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Northern Colorado ranchers reflect on the arrival of the wolves who migrated down from Wyoming

A woman stands next to a massive, furry dog
Melodie Edwards
Wyoming Public Media
Animal rescuer Gayle Woodsum and her guard dog, Athena, on her North Park, Colorado ranch.

This story is part of our ongoing I Respectfully Disagree series. You can also hear a longer podcast version of this story on The Modern West coming in April. 

A recent decision to reintroduce wolves has created division between rural and urban Coloradoans. But wolves have actually been there a while. A few years ago, a couple migrated down from Wyoming to settle in the mountain valley of North Park, southwest of Laramie. It’s given the ranchers there a headstart on adjusting to a new reality.

As soon as I climbed out of the car, longtime North Parker Gayle Woodsum pointed out a coyote jogging away from her animal rescue ranch.

“Oh, there's one right there now,” she said, pointing.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I can see it walking across the meadow over there.”

Not only coyotes come on her land but also wolves. And Woodsum has good reason to worry about wolves attacking her animals.

“I have mostly rescues and retired animals,” she said. “So I have animals that are not well, I have animals that are really, really old, and they've been traumatized in the past, and so they're actually very vulnerable.”

Her ranch has llamas, donkeys, horses, you name it. They’re so vulnerable that predators are drawn here. That’s why she keeps a big shaggy black and white guard dog named Athena who just got done chasing off those coyotes a minute ago.

At one point North Park hosted a pack of eight wolves. But most of them were killed crossing into Wyoming where it’s legal to shoot them. Now just two are left, the father and a son.

You might think Woodsum would be anti-wolf. But even though she’s afraid for her llamas, she said, “I would love to have them be part of this ecosystem, it's made for it there. There aren't that many people. I think it can improve the health and size of our other herds.” Like elk, deer and bighorn sheep.

Woodsum proves that there are lots of mixed opinions about these predators. But she doesn’t think Colorado voters should have decided to reintroduce the species. She said rural people already feel disrespected and unheard.

“Super rural and frontier people who are living in this way that we do – which it’s not easy to live up here – are not respected or not listened to, we don't have a voice, are spoken poorly of, are judged in weird ways. It's like two worlds that don't understand each other,” Woodsum said. “And then there's this whole thing about wolves in general where I think wolves represent a lot of what farming and ranching is about which is like you have no control ultimately.”

Longtime North Park rancher Phillip Anderson’s family definitely feels that lack of control. Last fall, the younger wolf killed three of his sheep.

“Loading up some cows to send to Nebraska to some corn stalks for winter feed and I went out to check some supplement tubs that I had out, and there was those three lambs laying there, tore up,” Anderson said. “So we called the CPW [Colorado Parks and Wildlife], and they came out and did it a necropsy on all three of them and determined that was wolf kill.”

Anderson wishes Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) would give ranchers access to the two wolves exact location at all times. Colorado recently approved a rule which allows ranchers to kill a wolf if they can prove it harassed their livestock or attacked a human, but the burden of proof is still on the rancher.

“One year of prison, $100,000 fine, loss of your hunting rights for life. Now, that's a pretty big hammer, isn’t it? It’s a pretty big hammer,” Anderson said.

He said if Colorado doesn’t find a way to better collaborate with land owners, they might not help with future wildlife projects, like years ago when they helped CPW introduce moose to the valley. Now, North Park is known as the moose viewing capital of Colorado.

Eric O’Dell, the Wolf Conservation Program Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the agency had no control over the decision to reintroduce wolves.

“It's a decision that the voters made. And as a state agency, we're implementing the state statute,” he said.

O’Dell said he’s heard the complaints that this was a decision made by urban voters and imposed on rural communities. But he said that the local CPW agent in North Park has worked hard to get to know the community.

“I think one of the first things that he has to do – and has been successful at doing – is garnering trust, in getting his name known and knowing what his intentions are, and understanding what the concerns are from the local communities,” O’Dell said. “And so it's a lot of relationship building; you never say that's completed. That's an ongoing process.”

He said it helps that Colorado has been more than generous with its compensation for livestock killed by wolves, giving the fair market value up to $15,000 dollars.

“We’re fortunate there's been some legislation passed in the last session that has provided what I anticipate to be very adequate funding, especially as the wolf population is low,” O’Dell said. “As that wolf population grows, the amount of compensation, we should expect that to increase, that the need for the amount of our funds to cover our compensation costs.”

On a frosty morning, North Park Rancher Marcy Gruber showed me her three guard dogs she adopted to protect her sheep from wolves. The oldest sleeps among the flock, chickens wandering around the barnyard.

“He's 12 years old and he's also Great Pyrenees, and he's really good with the sheep and the chickens,” Gruber said.

“He's wearing a special collar here?” I asked.

“This is a collar for when the wolves come by,” she said. “They actually all have them. They've got spikes sticking out all around. Apparently, the wolves go for the neck first. So this is to at least help him have a fighting chance.”

So far, the guard dogs have kept wolves from attacking. Gruber grew up in the city but had a lifelong desire to live in the country. But she said the arrival of wolves is a threat to that dream. She’s probably seen ten or more wolves in the valley since they migrated in 2019, including one right near her house.

“Last time we saw the wolf, he was just right up there,” Gruber said. “On top of where you can see the road goes up? He cut across there and he was carrying a sage grouse.”

She said the wolves could become a deal breaker for her.

“I just wouldn't want to subject our animals to that. It wouldn't be fair to them, and I don't want to see it,” she said. “I don't want to go to jail because I was defending my animals. So at that point, it would be time to sell them.”

Gruber said it feels like urban folks have forgotten where their food comes from.

“It doesn't just pop on the shelf at King Soopers,” she said.

If enough ranchers like her ended up leaving ranching, she said, it would be a great loss since they also protect the open spaces of the West from development.

“We have hunters come in every fall and they say this all the time: this is God's country, and they marvel at just the scenery, the beauty, the peace, the quiet. And I would just hate to see that go.”

Colorado plans to release about ten wolves a year for the next three to five years. The first set was released just over the mountains from North Park.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.

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