Caged here, for now

Mark Johnson (center, white hair) in the pen with several tour members and the wolves. (Photo by Flip Boettcher/The Flume)

It is with sadness that we mark the closing of the non-profit Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, located a couple of miles north of Guffey, on the top of Gold Hill. The announcement was made last week by foundation founder and owner Mark “Wolf” Johnson and his wife Catherine.

It is with mixed emotions that the couple made the tough decision to close the facility, but it was primarily for health reasons. The couple needs to move to a lower, warmer elevation. While the sanctuary work was extremely rewarding, it was a lot of hard work, with 12-hour days, said Johnson, and too much stress and responsibility.

In fact, Johnson figures he has worked just about 24/7 for the last 51 years, and it is time to retire. It is time to play a bit, travel and enjoy each other with what years we have left, they said. Both are looking forward and excited about their new venture.

The Johnsons are moving to Pahrump, Ne. Catherine’s sister and brother-in-law live there. The Front Site gun school is also located there, and the couple plans on attending gun school classes. Like most retired people, there are so many projects and things they would like to do that they will be very busy.

The eight wolves still at the sanctuary will all be relocated to a new place called Mattersville, near Sedalia, founded by Drew Robertson.

Four RMWF wolves were recently relocated there. Since RMWF is a nonprofit, they can only give the fencing, equipment, solar system, and other items they acquired for RMWF to another nonprofit. They can’t sell any of it.

Mattersville is a nonprofit, sustainable, tiny community project with tiny homes for combating U.S. military veteran homelessness, suicide and PTSD.

Mattersville plans on continuing the RMWF legacy started by Johnson. The veterans will help with care of the wolves. They will also be working with RMWF volunteers starting in January, because they know the wolves. Mattersville will be giving free tours with reservations soon. Visit mattersvillevets.org for more information.

The Bearded Villains, an international brotherhood of elite bearded men that helps nonprofits, has been working with RMWF and Mattersville to transfer everything over.

Visit beardedvillains.com for more information. Things seem to be falling into place for the Johnsons, and Mark said that he feels good about the transfer.

The seeds for the RMWF were sown in 1996 when Johnson, who had always been fascinated with wolves, got his first four-week-old wolf, pup, Cheyenne, who lived to be 13 years old. Some believed Cheyenne was a healing wolf and she was visited by almost 22,000 people from all over the world.

Cheyenne was quite famous in her time, and was featured in newspapers, magazines and television shows. She had poems and songs written about her and was the model for a series of four paintings entitled “The Four Seasons of Cheyenne.”

Wolves weigh about one pound at birth, but grow very rapidly to 90 pounds, adult size, in six months. Wolves are deaf and blind at birth. About two weeks old they are able to see, and their eye color goes from dark blue to golden amber.

They start to hear at about three weeks. Wolves are black when born and get lighter, white and brown, as they get older. Their jaws have an amazing 1,500 pounds of compression power.

In 2001 Johnson founded the RMWF, dedicated to the rescue of abused and neglected captive-born wolves and wolf-dogs, public education about wolves, living safely with wildlife, and the role humans play in the survival of wolf populations.

Johnson spent quite a few years trying to find a location for the foundation. In 2005 as a local Guffey realtor, Johnson showed some property to Bill Betz and Vanessa Hess, which they fell in love with and purchased.

In 2006 Johnson sent out an SOS from Arizona trying to find a location for his foundation and his wolves. Betz and Hess said to come back to Colorado, and they could provide the land needed for the wolf sanctuary.

April 2007, Johnson opened the wolf sanctuary north of Guffey and has been there ever since. Johnson said that Betz and Hess have always been very supportive of RMWF over the years. In an email Betz said, “Vanessa and Bill are very saddened by this news for we loved those animals.”

Over the past 12 years, Johnson has had visitors from 80 percent of the northern hemisphere countries and 50 percent of the countries in the southern hemisphere, and has rescued about 50 wolves.

“We have seen a lot in the last 12 years, including wolf pups which we had the pleasure of feeding, and seeing them grow up and interact with visitors,” said Betz.

Visitors who came to the sanctuary got a once-in-a-lifetime experience including education about wolves and a free tour of the facility. This included going into the pens and interacting with the wolves and sharing the love, wisdom and caring that each gave.

“Mark with his wolves have touched many hearts and lives while being here. I have seen many people from all parts of the world come and visit. Some with problems with emotions and military personnel with PTSD come away changed because of the unconditional love these wolves gave them,” said Betz.

The last tours will be now until Jan. 5, and all are completely booked. As long as all the wolves have been relocated to Mattersville, the Johnsons plan on leaving Jan. 15 for Nevada.

There will be a farewell party for the Johnsons Jan. 11 at The Corona’s at Freshwater in downtown Guffey. The Johnsons and their work will be missed.

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