WALDEN, Colo. — Many would agree that saving endangered animals is important, but that mission gets complicated when the endangered animals are predators.
The gray wolf once roamed across nearly two dozen states in the U.S. After decades of overhunting, they’ve been reintroduced in just a handful of states hoping to restore ecological balance.
But balance to some means chaos to others. In the case of the gray wolf, reintroduction in several states have led to contentious legal battles and polarizing arguments between conservationists and ranchers, whose farms often sit next to wolf territory.
Don Gittleson’s ranch in Walden, Colorado is one of them.
“My grandparents raised Angus cattle when I was a kid,” said Gittleson.
Ranching is in his blood, but the wolves are threatening to make his livelihood a lot harder to earn.
“They came in one night, and they killed a calf,” said Gittleson.
Wolves have attacked and killed three of his cows in just the last couple of weeks.
“The worst was the cow they didn’t kill because of how bad they tore her up, and I knew when I saw her, we’d have to put her down.”
Gittleson is worried this will become a common sight on his Colorado ranch and others like it.
In 2020, voters decided to reintroduce the animals to Colorado. In recent years, they have been reintroduced in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
Conservationists are excited to see the wolf population growing, but many ranchers aren’t.
“This is not Idaho; this is not Montana, this is not Wyoming,” said Gittleson. “There are way more people in this state, and once the wolves get here, this is going to be a way bigger mess than any of those states.”
Gittleson said the reintroduction in Colorado has to be different for it to work. It has to protect wolves and support businesses. In past reintroduction efforts, he said ranchers were largely left out of the conversation.
“If they want to have the wolves and they want it to work, they’re going to have to compensate the ranchers.”
He is hoping the compensation will go beyond just paying for the animal that was killed.
“I can’t be replacing cows, because I’m only going to get paid for the cow. I’m not going to get paid for her production, I’m not going to get paid for the calf that I lose from her. I can’t stay in business that way.”
The fight for better rancher compensation is just the first step to protect his herd. Gittleson is changing the way he runs his ranch, moving cattle differently and building specific, physical barriers around his pastures to keep the wolves out. He’s never had to go to such extremes before.
On top of the fortifications, he’s also building bridges: inviting wildlife advocates to his ranch.
It’s an unusual partnership. Together, ranchers and conservationists will advise the Colorado Department of Wildlife on how to reintroduce wolves safely.
“For wolves to succeed on this landscape, we need to make sure ranchers, the stewards of this landscape, can succeed too,” said Karin Vardaman runs non-profit, Working Circle. Working Circle has worked for decades on successful collaboration between ranching communities and wildlife in multiple states across the country. The group advocates for both ranchers and wolves.
She and her staff are volunteering to protect herds at night. This is an emergency partnership she and her team have done before in other locations. It's welcome help to the ranchers, especially Gittleson.
“This is kind of that emergency response, so you know providing that 24-hour watch,” said Vardaman.
She will stay in the pasture until sunrise to keep the wolves out. It’s not a permanent solution, but for these community advocates, it’s a show of good faith to the ranchers that they are committed to developing a better plan for reintroduction.
This firsthand ranch experience is something these advocates have never had before in this community. They hope it builds bridges for a successful reintroduction for years to come.
“I got into wolf work because I love wolves, but I’m just grateful because I feel like the veil has been lifted for me. I’ve just fell in love with the ranching community and their way of life,” said Vardaman.
She doesn’t know how long her team can help out like this in Walden, but she says it’s the understanding and collaboration happening here that will help make this reintroduction a nationwide conservation model.