How a collaboration between government agencies, conservation groups and landowners in Montana is showing that wildlife conservation and human prosperity can coexist.
Joe Purdy’s pursed lips and narrowed eyes are more than enough to convey his worry. We are standing on a gravel road that cuts through a large swath of old-growth timber, crowning the ridge above his Northwest Montana ranch. The concern, on this day in June 2020, is the threat of wolves and bears. Purdy, a fourth-generation Montana cattle rancher, has set his morning aside to give me the grand tour, driving 30 miles from his office in Eureka where his day job as a real estate broker supplements his work as a cattle producer. We stand roughly 40 miles from the Canadian border, just west of Glacier National Park, ensconced by towering larch, Douglas fir and lodgepole pine in the lolling hills of the Salish Mountains.
These days, the traditional struggles that cattle producers face in the Western U.S. are interwoven with novel nuances: a complicated interplay between the true cost of doing business and the end value of the product; a growing disconnect between consumers and producers; drought and shifting claims on water; a growing premium on land as city-dwellers seek out their own piece of the rural West; and on top of it all, predation on cattle by recovering populations of teethy carnivores.
I peer down at the road. In dark contrast from the dusty gray road is a pile of fresh wolf scat, one of several we’ll find that morning. Purdy shakes his head, forces a smile, and explains his theory that a resident pack of wolves uses the road to travel across the forest and down to his ranch. Later, as we enter a sweeping meadow, he points to the west and describes his frequent sightings of an old sow grizzly bear that lives above the meadow.
“Bears and wolves are not something that you or I can control,” he says. “We have to learn to live with them. If we, as society, all work together, we can help minimize the conflict. We can’t stop it, but we can help minimize it.”
Like many western ranchers, Purdy’s cow-calf operation depends upon his ability to graze cattle on land leased during the summer months while the winter pastures on his ranch are given rest and hay is allowed to grow. He utilizes grazing allotments issued by the U.S. Forest Service. Between June 1 and October 1 his herd of Simmental-Angus cattle is let to wander beyond the bounds of the ranch on more than 22,000 acres of neighboring National Forest ground, where they can be easy prey for wolves and bears.
The loss of cattle due to carnivore predation can take a significant economic toll on a ranch, creating added stress and hardship. Some view the challenges created by wildlife as just another cost of doing business for the rancher, much like Montana’s subzero winters and snow. However, as publicly-managed carnivores such as wolves and the still federally protected grizzly bear recolonize historic home ranges, they can threaten the ability of a rancher to stay in business. A sort of straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back, carnivores add to the many challenges of modern ranching which can contribute to the decision to sell off land or sell out. In many cases, sold-out ranches are subdivided into residential homes, leading to urban sprawl that diminishes habitat connectivity and threatens the very places wildlife live.
In Montana, a bold partnership between federal agencies, state and tribal departments, conservation organizations, and individuals is working to better understand the spaces where wildlife and livestock overlap and what tools can be used to conserve large carnivores, minimize livestock deaths, and support rural communities whose livelihoods depend upon the land. Now four years into what has been dubbed the Wildlife Services Nonlethal Program, the partnership is finding success on the ground in Montana and has expanded into other U.S. states.
Ted North’s voice comes crackling in over the phone, a reminder of the still large swaths of rural Montana where cell reception remains sparse. He laughs as he tells me that today, he’s taking a personal day to move his own cattle. All week, North has been traveling around his district, an area totaling over 17,000 square miles in the northwest corner of the state, helping other livestock producers deal with problems caused by carnivores.
North’s official title is wildlife specialist. He works for Wildlife Services, an agency operating under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His charge: resolve predator conflicts with livestock so as to help humans and wildlife better coexist. In other words, North is the guy ranchers call when a predator kills or injures livestock. North will visit the site, complete an investigation and determine what species of predator harmed the animal. Depending on the severity of the conflict, and under strict direction from his superiors and other cooperating agencies, he might set live traps in an attempt to capture habituated predators for relocation or lethal removal, as allowed by state and federal management guidelines.
Grizzly bears are common throughout North’s district, which includes two federally managed grizzly recovery zones: the Northern Continental Divide and Cabinet-Yaak. Prior to the 19th century, some 50,000 to 100,000 grizzly bears roamed across western North America from Alaska to Mexico. However, to protect themselves and their livestock, Euro-American settlers reduced the population in the Lower 48 to just 2 percent of their historic range by the mid-1900s.
In 1975, with less than 1,000 bears remaining in all of the contiguous United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—a distinctly different agency from Wildlife Services that is tasked with overseeing the recovery of threatened and endangered species—listed the grizzly bear as threatened on the federal Endangered Species List. At the time, USFWS identified six recovery zones in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington: the Greater Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk—which all held a small population of bears—and North Cascades and Bitterroot which no longer had grizzlies but offered bear habitat.
Following decades of robust conservation, bear populations in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have grown, with approximately 1,000-1,200 bears living in and around Glacier and some 750-1,000 living near Yellowstone. Increasingly, bears in these areas are spilling out of the remote wilderness and coming into contact with an ever-growing human populace.
For over a decade, ongoing litigation has questioned whether bears in the Yellowstone population should remain listed as an endangered species, thus forcing the issue to a stalemate. Recent state legislation has supported a delisting rule, but as a federally protected species, the decision whether to delist belongs to the votes of Congress. While politicians deliberate in their staterooms, people who live and work in many parts of Montana are faced daily with decisions about how to coexist with grizzly bears.
According to John Steuber, the Western Assistant Regional Director of Wildlife Services, his agency has always made recommendations to ranchers about different management practices that might reduce stock losses, whether it’s fencing, night penning, or guard dogs. The research arm of the agency, the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, has been assessing the effectiveness of these tools for over four decades and agency personnel conveyed results to interested ranchers, but didn’t necessarily install the tools for them. “It was just thought that producers could implement the preventative measures on their own,” he says.
However, in recent years, a growing group of individuals and organizations is recognizing the need to share the costs of supporting wildlife—since most are managed as a public resource in the U.S.—and specifically the costs associated with species like the federally listed grizzly bear.
Cutting Through the Noise
In 2015, Zack Strong took a big step out on a rickety limb. Then a senior attorney with the environmental advocacy group Natural Resource Defense Council, Strong called Steuber and asked if they could work together. NRDC, along with many other environmental groups, has long been critical of Wildlife Services’ use of lethal predator control, so the request for collaboration was a novel one. Despite their differences, Steuber agreed to meet.
“It’s a story that brings a smile to my face,” says Jenny Sherry, an NRDC wildlife advocate based in Bozeman, Montana. “In the early days, we had no experience working together and really we had only ever been at odds. The important thing is that Zack and John demonstrated that they were willing to try something new and to try a different approach to tackling these perpetual conflicts.”
Strong asked Steuber if Wildlife Services would work with NRDC to install protective fencing around calving pastures as a means of preventing wolves from killing livestock and therefore reducing Wildlife Services’ need to kill problem wolves.
“Wildlife Services’ mission is wildlife damage management and to assist in the recovery of threatened and endangered species,” Steuber says. “Nonlethal options are just another method for assisting landowners in protecting their livestock and keeping grizzly bears out of trouble. It just seemed natural to support that.”
In the first two years, Wildlife Services and NRDC purchased and installed several miles of turbo fladry, a type of temporary electric fencing with red flags spaced 18 to 24 inches apart. The free-moving flags, hung about three feet off the ground, are an unfamiliar object to wolves or coyotes and when used for a short amount of time, the fencing can be an effective way to stop canids from accessing pastures where livestock are giving birth. The two partners worked together to install fladry in several locations in Montana, provided weekly maintenance checks, and took it down at the end of the birthing season.
Then, in 2017, Strong asked if they could expand the conflict prevention efforts. With wildlife specialists already stretched thin responding to conflicts, Steuber said yes, but added that they would need more people dedicated to this type of work to carry it through. In an outpouring of support, NRDC teamed up with Defenders of Wildlife and Vital Ground to cooperatively fund a dedicated Wildlife Services conflict prevention specialist as well as the very first U.S. federal range rider.
For five months in 2018, the conflict specialist installed fladry to deter wolves and electric fence enclosures to deter bears throughout the western half of the state. Meanwhile, the federal range rider monitored grazing allotments in the Kootenai National Forest, a well-known hotspot for wolf kills and an area that connects grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem to the smaller population to the west in the Cabinet-Yaak. A sort of modern-day shepherd, the range rider provides a human presence on the landscape that can prevent wolves and grizzly bears from getting close to and killing cattle.
“It’s about using these more proactive tools to ensure that both people and wildlife can thrive here,” Sherry says. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, nobody wants to see livestock lost to predation. We are united in the shared goal of finding real solutions that support those who feel burdened by wildlife.”
Following the successful development of the nonlethal program in Montana, and with a smaller program developing in Southwest Oregon, Defenders of Wildlife and NRDC lobbied Congress in 2019 for the addition of $1.38 million to the Wildlife Services 2020 budget; the funds were to be used in twelve states to hire additional staff for the nonlethal deterrence programs. The funding request was passed by Congress in January 2020.
“We were ecstatic,” says Shawn Cantrell, the Defenders of Wildlife vice president for field conservation, who oversaw the efforts in D.C. He added that the funding was approved during a tumultuous time in the legislature, amid a government shutdown and intense battles between the administration and Congress.
“You had environmental groups and Wildlife Services—who have a long history of not agreeing—able to agree on this,” Cantrell says. “There are a lot of areas where we still have deep, deep disagreements and value differences, but we all saw that this was valuable. When there’s a powerful idea that makes sense, it can actually cut through a lot of the political noise and Congress can do good things.”
Small Little Steps
Beneath brilliant sun, atop a forested plateau west of Kalispell, Montana, Adam Baca is swinging a hammer. He pounds a staple into a wooden post, securing one of four ground wires that make up the eight-strand electric bear fence he’s installing around a 40-acre calving pasture. As the saying goes, “It takes a village:” four other people representing Wildlife Services, NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife are swinging hammers and pounding posts at intervals across the pasture; the landowners are measuring and setting brace rails that will support the fence once the wire is under tension.
Originally hired in 2018 with the cooperative funding from NRDC, Defenders and Vital Ground, Baca’s position has since become year-round. Of the $1.38 million added to the Wildlife Services budget in 2020 and again in 2021, Montana received $150,000 each year, which was used to fund Baca’s full-time, year-round position, add a seasonal fencing technician along the Rocky Mountain Front, and hire the seasonal Kootenai range rider. Additionally, Wildlife Services partnered with Greater Yellowstone Coalition to cooperatively fund $30,000 for a seasonal range rider in the Gravelly Mountains, a hotspot for grizzly depredations on livestock.
For 2022, NRDC and Defenders are lobbying for an additional $3.3 million on top of the $1.38 million. These funds would be used to bring the nonlethal program to a total of 22 states and expand the funding availability to landowner conflicts with beavers and interactions between bears and humans in urban environments.
Baca installs roughly 30 fences in a year, focusing on fladry around birthing pastures in January through May, electric fencing in April through October, and reports and planning for the upcoming year when it’s too frozen to get posts in the ground. “Getting to meet and help people, while dealing with large carnivores that have made lives more challenging, has been the most rewarding part of the job,” he says.
Russ Talmo, a field coordinator with Defenders of Wildlife that specializes in electric fencing, is in weekly contact with Baca, discussing upcoming projects, meeting for site visits and installations, or exchanging materials. He’s the driving force behind Defender’s electric fence incentive program, which provides a cost share of up to 50 percent for electric fence installation. He says partnering with Wildlife Services opened the door for leveraging funding, materials and manpower, nearly doubling Defenders of Wildlife’s capacity for assisting with projects in Montana. “It’s a big deal for wildlife and it feels like it’s the most significant thing I’ve done with Defenders in my ten years with the organization. It’s making a big difference.”
As the fencing program gains momentum, new implementation strategies are on the rise. This year, Dymond Running Crane, the seasonal Wildlife Services fencing technician hired to install fences on the Rocky Mountain Front, is spearheading a movement to install small electric fence enclosures around livestock that children are raising on the Blackfeet Reservation through the youth engagement program known as 4-H. With funds from tribal partners, Running Crane is able to install the fences at no cost to the 4-H families.
“They’re the next generation,” he says. “I want to provide these electric enclosures to lift up their spirits, to encourage them, because this is just a small little step of what could become even more; they could run a ranch one day.”
I’m camped out in a small meadow tucked within the Kootenai National Forest. It’s September 2020 and I’m finishing my season as Wildlife Service’s Kootenai range rider. Silvery light from a full and heavy moon casts long shadows over the grass. My leggy quarter horse is just outside of camp. The gentle clang of his grazing bell is occasionally accompanied by the distant low of cows grazing across the meadow. Earlier, as the sun dropped behind the hills, I listened as a juvenile wolf accompanied its older packmates in a cacophony of howls.
While fencing tools help protect livestock on the ranch, stock remain vulnerable when they are turned out on the range. In these situations, cattle or sheep are often entering into places where wolves and grizzly bears live. My job as a range rider was to help manage carnivores as a public resource while providing a service to ranchers. I spent the grazing season astride a horse, checking cows and reporting any injuries or illnesses that might attract predators. I looked for carcasses so that ranchers could remove them. I surveyed for predators and reported their presence so that ranchers could make decisions about how to manage their cattle. In addition to my eyes on the ground, my presence around the cattle might have also kept carnivores away.
In the spring of 2021, the land conservation groups Heart of the Rockies Initiative and Western Landowners Alliance, in partnership with Wildlife Services and groups in seven western states, began a three-year study to test the effectiveness of range riding, fencing and carcass removal at reducing the number of livestock lost to predators. The researchers are looking to better understand what conditions make each tool most effective and how they can be applied across a variety of landscapes. The results of this study can assist interest groups, federal agencies and state departments in allocating funds that go directly toward grizzly bear conservation.
“It’s important that the costs of making the landscape hospitable for grizzly bears and wolves, while continuing to produce food and fiber and maintain the welfare of livestock, are shared by society,” says Alex Few of WLA. She leads the organization’s initiatives that bring together ranchers, agencies and environmental groups across the Northern Rockies in order to reduce conflicts between large carnivores and livestock. “Wildlife are a public resource. Because the public is so invested in seeing these highly mobile, large carnivores return to the landscape, it’s important that we understand where the costs of their return really fall.”
On their own, these studies and prevention efforts might be little more than drops in the bucket for wildlife conservation. But when pooled together, the work begins to make waves. The Wildlife Services Nonlethal Program, while still in its infancy, is illustrating that with rancher engagement, agency leadership, conservation group support and a combined commitment to shared values, wildlife conservation and human prosperity can coexist.
Jessianne Castle is a freelance writer with Bear Trust International (www.beartrust.org), a funder of science-based conservation projects promoting the coexistence of humans and all eight species of bears worldwide. She is also the founder of Grizzly Bear Collective.