A View to a Kill

Is is possible for ranchers and wolves to coexist in Colorado?

February 2011

He admits he’s not the typical rancher. “Bush Must Go,” reads one bumper sticker on his fridge; another reads “Cows Not Condos.” I’ve been in a lot of ranchers’ kitchens, but not one like this—not with organic soap next to the sink, a Christmas card from John Kerry, a peace-sign card on the wall.

There are 1,300 acres out Jay Fetcher’s kitchen window—mountain meadows that comprise his base ranch, which borders the Elk River. Close by, Red Angus bulls rest, knees folded under hulking bodies; far beyond the pines of Routt National Forest slope upward and give way to waves of mountains. We’re far north here, past the boutique-ized Steamboat Springs, past the fancy houses, past the ranchettes, into a country of round hay bales, pickup trucks, and horses that, invigorated by the cool fall weather, gallop across pasture.

Fetcher is a lithe man in a fleece jacket, khaki hiking pants, and comfy-looking moccasin shoes. To be honest, he looks like he belongs a little closer to town than out here. He’s been ranching his whole life, though, and with an advanced degree and a reputation for progressive practices, he mixes a bit of tradition with new-school science and ideology. I figure if any rancher is open to the possibility of ranching alongside wolves, it would be him. And he may be one of the first to actually do that, as the gray wolves migrate from Wyoming—where they were re-introduced in the 1990s—into the top portion of Colorado. He and his neighbors are the testing ground, basically, for wolves in Colorado, and I’m curious what he and others are going to do when the wolves come.

“People aren’t going to be very happy,” Fetcher says. “But wolves are right at the doorstep, they’re coming; they’re probably already here. What we do when they get here, that’s the question.”

“And what will that be? The three Ss?”

I try to make a joke of this rancher lingo for “shoot, shovel, and shut up,” but he doesn’t smile. “Yep,” he says, “pretty much.”

“Like, how many ranchers are going to take that approach?”

“Some places, about 100 percent.”

I bite my lip and look out his window. I was hoping Fetcher would dispel my fears, that he, if anyone, would be optimistic enough to see a different pattern, a different take, a changing ideology. I’ve been asking every rancher I bump into what he or she thinks about wolves, and I get the familiar arguments: We worked hard to get them out of here, for a reason; Colorado is too populated; wolves roam and kill too much; it’s too late to bring them back; they’re just flat-out unnecessary; they’re some romantic nonsense that only rich urbanites could think up; and why the hell would we want to make more trouble than we’ve already got? To my knowledge, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association doesn’t want them, nor does the Farm Bureau, the Colorado Wool Growers Association, or any other agricultural organization I know of. And though ag-based folks only make up a small part of Colorado’s population these days, they’re the ones who will be dealing with wolves, and there’s just not a lot of support for Canis lupus out here.

It’s been a long time since Colorado officially had wolves; the last confirmed wolf kill in Colorado was in 1935, and since then, only one sighting has been confirmed. But in the past few months, there have been a spate of unconfirmed sightings. Meanwhile, the debate about wolves has flared up, first with this past summer’s relisting of the wolves as an endangered species, and then with the recent threat to sue the Obama administration to force it to restore wolves to their historical range in the lower 48 states.

Fetcher admits he’s open to wolves, under certain circumstances, but acknowledges that he’s a rarity. So I ask him how other ranchers could come around, or at least think twice before taking a shot and getting out the shovel.

It’s here that the conversation turns more hopeful, and we discuss real-world ways to deal with, as he puts it, the “very tight balance.”

Fetcher wants the ability to take a shot “across the bow” at wolves that are threatening his cattle—to teach them to fear humans—and to have this be within his legal rights. There’s no doubt wolves are going to kill livestock, and that they need to be discouraged from doing so if ranchers are going to have a chance.

And when the wolves do kill livestock, the subsequent action is important too. The idea of ranchers being compensated for wolf-caused losses is not universally popular. There’s the question of who’s going to pay, how much, and how all that gets determined. Regardless, ranchers argue that wolves put their livelihoods in jeopardy, and expect quick and easy compensation. Proponents say ranchers shouldn’t be reimbursed for losses suffered because of Mother Nature. “You lose animals to lightning,” I say.

“I can’t control lightning,” Fetcher says. “Wolves, I can. I’m willing to put up with a few dead animals a year, to accept it as part of the bargain, part of the gamble. But more than that, no way.”