Chuck Becker, a rancher from northern Minnesota, has been using donkeys on his property to drive timber wolves away for about two decades. He’s never seen one get to a wolf, but once witnessed the aftermath of a coyote attempting to get past one of the guard animals.

“He hits it about half to death, and then he just stands back about 100 feet and watches it like he’s waiting for it to try to get away,” Becker said. “It was like a cat with a mouse.”

Gittleston Ranch in Jackson County, outside of Walden, Colorado, March 18, 2022.Sam Brasch/CPR News
The Gittleson Angus and Gittleson Family Cattle Company in Jackson County, outside of Walden, Colorado, March 18, 2022.

Raising the next generation of guard donkeys

Becker said he lost cattle to wolves every year before bringing donkeys to the ranch. Now he only loses an animal every four to five years.

While the guard animals have proven effective, Becker warns that not every donkey is equally prone to trampling on wolves’ fears. He said they are most defensive when raised with cattle and learning to protect them as part of their own herd.

This prospect is why Gittleson bought a fertile male to breed with the wild donkeys. Eventually, he hopes to be able to raise young donkeys alongside calves, but doubts they will ever be 100 percent effective. He expects to lose more cattle to wolves during the upcoming spring calving season, and even more if he releases his cattle to graze thousands of acres of public land he leases from the federal government each summer.

“There’s not going to be a perfect solution, so hopefully people won’t get too disappointed in their expectations of how this is going to work,” Gittleson said.

Gittleston Ranch in Jackson County, outside of Walden, Colorado, March 18, 2022.Sam Brasch/CPR News
Don Gittleston stands at his ranch in Jackson County, outside of Walden, Colorado, on March 18, 2022.
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