Some Montana cattle ranchers work to co-exist with wolves

Wolf family

There’s finally some good news regarding the fate of wolves in at least one Western state. Traditionally cattle ranchers – especially those in Montana and Idaho – make a point of killing wolves to prevent them from killing any cattle. Now some Montana ranchers are finding ways to co-exist.

Hilary Zaranek, who has done wolf research in Yellowstone National Park and Canada and lives in Montana’s Centennial Valley, is testing whether range riders on horseback and ATV can minimize conflicts between livestock and predators. She and two other range riders – both women – look out for  cattle from a half-dozen ranches in the area, including the J Bar L, a 30,000-acre operation where her husband works. They’re trying to manage its grass-fed beef operation to benefit livestock, people, wildlife, and habitat.

The ranch works with numerous partners, including Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, and the Sage Grouse Initiative. But the ranch’s primary focus is moving the herd in a way that mimics how bison once roamed: regularly rotating grazing to allow pastures to recover for months or even years between munching sessions, and ensuring the animals don’t cause lasting harm to sensitive areas, like springs and leks. As the herd munches its way through the range, the ranchers put up portable, wildlife-friendly electric fences to keep them from wandering.

Zaranek speaks cautiously about the effort.

“There’s a lot of potential,” but it’s still very new, she says. Rather than basing success on the number of cattle killed—or not—by predators, Zaranek uses another metric: the number of ranchers who say yes and stick with it. It won’t matter whether the measures work if nobody is willing to take a chance. So far, no one has dropped out.

This is a novel approach and a brave venture for the cattle ranchers to embrace. Rather than paying hunters or the infamous federal agency Wildlife Services to hunt down and kill wolf packs and other predators, recognizing that these creatures have an important place they fill in the ecosystem, is a bold move. Let’s hope that other Western cattle ranchers see the positive side of this and shift their thinking (and actions) in this direction as well.

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