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  • Louisa Willcox

Cattle in Grizzly Country

Photo of grizzly bear, elk and Ancient White Park cattle, BBar Ranch, MT, by Trina Smith.

In the aspens of Alberta’s foothills, Charlie Russell carefully positions a dead cow among some boulders. Along a low ridge near the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Karl Rappold and his wife ride horses, whistling and pushing cows and calves to higher pastures. North of Yellowstone Park, Dre Ramirez stretches polywire fencing as Ancient White Park cattle graze nearby.

What do these people have in common? They are all trying to make peace between grizzly bears and cows in the Northern Rocky Mountains at a time when conflicts have been mounting.

Unfortunately, these practitioners of coexistence and compassion are the exceptions, not the norm. If federal protections for grizzly bears are removed, the states (especially Wyoming) will manage conflicts by tending to kill the involved bear and by sport hunting. The practice of coexistence may continue among dedicated ranchers like these, but overall the landscape for grizzly bears will be deadlier. How can we prevent this from happening and build instead on recent successes?

In 1948, renowned naturalist Adolphe Murie published a seminal paper “Cattle in Grizzly Country” in the Journal of Wildlife Management (link). Murie described wide-spread conflicts between grizzly bears and cows in Wyoming’s Bridger’s Teton National Forest. He called for better planning and raised fundamental questions about society’s priorities as grizzly bears declined. Today, Murie’s questions are as relevant as ever.

Indeed, cattle and the attitudes of their owners (not to mention the accompanying firepower) were major reasons that grizzly bears landed on the Endangered Species Act in 1975. In less than 150 years, European settlers extirpated 99% of grizzly bears in 98% of their range in the lower 48 states. Forty years of intensive recovery efforts have not changed these numbers much (link), calling into question the basic premises of the current debate around delisting.

In the 60 plus years since Murie’s original work, the practice of co-existence has considerably improved in some corners. But there still is a long way to go. In fact, in some parts of the landscape where Murie did his research, things have not improved. More on this later.

Ranchers Living with Grizzly Bears

None of the people I introduce above and further describe below are self-promoters, they are just folks who care about bears and the land, keep an eye on things, and like to tinker. They also operate outside the authority of livestock association bosses and political apparatchiks of agriculture, who tend to be ideologically opposed to large carnivores and conservation in general…

The Story of the Russell Family at Hawk’s Rest

For 18 years, starting in the 1970s, Charlie Russell managed ranches on the doorstep of Waterton/Glacier Parks. At that time, black and grizzly bears were often shot as soon as they strayed outside the national parks. But Charlie was cut of a different cloth. He likes bears and indeed is something of a bear whisperer, as well as a naturalist, guide, and nature filmmaker. He made it clear to the bears that they were welcome on the ranches he managed. (Later Charlie would go to the Russian Far East and raise 10 orphan cubs, releasing them successfully to live in the wild - link).

During calving season, he put dead stock out along the nearby Waterton National Park border. His theory was that feeding dead cows to bears would not teach them to eat live ones, but rather, would keep them away from his calves. Initially, his neighbors objected to the strategy, but then took notice when it worked. One neighbor started giving Charlie his dead cows to put along the park border too.

After Charlie chose to mingle with grizzly bears elsewhere in the world, his brother John took over managing the ranch. Instead of feeding dead cows to bears in the spring, John fed them road-killed game, partnering with provincial wildlife managers. That seemed to work as well.

John and Debbie Robinett and the Diamond G Ranch

John and Debbie Robinett do not know Charlie Russell, but their stories and views are similar. For over 25 years John has managed the Diamond G Ranch that lies beneath the Absaroka’s spectacular Ramshorn Peak, at the end of the road and on the edge of the wilderness near Dubois, Wyoming. In their early days on the ranch they had numerous conflicts with bears – as many as 42 in one year – especially during calving season.

But the Robinetts were curious about grizzly bears. Moreover, they liked them. They started to talk to experts, including Dr. Derek Craighead, son of pioneering grizzly bear researcher John Craighead. Together, they tried to find out what bears were doing at a scale that was relevant to the annual ranges of grizzlies.

John said: “we found the peak areas where the bears are, and we always try to keep the cattle out of those areas.” John too figured out that feeding dead cows to bears in spring was effective at keeping them away from his calving areas. Like Charlie, he never experienced grizzly bears predating on live cows as a result of eating carcasses he had left for them.

John has called the grizzly bear “one of the most intelligent and forgiving animals alive.” When I met him perhaps 20 years ago, he was quietly nudging other cattlemen to come halfway with bears and stop their whining. He was worried about the radical ranchers who did not think twice about killing bears. He wanted to get federal grazing allotments retired in key habitat to protect bears. Not your run-of-the-mill Wyoming rancher…

Karl Rappold and His Father’s Parting Words

Karl Rappold’s ranch, which has been in his family since 1882, lies in rolling hills and aspens where the backbone of the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, near the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park. The family has not always enjoyed peace with grizzly bears and wolves.

“Before my father passed away in 1986,” Rappold said in an article by author Ted Kerasote, “he told me the only regret he had was that he’d killed so many grizzly bears and that they’d almost become extinct. He made me promise that when I took over the ranch, these big bears would always have a home. So I worked most of my life to make sure that happened (link).”

Karl pursues the same practice of placing dead cows out during spring to lure grizzlies away…the same as Charlie Russell and John Robinett. The way Karl describes it, when the dead stock are cleaned up, grizzly bears are able to then turn to eating emerging green vegetation. But Karl also breeds his cows earlier than is traditional, so they are bigger and older when they are put on summer pasture. And bigger older calves are better able to defend themselves against predators.

Although the ranch has not lost a cow to a bear since 1959, Karl says this about the prospects: “If a bear should kill one of my cows, it would be an act of Mother Nature, like an electrical storm. I don’t feel the bear has to live with us. We have to learn to live with the bear. He was part of the country long before we settled it. And should remain part of this country. If you don’t like living with bears then maybe you ought to be ranching somewhere else.”

B-Bar Ranch: Grizzly Rancho Deluxe

Just a few miles from Yellowstone National Park, the B-Bar Ranch has always been the heart of grizzly country—even when Jeff Bridges was running around the Ranch during 1973 being filmed as part of the cult classic Rancho Deluxe. But since about 2010, grizzly bear use of the ranch’s bottomlands began to intensify, perhaps as a result of losing high-elevation bear foods such as whitebark pine on the slopes of the surrounding Gallatin Range. Now, you can see the B-Bar’s cows and grizzly bears grazing together in its hayfields from August through October.

For bears, the draw is the root of the caraway, a carrot relative that had been introduced with non-native hay species at some unknown prior date. Ranch employees have seen as many as 16 bears mingling peacefully in the hay fields with the cattle and elk.

B-Bar Ranch owner Maryanne Mott is a longtime conservationist committed to wildlife coexistence. Employees and guests are required to carry bear pepper spray and hike in groups to stay safe. Her favored breed of cattle, called Ancient White Park, are coordinated, well-armed and aggressive to predators.

Still, the B-Bar does not bring cow-calf pairs to its high-elevation ranch – just larger yearlings and two years olds, and only in summer. Moreover, only the two-year-olds graze on the higher pastures and nearby leased national forest lands. Ranch hands use electric fence to keep cattle in tight bands to both better protect the cows and to better manage the impacts of grazing. The B-Bar has experienced some losses to grizzlies, but not much, and mostly when cows are alone in willow thickets or rendered vulnerable by a combination of weather and darkness.

Maryanne’s view of grizzly bears and other wildlife is encapsulated in this letter: “Considering that we border Yellowstone National Park, we would be remiss not to think that wildlife that call Yellowstone home would not call the ranch home as well.”

Needless-to-say, there are still many ranchers who operate today much as they did when Adophe Murie was alive, killing as many grizzly bears as they can get away with. Unfortunately, during the last ten years livestock conflicts have again become a leading cause of grizzly bear mortality (link), partly because of the intolerance of ranchers, but also because widespread die-offs of important bear foods--whitebark pine and cutthroat trout--have prompted bears to eat meat wherever they can find it (link).

The map below gives you a snapshot of where cattle depredations occurred during a single representative year: 2012. Clearly, we have a lot of work yet to do if we are to foster coexistence between grizzlies, cows, and livestock producers.

This map shows the locations of conflicts involving livestock and grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem during one emblematic year--2012. Each cow skull represents a conflict. Grizzly bear distribution is shown in green and orange, with areas recently occupied by grizzlies between 2000 and 2010 in orange. State boundaries and the boundary of Yellowstone National Park provide spatial references.

Wyoming’s Upper Green: Black Hole for Grizzly Bears

The vast wilderness of the Upper Green River basin has been called “the Serengeti” of Yellowstone, yet this area has become Greater Yellowstone’s number one hotbed of conflicts between grizzlies and ranchers. Former Bridger Teton Forest lead biologist Timm Kaminski has called the Upper Green an “ecological trap” – a place that attracts bears and wolves because of an abundance of natural prey and secure habitat, but where they end up being killed because cows (an easy alternative prey) are dumped on the landscape with little oversight. The heart of the problem is ignorance and resistance to change on the part of ranchers--not bears.

The commonsense proactive approaches to preventing conflicts that Charlie, John, Karl, and Maryanne have adopted apparently do not apply in the Upper Green—at least in the minds of those who run cows in this grizzly bear country. Here the tool of choice seems to be the telephone. Calls to Wyoming’s governor and high-level wildlife managers are the routine response to cow-bear conflicts, primarily as a means of pressuring agency officials to kill bears. Local ranchers have long resisted reforms that would otherwise foster coexistence with carnivores such as grizzlies.

There are many federal and some state employees who have tried for decades to prevent bear-human conflicts and subsequent deadly outcomes in the Upper Green. (I can say this because I worked with many of them, starting in the early 1990’s when my hero Barb Franklin of the Bridger Teton Forest first documented the recolonization of grizzly bears in that country and almost lost her job over the reaction of the ranchers and her bosses).

Most recently, Gary Hanvey of the Bridger-Teton National Forest proposed requiring cowboys tending cattle to carry bear pepper spray. The affected ranchers responded by appealing to his higher-ups. They squelched his sensible efforts. Shortly after, Gary transferred to another National Forest.

Livestock husbandry in the Upper Green tends to be slovenly, even cynical, with sick calves left un-doctored so that when a bear kills them, the state of Wyoming pays them more than fair market value—a practice that some call “baiting.” Meanwhile, the involved bears get a bad reputation. Many get relocated or killed. Top to bottom, most of the ranchers in the Green River – some of them millionaires – are not making a serious effort to steward public lands they use or husband the grizzly bears they share this land with.

Bullying is a long-standing tradition among ranchers in the Upper Green, who parlay the myth of the cowboy into political capital. Hard working public servants are sacrificed on the altar of these selfish few who make money off of our public lands while sacrificing our few remaining grizzly bears on the altar of ideology and ego.

With a hotline to the governor’s office, ranchers like those who live in the Upper Green are counting on Yellowstone’s grizzlies getting delisted. Their quick fix hope is that a sport- hunt will purge the landscape of grizzly bears -- cattle killers or not.

More than 60 years ago, Adolphe Murie raised an important question: why are cattle allowed in grizzly country and under what terms? The proverbial elephant in the living room. With all the advances in planning and GIS mapping, plus new laws on the books, are we coming closer to answers? Since Murie lived, the Endangered Species Act was passed by which we made a national commitment to preventing species extinction. With the emergence of the 6th great extinction, we know, more clearly than in Murie’s day, that we are agents of extirpation, and that with global warming the trend will continue.

Although people like Charlie, John, Karl, and Maryanne know how to coexist with bears, are others willing and able to parlay their hard-earned lessons into norms operating at the necessary scale? I think the answer to that question is a resounding no. A relative few, like the ruffians in the Upper Green, are willing and able to wreck a good thing for everybody. Which is why we need laws – here, continued ESA protections for bears -- to keep a minority of bad actors from undermining hard-fought progress towards grizzly bear recovery for the larger public interest.

Moreover, continued ESA protections also provide prospective leverage for obtaining resources that can be used to help other livestock producers upgrade and otherwise improve their husbandry. Since 1975, the ESA has served the vital role of bringing many millions of dollars to the challenge of recovery and boosting the commitment to keep bears alive among agencies and stakeholders who might otherwise kill them.

Coexistence, commonsense and compassion must be the norm rather than the exception when we get around to removing Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

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