On a cool, sunny May morning, Hilary Zaranek set out on horseback from her log house in southwestern Montana with one thing on her mind: wolves.
Zaranek lives in the Centennial Valley, an immense expanse of grass- and wetlands ringed by the ragged peaks of the Centennial and Gravelly mountain ranges. The handful of people, mostly ranchers, who call this place home are vastly outnumbered by animals. Trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes are among the more than 260 bird species that inhabit the sweeping landscape, along with river otters, deer, elk, and, of course, loads of cattle. As grizzly and gray wolf populations have recovered in Yellowstone National Park (about 20 miles away), predators have been joining the ranks in increasing numbers, too.
Cattle ranchers have traditionally been hostile to large carnivores; wolves were nearly hunted, trapped, and poisoned to extinction in the Lower 48 a few decades ago, due in part to the threat they posed to livestock. Zaranek, who has done wolf research in Yellowstone and Canada and now works for the Centennial Valley Association, is trying to ease that relationship. She is testing whether range riders on horseback and ATV can minimize conflicts between livestock and predators.
Zaranek and two other riders she oversees are looking 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.
These cowboys, who all happen to be women, are just one of the ways J Bar L is trying to manage its grass-fed beef operation to benefit livestock, people, wildlife, and habitat. To figure out how best to do that, the ranch works with numerous partners, including Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, and the Sage Grouse Initiative. Scientists are studying, for instance, whether structures that mimic beaver dams, installed to rehabilitate stream channels, may benefit Arctic grayling, a rare native fish that sports flamboyant, turquoise-spotted dorsal fins. And on two greater sage grouse leks, biologists are investigating what factors enable populations of these iconic—and possibly soon-to-be-endangered—birds to nest successfully.
But the ranch’s primary focus is moving the herd along 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 chomps along, the ranchers put up portable, wildlife-friendly electric fences to keep them from wandering.
“People are willing to pay a premium for sustainably raised beef,” says J Bar L Ranch general manager Bryan Ulring. Last year, through Yellowstone Grassfed Beef, the ranch sold about 145,000 pounds of meat (or roughly 600,000 servings) to consumers across the country.
A NEW ATTITUDE
Despite the throwback to bison behavior, this is a thoroughly modern approach. Ranchers have traditionally turned out their cattle to graze largely unattended. But with predators rebounding, J Bar L and other operations in the Centennial Valley and Tom Miner Basin are taking a different tack, relying on Zaranek and the other range riders to patrol herds and keep an eye out for sick, injured, and dead animals. They also gather and settle cattle in the evening, part of an ongoing effort to rekindle the herd instinct. The mere presence of humans acts as a deterrent against attacks, Zaranek says.
Animals go missing from ranches for a slew of reasons, including predation, poisonous plants, lightning (yes, really), and brisket disease, which can cause heart failure in cows at high altitudes. The riders help get to the bottom of what’s causing deaths and disappearances out on the range because, as Zaranek says, “You can’t make good management decisions based on myth.”
That’s why she was out early that May morning, scouting for predator activity in the days before thousands of cattle would arrive for the summer. Grizzlies, of which five or six roam the valley, killed one calf last summer, as well as an adult cow—no small feat considering the bear likely weighed half as much as the 1,400-pound ungulate. This time, Zaranek saw evidence of wolves. “I found a really great hot spot,” she says while we sit at her kitchen table the day after the recon mission. “There were tons of tracks.” She says it looks like there may be three packs carving out territory in the valley this year, up from two in 2014.
Last year, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana were home to an estimated 1,657 wolves in 263 packs with a total of 75 breeding pairs, according to the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Program. The canids were confirmed as the killers of 140 cattle, 172 sheep, four dogs, a horse, and a donkey. Private and state agencies shelled out almost $275,000 in compensation for wolves damaging livestock. Wolves died, too, of course—ranchers and wildlife managers culled 161 of them for coming into conflict with livestock or other wildlife.
Rekindling the herd instinct is key to protecting cattle from wolf and grizzly attacks, says J Bar L Ranch general manager Ulring. He points to how the range riders encourage cattle to move as a herd and stick together, rather than run and scatter, when carnivores draw near—the old safety-in-numbers approach employed by animals ranging from bison to walruses to fish. Since J Bar L first started using range riders a few years ago, it hasn’t lost a single animal to predation when herds stay intact.
“Even last year, when we had cattle right by an active wolf den, we didn’t lose any,” Ulring says. “Cattle or wolves.” They used electric fencing to keep the herd tight and the wolves outside the perimeter.
“This is not just about dead animals,” Ulring says. “A stressed animal has minimal weight gain or can even lose weight. Our animals, even when they were near that den, they’re gaining more than three pounds a day.” All that extra poundage translates into dollars, allowing the ranch to sell more steaks and burgers.
“These techniques are proactive rather than reactive, so they prevent conflicts from happening in the first place,” says Zack Strong, a wildlife advocate with NRDC. Along with conservation strategies, NRDC helps J Bar L and other ranches purchase equipment and hire range riders (and even lends a hand with the electric fencing).
The approach may very well be a selling point, too. John Marzluff, a University of Washington biologist, is launching a statewide poll to gauge whether people would pay more for predator-friendly beef. “We’re also working with some stores to test-market it,” he told MotherBoard.
Researcher Azzurra Valerio of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University says she isn’t surprised to hear of the program’s success. Ranchers taking similar steps elsewhere in the West report fewer losses, too: The Blackfoot Challenge, in northwestern Montana, for instance, has seen a 93 percent drop in grizzly bear conflicts since it started using range riders and other deterrents in 2003. But Valerio cautions that although there are a lot of stories and anecdotes of livestock and predator harmony, “to my knowledge, there are no evaluations of the efficacy of non-lethal methods such as range riders or fences.” She hopes to change that.
Valerio is in the second year of a three-year study that aims to collect hard data; she’s got collars on six wolf packs, eight cattle herds, and one sheep operation, and is working with four range riders and three sheepherders. Valerio is looking at the number of livestock killed and the indirect influences wolves may have on a flock, such as weight loss and reproductive rates. Her findings, however, won’t be in for a few years.
Zaranek, too, 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.