Opinion: Stop villainizing the cowboy. Turns out ranchland is essential for conservation.

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.

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