Friday, March 31, 2023

Save ranching and wildlife by investing in relationships

by By Joe Purdy
| March 3, 2023 7:00 AM

EUREKA – As a cattleman in northwestern Montana, you learn to live with uncertainty and disappointments.

Like the time the UPS delivery driver reported that he had seen a pack of wolves chasing our cattle. By the time we got there that evening, we found a dead cow with wolves feeding on one side and a grizzly bear laying claim to the other.

Predation by wolves and bears is the reality of raising livestock in today’s Montana. But we don’t need to be hamstrung by the problem. We can find solutions. Our ranch is proof of that.

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks is currently revising its grizzly bear management plan. I offer a piece of advice, as the owner of a cow-calf operation that depends both on private pasture and a national forest grazing lease.

That is, invest in relationships.

Reducing conflicts between predators like grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions is too big a job for FWP alone. FWP should work with ag producers, private landowners, conservation groups, and other agencies to bring more tools and innovation to the table.

We have seen these kinds of public-private partnerships pay off for livestock producers and wildlife alike.

My family has owned the Purdy Ranch for four generations and my kids and grandkids are still involved. In the 1970s and 80s, we didn’t have to worry much about wolves and grizzly bears.

That changed in the 1990s when populations of both species expanded across western Montana. Today, wolves are considered a recovered species, while grizzly bears remain listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Predators are like unstable commodity prices, disease and bad weather. They will always be part of the picture. We cannot eliminate the risks, but we can do things to mitigate them.

Ranchers have tried a lot of innovations, including electric fences, guard dogs and others to safeguard their animals. However, one tool has worked for us: range riders, paid for with both private dollars and public grants.

Our herd of Simmental-Angus beef cattle spend much of their summer in the same place where wolves take their pups when they’re old enough to leave the den on our private land.

For about 10 years, we’ve had a range rider who spends time in the area. That human presence alone is enough to make wolves spend a bit less time around cattle. Plus, the range rider looks for sign, checks trail cameras, and keeps an eye peeled for potential problems, such as a lame animal.

Before deploying a range rider, we suffered losses as high as 15 head a year from wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions. Sometimes, we would just find an ear tag or other clue, with little evidence of what predator killed the animal. Our calving rates dropped because our pregnant cows were under stress.

Today, with range riders at work, our losses are less than a third of that. We know we will never totally eliminate predation.

Ironically, it’s also been better for the wolves. In the past, when wolves killed too many livestock, federal agents came in and killed the pack through aerial gunning. Things would go quiet for a while, but soon more wolves would be back and the cycle would repeat itself.

In my opinion, the range rider program has kept wolves focused on natural prey such as whitetail deer. And it helps keeps bears out of trouble too.

Just because range riders work for us, it may not on other ranches. Every operation is unique.

Guard dogs, carcass disposal programs, electric fence and other deterrents have a place. But they cost money – both in labor and in materials.

It is not fair for the individual operators to shoulder these costs alone. Society has decided that we want predators on the landscape. So it make sense that society as whole pitches in to share this burden.

Thankfully, there is a growing interest in doing that, including the agricultural industry, the conservation community and government agencies.

Ours is a generational ranch. We make our decisions for the long haul. We aim to be good neighbors and good stewards of the land. We know that sharing knowledge with local landowners is very important.

Relationships and trust are very valuable.

I hope that Governor Gianforte and the folks at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks take note and invest in solutions.

Joe Purdy owns and operates Purdy Ranch near Eureka, which has been in his family for four generations.