By Candace Krebs
Cat Urbigkit keeps a “wolf calendar” at her ranch in southern Wyoming to track sightings, prepare for seasonal changes and identify patterns of behavior, which shows just how much daily life revolves around the predators in places where they’ve gained a foothold.
Her experiences could provide farmers and ranchers in Colorado with some insight into what to expect if a controversial wolf reintroduction ballot initiative wins approval in November, and it’s the kind of information that is sure to be unsettling.
Urbigkit spoke at length about how she manages wolf predation during Sheep Day at the annual Colorado Farm Show in Greeley.
The heightened state-of-alert on her ranch today tracks its origin back to the introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
Urbigkit’s family has been ranching along the Prospect Mountains southeast of the Wind River Range, between Riverton and Rock Springs, for more than a century. She is also an author and publisher of Shepherd magazine.
Wyoming has an excellent livestock compensation program, which she described as a worthy model for the nation. But it only applies to ranchers located within the state’s designated “trophy game zone.” Her livestock operation falls southwest of that boundary.
Ranchers in her area receive no compensation for livestock losses but also have no restrictions against killing predatory wildlife.
Fortunately for her, Urbigkit is an internationally recognized expert in guard dog breeding and training, which has helped her manage the problem. But that doesn’t mean life on her ranch hasn’t been fundamentally changed by the presence of wolves.
“I have to run guardian dogs with my cattle now too,” she said. “When the wolves came in, I started pumping up my breeding program, and it is more challenging to manage these canine-aggressive dogs.”
The Akbash and Central Asian black shepherding dogs she now prefers run in mixed groups in hopes they can “outweigh and outnumber” the wolves, should an attack occur.
But not all livestock operations are suited to guard dogs, and Urbigkit noted that when one ranch manages to keep predators at bay, it likely intensifies pressure on the neighbors.
“The impact of wolves is not shared equally,” she stressed. “They favor some areas more than others. Some ranchers in Wyoming have given up their grazing allotments due to this.”
On her ranch, she has come to expect a “surplus kill event” about every four years. Such situations are financially and emotionally devastating, and the losses go far beyond the immediate deaths of dozens of animals. They require working with wildlife services to document the losses, putting down injured animals and providing veterinary care for others, accounting for the rest of the herd and for the guard dogs, and often doing it all in remote areas with little or no cell-phone service.
Losses also continue to pile up later from unsettled animals that are harder to manage as well as lower performance, decreased productivity and increased labor requirements.
In 2017, the year Urbigkit lost 16 sheep to a wolf attack, her market lambs weighed 10 pounds less on average than they ever had, even in periods of severe drought.
Last year she didn’t lose any livestock, but many of her neighbors weren’t so lucky. Predatory losses in the area, which are typically around 2 percent, rose to 10 percent.
“That can be the difference between a profit year and a loss year. It’s a substantial loss,” she said.
Urbigkit puts considerable time and effort into tracking, fending off and avoiding wolves. Ranchers like her find they are no longer managing the range but managing the wolf threat instead.
How best to do that is not always obvious. In one case, she deferred grazing on a parcel where six wolves had moved in, only to watch them become more strongly entrenched as a result.
She also has considerable expense tied up in specialized veterinary care for the dogs, which already cost her about $600 a year to maintain, since they often get into “raging battles” with the wolves.
Even without passage and implementation of ballot initiative 107, wolves are already starting to migrate into northwestern Colorado.
One of the same Yellowstone wolves Urbigkit has seen on her ranch was sighted north of Walden last summer.
Parker Stebakken, a young sheep producer from Sterling who was in the audience, predicted that Eastern Colorado would share some of the impact even if wolves are strategically introduced in western areas of the state.
“There will be a wolf issue on the Eastern plains,” he said in an interview. “We’re seeing lots of wildlife you wouldn’t expect to see out here, including a pair of mountain lions in our pastures this past year. Wildfires and all the people moving to the mountains are pushing wildlife to the east, and they end up following the river down.”
Stebakken plans to ramp up his flock to 750 ewes and is building facilities that will allow him to lamb indoors, in part to protect against predators in the future.