A rancher’s primary job is to husband livestock. I grew up on a small ranch in northern Colorado, and my childhood memories are dominated with scenes of doing just that. The calf born in cold weather put into the bathtub, blood streaming down the drain with warm water. Other calves in the kitchen, late at night, their new soft-looking hooves sliding across linoleum as they try, by instinct, to stand. Once I saw my mother, desperate to save a suffocating newborn calf, bend down and administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and I watched the calf kick and come back to life. I remember my dad reaching his finger into the mouth of another to pull out the goop that was choking her. I’ve checked on cattle with him a hundred times—counting, looking, searching for the stray, caring. I have watched his eyes as they watch, as they pay attention.
This deep-rooted care is at the core of ranching, and it goes way beyond reason or economic sense. It’s an odd form of love, to be sure—fierce protectiveness for an animal that will probably be sold or slaughtered, but also the belief that while it’s alive, by God, the animal is going to be protected and nurtured.
Wolves, though—that’s a difficult one. My parents probably won’t need to contend with them where they live, but the impulse I see in them, I see in other ranchers: An honest-to-God willingness to live and let live, but also a knowledge that livestock must be protected. It’s a fragile balance. There’s a need to protect, and there’s a suspicion of things that can come in and hurt.
No wonder ranchers don’t embrace the wolf. A dead calf is something more than a lost animal or a monetary figure. The heart hurts in these cases. And how many of us open our arms to a painful thing, ready to embrace danger? I think ranchers would like wolf proponents to understand why it’s so hard to welcome an animal that is, yes, gorgeous, and wild, and part of the natural balance, but is also a creature that’s going to break their heart a time or two.
I stare out at Fetcher’s ranch and consider: What if? What if a gray wolf was out there, running, hugging the valley, moving unseen? Thick fur dark over the back, lighter at the chest, black-tipped ears, sharp eyes, skinny legs, alert. Alive. Perhaps it’s a female and there are wolf pups growing in her belly. Perhaps it’s a male and he’s moving toward a kill—elk or calf or deer—and his body leaps, caught in flight, and then there is a thud, as both prey and predator come down.
How can that happen and ranchers survive too?
I believe ranches are one of the best ways of preserving land and ecosystems in the West. They are, in large part, what give the West space—and yet, an acre of Colorado’s agricultural land is lost every three minutes. I’m a sentimental sort, and when I drive by a bulldozer tearing into rural land, I shake my head no to the tears that threaten to spill out every time I see this land being ruined. Every single time.
I eye a towel in Fetcher’s kitchen that reads: “Give up drinking, smoking, and fat and you’ll be really healthy ’till you kill yourself.”
It’s a funny notion, which indicates that some dangers are worth it. Like wolves, maybe? “OK, final question,” I ask Fetcher. “What would you do if you saw a wolf here tomorrow?”
His eyes and body shift from explanation mode to a place that’s more about his heart. He thinks for a minute and then says, “That would be a great thing to see. I’d say ‘Yippee!’ I’d tell authorities. And then I’d wait and see. A wolf. Well, that would be something, wouldn’t it?”