The first rays of light slowly ignite sagebrush-speckled Antelope Basin as two riders move quietly among the herd. Calves nurse at their mothers' sides then frisk off in a series of ungainly hops to play. And this morning, as they do on most mornings, the cattle rest easy. But a far-off, deep-throated howl rising to a keening high note reminds the riders why they're here: to protect these Montana cattle from wolves.
Livestock losses occur for a number of reasons, and each one impacts a rancher's ability to make a living. For many ranchers, the successful reintroduction of wolves to historical home ranges in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming has added yet another piece to the subsistence puzzle. To help solve that conundrum in Montana's Madison Valley, conservationists and ranchers worked together to find a traditional solution to a modern problem.
Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit conservation organization, reimburses ranchers for loss of livestock from confirmed wolf kills, and in Montana in 2003 paid for 24 cattle and 86 sheep. In 2004 there were 2.4 million cattle and 300,000 sheep in Montana. Although the confirmed wolf kills have been miniscule compared with other causes of mortality, ranchers fear fatalities will rise and, in principle, simply do not want wolves.
"None of us likes wolves," says Lane Adamson of the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group. "We feel the wolves aren't our problem to take care of."
About three years ago Janelle Holden of the nonprofit Predator Conservation Alliance began looking for ways to reduce conflict between livestock grazing on public land and wolves. She contacted Adamson to discuss options for livestock protection. Between them, the idea of a range rider bubbled to the surface. In May 2003, a meeting was convened with the PCA, Turner Endangered Species Fund, local ranchers, state and federal wildlife personnel and U.S. Forest Service officials. Everyone agreed the range-rider idea had merit.
PCA was responsible for raising money to pay for two riders. Because of their opposition to wolves, ranchers didn't contribute any money to the project. Funds were awarded from the Wendy P. McCall Foundation from California and the Arthur B. Driggs Foundation in Idaho. A wolf biologist from the TESF agreed to train the riders in wolf behavior and biology. And another wolf biologist helped design the scientific part of the project, plotting the location of radio-collared wolves within grazing allotments. By monitoring the wolves' movement when riders were present, the team hoped to find out if a human presence would effectively deter wolf attacks. The group agreed that the Madison Valley ranchers would hire and direct the riders through the summer of 2004.
"We wanted riders who knew cattle, understood horses and had experience riding in the mountains," Adamson says. "We wanted someone who could ride to the top of a ridge, see the cows and know immediately if something was going on."