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