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By RJ Sangosti

COLD SPRINGS MOUNTAIN — A lone black heifer wailed, wandering into white mist as night fell across a sage-studded plateau in the middle of where a wolf pack has moved into northwestern Colorado.

Rancher T. Wright Dickinson looked on, frowning, aggrieved — an arch conservative westerner whose family has run cattle here since 1885 on high country spanning three states that ranks among the last large open landscapes.

He’d turned this heifer loose for grazing through spring-fed meadows where deer, pronghorn antelope and elk roam. It’s destined to be beef for city dwellers who shop at Whole Foods but, for now, Dickinson emphasized, a moral duty obligates him to protect his herd.

“They are vulnerable,” he said. “We’re very concerned about how this relationship with wolves is going to be.”

The goodwill of ranchers like Dickinson, main tenants in still-wild parts of the West and key players in preserving open space, looms as a casualty in the push to re-establish wolves in Colorado.

Bolstering the six wolves that arrived on their own, voters concentrated in cities — Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Boulder — are poised this November to order state officials to introduce an unspecified number more. Gov. Jared Polis has declared he’s “honored to welcome our canine friends back.”

Colorado’s statewide wolf-reintroduction ballot initiative is rankling rural communities, rekindling old conflicts over the purpose of public lands. It’s straining the hard-won partnership that ensures, if not pure nature, the conservation of open landscapes in the face of Colorado’s population growth and development boom.

Nowhere has this initiative hit stiffer resistance than here in northwestern Colorado, where residents cling to ranching and elk hunting as coal mining dies due to climate concerns, another imposition by wolf-friendly urban liberals, residents contend, who want to remake the place as an ecosystem preserve.

Colorado’s Initiative 107: Restoration of Gray Wolves is expected to pass — one poll shows 84% statewide support despite opposition from two dozen county commissions — widening wolves’ western comeback after federal agencies reintroduced them in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho starting in 1995, following extirpation before 1940. Federal records now show more than 6,000 wolves in the Lower 48 states.

State wildlife biologists would be required to install wolves on public land west of the Continental Divide by the end of 2023, enough to ensure wolf survival, with public input and compensation for ranchers who lose livestock. The wording of the ballot measure enshrines proponents’ view that wolves were “an essential part of the wild habitat of Colorado” before extermination and must be restored to bring back “a critical balance in nature.”

A voter-driven re-introduction of wolves through direct democracy in Colorado would mark an unprecedented assertion of rising urban demands for ecological integrity with a full mix of species inhabiting public land.

The problem is that the arrival of wolves on their own, let alone artificially installing more, complicates human existence because the federal government still protects wolves as an endangered species. Ranchers legally cannot kill or harass a wolf, even if it’s attacking a calf, without risking jail time and a $100,000 fine. Blocking ranchers from fulfilling an ingrained moral duty creates “a helpless feeling,” Dickinson said. “You are powerless to react.”

Beyond operational disruptions, ranchers and local leaders confide they’re bothered most at a deeper level by what they see as an urban attack on agriculture akin to twisting a stick in the eye.

“What have we got left?” former Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck said. “Tourism and recreation? We can’t hang our hat on that.”

If voters order more wolves, some ranchers warn, they will jeopardize cooperation to preserve open landscapes that city dwellers increasingly covet with population growth and development jam-packing Denver and transforming mountain valleys.

“This will destroy the very real conservation partnership in Colorado between the thoughtful conservation community and agriculture,” Dickinson said. “Colorado has come a long way in my lifetime, away from the ‘Cattle-Free by ’93’ idea that livestock are not integral and beneficial to public lands. Conservation in Colorado will only be successful with a true partnership with agriculture. Why do we want to risk that relationship?

“There isn’t enough money in Greater Outdoors Colorado (the state-backed land conservation fund from lottery sales), or in the state budget, or even in the federal budget, to protect and keep these open lands providing open space and ecological values as they do. It is working agriculture, profitable agriculture, that keeps private lands as open space. Otherwise, the demand for second homes, what would that do? Look at what happened in the Vail Valley and nearly every other Colorado mountain valley.”

Fellow rancher Donald Broom, a county commissioner, compared voter-driven re-introduction of wolves to eviction. “This is just another way for folks in cities to try to get livestock people off these public lands,” he said.

Ranchers are complaining, “concerned about their cattle,” Broom said. “They’re saying, ‘This is going to hurt us. What are we going to do?’ They don’t have a clear answer.”

The compensation Colorado Parks and Wildlife would pay for cows killed by wolves “doesn’t make it OK” any more than money would mollify urban cat and dog owners if a coyote ate their pet, he said.

“Ranchers get to know those cows. If you’ve got a cow that provides you a calf year after year, they’re like part of the family. It’s not like we look at it just as an animal,” he said. “Yeah, it’s going to go to market eventually. But ranchers have still got feelings for their cows.”

Hunters have joined ranchers opposing wolves.

“This will run us out of business,” said Tyler Emrick, who recently took over an outfitting company with high hopes. “It all boils down to the way of life here. The way of life in the West is not the same as in the East. Just like with coal, ” he said, referring to 600 coal industry jobs to be lost. “And I have little kids. If we started getting more wolves, it would be eerie to go out late at night and check on the chicken shed.”

Meanwhile, wolf-backing veterans of repeated polarizing battles embrace Colorado as a crucial habitat bridge to link wolves in northern states with those in Mexico to truly resurrect an iconic predator.

They point to data from states where wolves were reintroduced showing increased statewide elk numbers and hunting revenues as out-of-kilter herds grow healthier. Wolves have killed fewer than 0.5% of cows, because they prey primarily on elk and deer, said Rob Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund.

And Colorado’s transformation amid population growth and a development boom “is not a reason to not bring wolves back,” Edward said. “It is a reason for the livestock industry to come into the 21st century and learn how to co-exist with a full complement of native carnivores on the land where they make a living.”

The environmental advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife for years has been running coexistence workshops with ranchers. The organization scheduled a session in February southeast of here in Craig. Defenders of Wildlife field biologists teach non-lethal deterrence using colored flags on fences that flap in the wind, guard-dog patrols, motion sensor-activated strobe lights, and raising calves to circle in herds and not bolt when threatened.

Only a few ranchers attended. Wolf opponents had scheduled a countervailing “Dance Without Wolves” fundraiser, Defenders of Wildlife program director Karin Vardaman said.

“Disappointing. People were spooked,” Vardaman said, calling ranchers indispensable.

“Wolves are coming. We often hear from ranchers that the wolves are going to be the final straw. Well, we can help these ranching operations become stronger,” she said. “Ranchers are the stewards of much of the land. We’ve got to respect them for that role. The fact is, with the human population growing, and more competition for open space, predators and livestock are going to be on the same land. How can we make this work for everybody?”

Political combatants now have dug in, flinging claims. On one side, opponents from the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition contend wolves will spread sickness worse than COVID-19. On the other, wolf lovers say predators will guarantee cascading ecological benefits. Combatants on both sides simultaneously lament divisive attacks.

The battle over wolves intensified in January when Colorado Parks and Wildlife leaders, who in 2016 banned wolf reintroduction, declared that wolves are “already back,” having returned on their own. CPW did this days after state election officials placed the citizen-driven initiative to reintroduce wolves on this year’s ballot.

“There’s a pack established in northwestern Colorado,” CPW species conservation manager Eric Odell said, citing evidence from three sites around Cold Springs Mountain, where Dickinson on this recent night watched his young cow.

State-funded genetic analysis of wolf scat showed three females and a male and sibling relations among the wolves, Odell said, though ages and birthplaces couldn’t be determined.

A scavenged elk carcass was found at the mouth of Irish Canyon, where Dickinson moves cows to high pastures. Mountain lion hunters previously had found another carcass and had seen wolves and paw prints through snow on the northwestern side of the mountain.

In March, CPW employees spotted six wolves and a dead deer along the Green River in the Brown’s Park federal refuge, just south of a pasture where Dickinson’s first-time mother cows were giving birth.

He was working there a couple days later, trudging quietly through the ranching equivalent of a maternity ward, as recovering cows nursed newborns.

Calves were wobbling at Dickinson’s knees back then, breath steaming the crisp mountain air, as he leaned on a fence coordinating work with his sister and brother. They embrace Global Animal Partnership standards for humane treatment as part of their deal supplying Whole Foods, allowing lethal force to protect herds only as a last resort.

Yet if those wolves approached, Dickinson said at the time, he couldn’t drive them away without breaking laws.

“We are holding our breath here,” he said.

For years, Dickinson has combined ranching with public service in line with his beliefs in science-based agricultural stewardship as best for the future of the West. His ancestors settled here four generations ago and his great grandfather dined with outlaw Butch Cassidy and his boys, who stashed silver coins worth $30,000 somewhere in Irish Canyon. Dickinson has served as a Moffat County commissioner, chairman under Gov. Bill Owens of Greater Outdoors Colorado, watershed representative and president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

Now wolves still wander across his mix of private and mostly public land. CPW officials provided The Denver Post a June 3 photo, captured by a state motion-sensing camera, that shows a wolf eating an elk.

Federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials who oversee endangered species declined to discuss wolves in Colorado. Responding to emailed queries, agency spokeswoman Vanessa Kauffman wrote that “we have sporadically observed a small pack of six wolves that appear to have entered northwest Colorado either via the adjacent Uintah Mountains or across Wyoming.” They’ve been eating “native prey, primarily elk and deer. …

The wolves in Colorado have spurred ranchers to wrestle with what they would do in case of attack. Cattlemen are calling on state leaders to put out a management plan allowing lethal protection of livestock.

East of Dickinson, Angelo Raftopoulos, whose family runs cattle on both sides of the Colorado-Wyoming border, concluded anti-wolf advocates’ approach of “shoot, shovel and shut up” is wrong and too risky.

“If I were to do anything, I would shoot the cow to put her out of her misery,” Raftopoulos said over a burger in Baggs, Wyoming.

“At some point, it will happen,” he said, and Great Pyrenees dogs cannot hold their ground against wolves. Maybe “some sort of Russian bear dog?”

“What people do, over there on the Front Range with the majority of the votes, affects our livelihoods,” said Raftopoulos, a Colorado State University graduate who has lived in Fort Collins.

Rotational grazing to control invasive cheatgrass, which spread after ruinous over-grazing in the 1840s, has revived native vegetation, he said. “We preserve nature. What are the urban voters doing to help nature?”

Across the Zirkel Mountains near Walden, a lone wolf with a radio collar, No. 1084 from Wyoming, has been roaming for years. It may be the wolf that bison rancher Jim Beauprez encountered about 10 years ago while installing fence.

It was late afternoon. He’d parked his four-wheeler. He had a feeling something was watching, he said. He turned around and made eye contact with a creature that looked too large to be a coyote and ducked behind a crest.

“I kept working. About 35 minutes later, he was down in front of me.”

More recently, his spouse, Julie, spotted a wolf from a road.

State officials’ confirmation of a pack means “wolves in Colorado are reality,” he said.

They’ve marveled at howls. “How can you not be inspired by that? Your next thought is, ‘I hope it doesn’t get closer.’ And what people don’t consider is that they’re going to keep breeding,” Beauprez said, referring to Idaho, where 300 reintroduced wolves have multiplied over two decades to more than 1,500.

“Ten to 20 wolves, I can work with that. But 300 would decimate wildlife.”

Atop Cold Springs Mountain, Dickinson kept watching as skies darkened until his cow, loose for grazing, disappeared around an aspen grove. He got back in his maroon Ford 350 dually, done with his duties for the night, and bounced down the road to a house atop Irish Canyon he shares with his father.

A young male elk stood gazing after Dickinson departed.

Around 9:30 p.m., a gray CPW truck rumbled across the plateau. A state employee got out, opened a gate and went through. Wildlife biologists were conducting “howl surveys” to monitor the wolves. They head out at night, park, and howl. Then they wait, listening for responses.

After two weeks of surveys that ended July 2, “we received howls back on four nights,” CPW spokesman Randy Hampton said. “That’s pretty consistent,” confirming wolves’ presence, he said. Colorado residents also have been calling roughly four times a week reporting wolf sightings.

“We do have a responsibility to keep track of their movements,” Hampton said. If voters order a state-led reintroduction, wildlife biologists will need to know where these first wolves may be. “They’re going to be territorial.”

Wolf advocates behind the initiative remain adamant that re-establishing predators in Colorado is essential for ecological balance.

“It may take 20 or 30 wolves or so,” said Jon Proctor, Defenders of Wildlife’s regional director. “If we keep the pack that’s here safe, then we could reintroduce fewer wolves when the time comes.”

Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, got involved trying to broker a compromise. A Democrat representing people in mountain counties who works as a small-scale rancher raising highland cattle and whose family has refused to sell out to developers, Donovan sees the storm over wolves as destructive.

She introduced legislation that would delay wolf reintroduction until 2025, ensure sufficient funding and better address agricultural community concerns about compensation and provisions for protecting livestock. But amid lawmakers’ focus on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, she sidelined her measure once it was accepted for mark-up.

Seeking shade as the sun beat down recently at her ranch, Donovan winced at the rankling of ranchers and other rural residents.

“The problem is when everything around you also seems to be shifting, you reach your breaking point. And the wolf is a pretty good villain,” she said.

Ranchers see second homes that mostly sit vacant multiplying across mountain valleys. These bring city folks interested in shopping, dining and organized recreational activities. The newcomers often lack patience for sheep and cattle herding that forces temporary road closures. Land prices spike, increasing temptations to sell out. Then come restrictions on using pesticides and water, and requirements to inspect and monitor monitoring of livestock, she said.

“Everything just stacks up,” she said. “And then you see we are going to take a ballot initiative where people in the Front Range population centers are going to vote on introducing a predator — an apex predator — into your backyard. Not their backyard.”

Yet Colorado needs cooperation to preserve open natural landscapes, Donovan said. While she was inclined to vote for wolf reintroduction, she’s also planning to lead hard conversations about saving nature, including predators, in the face of development.

Front Range residents increasingly flee their densifying cities seeking solace in mountain valleys. “Maybe Denver shouldn’t be saying, ‘Hey, come to the great outdoors. Live here and go there.’ Denver should be saying, ‘Come to the great outdoors. Live here,’ ” Donovan said.

That would require expanding greenspace inside cities. “Taking back the South Platte River? That’s something we should be really investing in — making the Platte a functioning ecosystem.” And urban planners could convert streets to parks, expand greenbelt trails and plant more gardens.

On this recent night, no wolf attacked Dickinson’s cattle. No rancher in Colorado has documented a wolf attack on livestock this year.

And Dickinson, the next morning, woke up at sunrise to move bulls.

Seven stomped impatiently in his trailer as he hauled them west through Brown’s Park, stopping to check whether newly-cut hay in a pasture was too soaked by overnight rain for loading. He pointed to a subdivision east of Gates of Ladore, where the Green River bends toward the Yampa River — encroaching second homes.

Mountain ecosystems rapidly deteriorate when developers install roads, shops, gas stations and other conveniences city people will pay for, he said. “How conducive to wolves, livestock, or elk habitat would that be?”

He drove to the west side of Cold Springs Mountain, turned up a rocky road twisting to the plateau, where he unloaded the bulls near cows.

“This is where life begins,” he said, clanking the trailer gate shut.

But if more wolves live here, direct attacks on cows will be the least of the threats. He anticipated that his cows’ conception rates could decrease from 95% to 70% if wolves force them into a constant state of alert. These are impacts that compel public lands ranchers to sell out their private base property to developers.

“I’m not anti-wolf. Let wolves come in on their own and find where they want to be,” he said. “But we’ve got to have the tools to manage them. The wolves that don’t bother my cows, I’ve got no problem with them.”

Driving back to his Brown’s Park ranch house in the afternoon, he considered what he’d say if given a chance to address urban voters. He walked into the kitchen adorned with photos of his grandfather and mother, put frozen beef he produced in a skillet, added canned beans and peas, pulled out a sack of potato chips.

“As a voter, you’ve got a moral obligation to understand the impacts of the decision you’re about to make,” Dickinson said. “Have you thought about these kinds of things? Do you understand that a family has put 135 years into building a life here, learning the ecology, learning to be sustainable, and that they have a kinship with the same things you want: open space, freedom, love of nature?

“We have a lot in common. The very things urban voters want are what rural people want, what they have preserved and protected. A healthy and thriving ecosystem.”