Something killed dozens of cattle around White River National Forest lands in northwest Colorado and state wildlife officials don’t know what it is.
A rancher in the area first reported the death of about 18 calves early last month and Colorado Parks and Wildlife investigators initially thought wolves might be responsible. That estimation was significant because the site sits a considerable distance away from North Park, where the state’s only confirmed pack lives, meaning that if wolves had killed the calves, Colorado likely had a new and previously unreported pack.
By now, the death toll has increased to about 40, CPW Northwest Region Manager Travis Black told the state’s Parks and Wildlife Commission on Nov. 17 and over the past few weeks investigators have found no evidence that wolves are responsible.
“It’s perplexing,” Black said. “We’re scratching our heads a little bit. We don’t know exactly what has occurred up there.”
Only as many as five dead cows suffered injuries that might indicate a wolf attack, Black said.
“Missing tails, bite marks on the hocks and flanks and hamstrings,” he said.
But there’s no evidence that the wolves ever returned to their prey, which would be unusual unless the pack hunters had been spooked and were too afraid to return, Black added.
Investigators used trail cameras and surveyed the area by flying overhead, Black said. Several people had reported hearing howling over the past few years, but those reports have not been confirmed. In one case, the howls likely came from coyotes. And a lab analysis of hair and scat that might have belonged to a wolf came back inconclusive, he said.
“We have no evidence of wolves in that area,” Black said. “That doesn’t mean they’re not there. Sometimes wolves can be difficult to locate.”
During the investigation two other possible explanations emerged, Black said. First is a type of bacterial infection. If the cattle were sick any sort of attack or chase by wolves could have exacerbated their illness and killed them, Black said. But when experts examined the dead cattle for such an illness, those results came back inconclusive as well. Microscopic lesions that typically indicate such an infection weren’t there, he said.
And the second new possibility is that dogs used to protect livestock might have attacked or startled the cattle, Black said. But those dogs aren’t generally in the area this time of year.
Despite all the uncertainty, Black told the commission the investigation isn’t yet over. In time more evidence might come to light, offering an explanation as to what killed the cattle.
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