Is there any habit harder to break than harboring a grudge against an old adversary? Yet burying hatchets is exactly what it might take to conserve our wildlife, in the face of ever-increasing pressures on the places they need to survive.
Consider grizzly bears. In 1973, grizzlies were on a steep decline and headed for the list of threatened species. Wolves were almost extirpated from the West.
As that story was told, its villains were often the folks in the cowboy hats. It was an old tale that cattle and predators didn’t mix. Environmentalists came up with all kinds of insults for livestock producers, but the one that stung the most was “welfare rancher.”
It was true that some livestock interests played into negative stereotypes, promising to “shoot, shovel and shut up” any predators caught within rifle range.
But fast-forward 50 years to 2024. Those few hundred grizzly bears have been reproducing under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, and now number perhaps 2,000 in the Northern Rockies. Since the 1990s, wolves have gone from a handful to about 2,500 in the Northern Rockies.
This has been a conservation success story. Yet, too often, the story still smears a broad brush on the same bad guy, the rancher.
If you ask someone in Montana, Idaho or Wyoming about the largest environmental threat, they probably won’t say the biodiversity crisis or climate change. Most times out here, the air blows clean and the place is full of open space.
But Westerners are likely to rue something they see with mounting heartbreak: Family farms and ranches lost to development, open spaces built on and paved over.
While bears and wolves have expanded their range in the last half-century, times have been hard on local agricultural producers. High production and shipping costs, low commodity prices and meat packing monopolies tighten the vise. Millions of acres of ranch lands have been transformed by trophy homes, ranchettes or roadside strip malls.
It turns out that losing all that ranch land is bad for the environment. More residential sprawl means lost winter range and wildlife migration routes for deer, elk and antelope, which people, mountain lions and wolves depend on. And the loss of farming and ranching has significantly more negative consequences. It’s irreversible.
Subdivisions are essentially minefields for hungry bears. Garbage cans, pet food and hobby chickens are just too much temptation for bruins to resist. Fed bears end up dead bears.
A problem, yes, but also an opportunity. Conservation groups like the Montana Land Reliance and scores of local land trusts are focusing on conserving agricultural lands. The same ethos is beginning to take hold in the wildlife advocacy world as well.
There is a joint benefit in keeping bears acting like bears and not raiding ranches. Ranchers and their families feel safer and have more and fatter calves to send to market. Wildlife advocates enjoy more wild animals behaving as they should in the habitats where they can best survive.
The good news is, we have the technology to reduce conflicts between agricultural producers and bears and other wildlife. Range riders are essentially hired hands on horseback, keeping an eye on predators and livestock alike. Electric fences can keep bears, wolves and coyotes out of calving and lambing pastures. With some extra effort, livestock carcasses that are part of ranch life can be disposed of, composted or rendered so they don’t attract wildlife.
Bears sometimes eat calves and lambs, of course, and can even cause trouble with farm crops, eating corn on the cob and chickpeas in the field and learning to pry open grain bins. But merely shooting the offender is rarely a long-term solution. Another hungry animal is sure to show up.
It’s not fair to expect ranchers to pay all those costs because society at large has decided it wants predators on the landscape. That’s where conservationists and wildlife agencies can come in, with private-public partnerships to get those solutions in place on the ground.
Don’t expect everyone to buy into this solution-based conservation paradigm. There is something deeply emotionally satisfying about engaging in political battles, no matter which side you are on.
But the story is changing. Are we nimble enough to change with it?
Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is senior program director for Resource Media and lives in Kalispell, Montana.
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