Montana Ranchers Learn Ways To Live With Wolves

Gray wolves are a controversial and polarizing animal in much of the American West. Wolves have slowly come back from extinction, forcing people to learn how to coexist with the cunning predator. One farmer is teaching his cattle to huddle together as bison do when threatened — there is safety in numbers.

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Efforts to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list across most of the lower 48 states hit a hurdle yesterday. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service panel said the scientific research is insufficient to make a decision. The ruling disappointed those who see wolves as cunning predators who threaten their livestock. NPR's Nathan Rott spent several weeks in Montana, a state where wolves are no longer on the list, talking to people there about the troubled relations between the two species.

And while he encountered a lot of polarization, he also found there are people trying to seek ways that humans and wolves can coexist.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Eric Graham adjusts his caps then points and waves, directing a loaded tractor bucket. Directing it down, dropping it down, a little to the left a hair, forward and...

ERIC GRAHAM: The cow has landed.

ROTT: A bloated cow carcass is laid on a trailer. So, now you got to strap the thing down, huh?

GRAHAM: Yeah, 'cause we don't want to have to try to pick it up off the highway.

ROTT: Let me explain. We're at a cattle ranch in the Blackfoot Valley of Western Montana. It's a mosaic of wetlands, pine forests and rolling pastures sandwiched between two steep mountain ranches and famously, a river runs through it. There are about 35 ranches in this valley, thousands of livestock and wolves live here too, about a dozen packs of them.

Eric Graham's job is to try to keep the two from clashing. I'll let Graham explain the cow carcass - back in the truck and out of the smell.

GRAHAM: You know, in the olden days, they just - everybody'd have a bone yard or a dead pit...

ROTT: Where rancher would dump their dead livestock.

GRAHAM: And it wasn't pretty.

ROTT: Worse, though, was the attention they'd attract onto the ranch - grizzly bears, coyotes, eagles and wolves. And inviting predators to a place where there are living livestock? No, that's just not a very good idea. A killed cow can cost a rancher thousands of dollars. That's why we're driving this one some 20 miles south to a fence compost yard.

GRAHAM: And just so you know, I would avoid the real wet muddy parts 'cause the stench gets on your feet. Sometimes it's kind of hard to get rid of.

ROTT: The carcass pick-up program is one of many community-based initiatives in the Blackfoot Valley that's aim is to find ways for people and wolves to coexist, not because everybody wants to, but because they have to. Ranchers, like Denny Iverson, are a practical bunch.

DENNY IVERSON: I'll make it perfectly clear. I'd just as soon these wolves weren't on the landscape. It'd make my life a whole bunch easier. But they are so it does no good to sit at the coffee shop or go to Washington, D.C. or Helena and complain about it. We just got to deal with it. So that's where we put our efforts.

ROTT: Iverson works with a group called the Blackfoot Challenge. It's a coalition of landowners, hunters, conservationists and government workers in the area that work together on divisive issues, like wolves. And if you know anything about the West, that's kind of an odd bunch. It's not often that environmentalists and ranchers get along.

Iverson says they do because they follow some pretty simple rules. They meet over dinner because, hey, everybody likes food. They talk about things they can agree on, 80 percent of the time; the harder stuff like wolves, 20 percent. Most of all, he says, they just give each other a lot of well-meaning, good natured...

IVERSON: Probably don't want that on the radio.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: All right, what are you guys drinking?

Jim Stone is the chairman of the Blackfoot Challenge and another rancher. We meet him by the pool table at the community's unofficial gathering place: Trixi's Antler Saloon.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POOL GAME)

JIM STONE: This process works on just about anything you can talk about because it can get you all to the table.

ROTT: Stone says that by getting everybody to that table, they've been able to deal with water rights issues, weed abatement, public lands. But...

STONE: The wolf issue is the toughest I've seen. It's just such a passionate thing.

ROTT: Stone says wolves come to represent other battles playing out in the West: federal control versus state rights, urban versus rural, red versus blue. It just pits people against each other. But Stone says more and more ranchers are getting past that. Not because they have to, but because it's good for business.

STONE: You've got to remember, these guys that like wolves also eat beef.

ROTT: The majority of people that live in places without wolves like them. Stone says that's most of their customers. And to some degree, the customer is always right. That way of thinking is taking hold in many places across the state and other parts of the West. In Idaho, Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group, is working with ranchers to put people in the fields with cattle all of the time. Kind of like modern day shepherds. The Blackfoot Challenge has been doing the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF A HORSE BRAYING)

ROTT: Still others are trying different techniques. In the pale light before sunrise, I meet one of those people in an area of South Central Montana called the Tom Miner Basin.

How you doing?

(SOUNDBITE OF A GALLOPING HORSE)

HILARY ZARANEK: Good.

ROTT: Hilary Zaranek.

ZARANEK: I'm Hilary.

ROTT: Hilary, I'm Nate.

ZARANEK: Hi, Nate.

ROTT: Nice to meet you.

ZARANEK: Nice to meet you, too. Thanks for coming.

ROTT: Hilary has lived on both sides of the issue. She's from Detroit originally. Moved to Montana to study wildlife biology and got involved with wolf studies in Yellowstone. Then she married into a family that's been raising cattle on this land for generations. They, too, accept that wolves are now here, so they've decided to try something new. Hilary sets out on her horse, Ziggy, and her step-dad, Hannibal Anderson, joins us.

Those are his spurs.

HANNIBAL ANDERSON: All right, let's see what kind of excitement and trouble we can get into.

ROTT: We ride out, up a nearby hill where a couple dozen scattered cattle are grazing. Hilary and Hannibal are going to round them up closer together, like a herd. Hannibal says they want to teach them to do this naturally when something like a predator approaches them.

ANDERSON: If they stand their ground against wolves, they're way less likely to be preyed upon than if they run from wolves.

ROTT: It's an idea that came from watching bison. Bison herd up when approached by predators, protecting their calves in the middle. Elk run. It works out better for bison, generally.

ZARANEK: And, of course, cattle are the domestic version of bison. And so there's no reason cattle can't function similar to bison.

ROTT: She believes all they need is a little training. So Hilary comes out every day, twice a day at dawn and dusk, and takes her cows to school. She's a mother of three, so it's a bit taxing. But she says, so far, it's been worth it.

So the ones that you had kind of trained to group up like that, like a herd...

ZARANEK: We had no depredations. And there was a den in that pasture.

ROTT: A wolf den?

ZARANEK: Mm-hmm.

ROTT: Oh, that's pretty good evidence that it, that is it...

ZARANEK: It's a start.

(LAUGHTER)

ZARANEK: It's a start.

ROTT: She says it's important not to see hers or any of the solutions people are trying as quick fixes. Or even fixes, for that matter. They're just efforts to find a middle ground between the kill-all-the-wolves or the don't-kill-any extremes she hears from her neighbors. She looks down at her leather gloves, the Paradise Valley lying below under a blanket of, blue sky...

ZARANEK: There's a good quote. It goes, "Out beyond the ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there. Forget about who's right, who's wrong; who likes this, who hates this. Find that field and meet there. The extremes aren't accomplishing too much."

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: Hilary looks down over her cattle, towards their home below. And the sun slowly crests over the Absaroka Mountains to the East.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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