Last line of defense against wolves on this Colorado ranch? Keep donkeys
A Colorado rancher has brought in reinforcements to help protect his cattle from wolves.
Don Gittleson now has seven donkeys on his mountain ranch near Walden, near the Wyoming border. One recent morning, three of the donkeys watched with intense concentration as Gittleson entered a cattle pen, their ears snapping forward to follow the sound of his footsteps.
Gittleson hopes the animals will make his herd a tougher target for local wolves, who have killed three of his cattle since last December. If all goes according to plan, the next wolf that attempts to approach a cow will encounter a hurricane of donkey hooves and teeth.
“What we want to create in the minds of wolves is the possibility that if you walk into the cows, you could be killed or injured,” Gittleson said.
Gittleson knows ranchers and wildlife advocates are watching his experience with donkey advocates carefully. It comes as Colorado wildlife officials finalize plans to turn the state into a safe haven for endangered predators, both by actively releasing gray wolves and protecting others arriving alone. Any tool to limit livestock losses could help farmers decide whether canines are a tolerable nuisance or an existential threat.
Wolves have been threatening livestock since returning to the area
Recent events in the rugged North Park region of Colorado have not given cattlemen much cause for consolation. Last year, a pair of wolves wandered the area without human help and settled into a den. A set of pups emerged later, marking the first evidence of gray wolf breeding in the state since hunters and trappers eradicated the species in the 1940s.
Wolves have since proven adept at hunting wildlife, domestic animals, and livestock on other ranches. The pack likely killed another cow and a dog at nearby properties, according to state wildlife officials.
Gittleson’s preferred response would be to shoot predators, but that’s illegal under federal and state law. Instead, he opted for non-lethal deterrents, such as electric fences and night watches to scare off wolves entering the property. He attributes those efforts to the lack of attacks over the past month, but does not expect the good fortune to last.
“All of these things that wolves are going to get used to, so it’s going to have a lifespan,” he said. “They won’t be afraid of it forever.”
Instead of guard dogs, guard donkeys
Gittleson knew guard animals could add another layer of protection to his cattle. Massive dogs were an option, but he decided not to use them after learning of the high price of their food. Through conversations with state and federal wildlife officials, Gittleson discovered that guard donkeys might be a better choice. An overabundance of wild burros are already searching for food on federally managed public lands and facing predators along the way.
His early attempts to obtain donkeys from the United States Bureau of Land Management ran into bureaucratic obstacles. It was then that he mentioned his ambitions to Zach Weaver, a local Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer.
Weaver quickly identified six wild Nevada high country burros available for adoption. He picked up the animals from a facility in Utah and delivered them to the family ranch in late February.
Videos released by state wildlife officials show the moment the burros arrive on the property. The group of six left a trailer and began to feed on hay spread on the ground. Others stood in complete stillness.
Little has changed in the donkeys’ behavior, according to Don Gittleson’s grandson, Eisten Gittleson, 13. He told his school friends about the guard animals before spring break, which he spent helping out at the ranch. Eisten told his classmates that his family received “cool donkeys that are about to make ham on these wolves.”
As Eisten pulled the string off a bale of hay, he admitted the donkeys seemed a little too calm to effectively deter the wolves. Even a dog entering the paddock hadn’t woken the donkeys, he said.
Other breeders in wolf country say the quiet demeanor of donkeys can be misleading. Chuck Becker, a rancher in northern Minnesota, has used donkeys on his property to hunt deer wolves for about two decades. He has never seen one approach a wolf, but has witnessed the aftermath of a coyote attempting to run past one of the guard animals.
“He pretty much beats him to death and then he backs up about a hundred feet and looks at him, like he’s waiting for him to try to get away,” Becker said. “It was like a cat with a mouse.”
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 one animal every four to five years.
Although guard animals have proven effective, Becker warns that not all donkeys are equally prone to trample fear of wolves. He said they are more defensive when raised with livestock and learn to protect them as part of their own herd.
This prospect is why Gittleson purchased a fertile male to breed with the wild burros. Eventually, he hopes to raise young donkeys alongside the calves, but he doubts they will ever be 100% efficient. He expects to lose more cattle to wolves in the upcoming spring calving season and even more when he releases his cattle to graze the 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 be too disappointed in their expectations of how this is going to work,” Gittleson said.