Working Circle, a Colorado nonprofit that seeks to unite wolf conservation and sustainable ranching, hosted a free wolves and ranching workshop for livestock producers this week in Durango.
The seven-hour workshop Tuesday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds was the first of four in western Colorado this week. The program is designed to spark conversation between ranchers and conservationists, though the hybrid Zoom and in-person medium made doing so difficult.
“We know with the ballot initiatives there’s heightened tension around this issue,” said Working Circle founder and director Karin Vardaman.
The workshop was “not about debating if wolves should or shouldn’t be in Colorado,” Vardaman said in her introduction, but rather about sharing stories, firsthand experiences and discussing solutions.
“We have a lot more in common that we can focus on,” Vardaman said.
The in-person crowd at the fairgrounds was dominated by environmental groups and conservationists, with many expressing a desire to learn more about ranchers’ experiences and the difficulties they face with predators.
Some ranchers attended in-person, while others attended through Zoom.
Speakers included Hilary Zaranek and Andrew Anderson, a wife-husband team of livestock producers in southwestern Montana; Shella DelCurto, a rancher from Oregon; and Carter Niemeyer, a former wildlife biologist and member of Colorado’s Wolf Technical Working Group.
Zaranek, Anderson and DelCurto shared their experiences with predator-livestock conflict and the solutions that have worked for their operations.
Anderson said intensive grazing, when cattle are grouped together in high-densities and moved frequently, has lowered the risk of wolf depredation. He added that a herd is stronger than an individual and often it is when cows are scattered across the landscape that they are most vulnerable.
Both Anderson and DelCurto expressed the importance of reawakening herd instincts in cattle and the need for human presence on rangelands.
“The only times we’ve had our depredation was when we were not there,” DelCurto said.
With the protective measures she and her husband have put in place, DelCurto said her family’s operation has had zero cattle killed by wolves in the last two years.
Over the last five years, Anderson said his ranch with Zaranek has had one or two confirmed wolf kills.
“You hardly hear people talk about wolves anymore,” Anderson said.
Wolves have been a hot topic in Colorado since voters approved the Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative by a slim margin in 2020.
As the wheels have begun to turn toward wolf reintroduction, questions have remained about how conservationists and ranching communities can work together to ensure the coexistence of predators and people.
In an emotionally charged debate that has at times been portrayed as a fight between urban and rural communities, DelCurto said it was crucial that ranchers share their experiences.
“If you don’t tell your own story and help others see what you’re going through, nothing’s going to change,” DelCurto said.
As Working Circle tries to promote an open dialogue and serve as a catalyst for stakeholder conversations, the reality of Colorado’s wolf reintroduction is beginning to set in.
“Livestock is here, wolves are coming,” Niemeyer said.