North Park is ground zero in Colorado’s wolf controversy. Ranchers want to know if anyone hears them.
WALDEN – Sunrise is burning off the fog that hovers over the flatlands and above the frozen creeks, leaving a pink glow on the snow.
The wolves usually come under the cover of fog, just before dawn. The black ones are easier to spot against the white backdrop of miles and miles of snow-covered ranchland.
Don Gittleson, his wife, Kim, and their son, Dave, take turns sitting in a pickup truck through the night, keeping their eyes on the cows for signs that they’re nervous, that maybe the wolves are back. Dave Gittleson’s dog fogs up the truck windows, but she knows before he does if the wolves are nearby, and she sits up at attention in the dark.
Three of the Gittlesons’ cows are dead and a fourth was injured because of the wolf pack. A neighbor a few miles away said two of his dogs were killed by wolves — one that died on the front porch after dragging itself home in December, the other torn apart about 200 yards from their house in January.
Other residents of North Park, a hunting and ranching community where there is less than one person per square mile, have spotted the wolves chasing antelope. Even before the livestock kills in December and January, the pack that moved down from Wyoming was the talk of town among the locals eating breakfast burgers and green chile burritos at Mad Moose Cafe on Main Street.
North Park is ground zero in Colorado’s wolf controversy. Almost no one here supported the 2020 ballot measure to reintroduce wolves to the state. And now that the wolves have arrived on their own, wandering across the Wyoming state line and helping themselves to cattle, residents here are wondering whether the city dwellers who voted to bring back wolves will finally understand what they’ve been saying.
“I don’t think they care, no matter what we say to them,” said Kim Gittleson, sitting at her kitchen table with tired eyes after another night on wolf watch. “These cows are our living. We don’t want to see that happen to our cows, not just because it’s our livelihood. It’s just sad to see any animal tortured that way that you cared for.”
It would be easier, many locals say, to “shoot, shovel and shut up” when wolves prey on their livestock, although getting caught shooting a protected species could mean a $100,000 fine and a year in jail. The Gittlesons, though, said they are reporting every wolf sighting and attack to their local Colorado Parks and Wildlife agents, seeking government compensation for their dead cows, and asking for help to scare the pack away from the ranch.
The Gittleson ranch has become the case-in-point for what can happen when wolves learn they can take down a cow and keep coming back for more. Some unlucky rancher has to talk about it in the hopes of swaying public opinion, even a little, Don Gittleson said. Ranchers get that wolves are coming — through natural migration and next year, government reintroduction — but they want the right to use lethal force to defend their livestock and livelihood. Otherwise, North Parkers will quietly shoot wolves.
“If we wanted to shoot the wolves, we could have stopped this day one,” Dave Gittleson said. “We could’ve gone out there and wiped out the pack. Done. But that’s not a long-term solution. Don’t shoot the wolves. Everything we just lost would be for nothing.”
Instead, North Parkers are working together to protect their cattle — and to make a point.
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