Cattle drive on Greyson Creek, Montana. David Reese photo
by Glenn Himebaugh
Aesop may have known what would happen in the Rocky Mountain West when he wrote “The Wolf and the Shepherds” fable. It goes like this:“One evening a wolf passed near a sheep fold and smelled mutton cooking. He drew close and peered through the bushes. A lamb was roasting over the fire and the shepherds were discussing the good quality of the meat. If it was me that had done this, thought the Wolf, they would be after me with sticks and stones and curses.”
Now, Bozeman-based Keystone Conservation is working to design kinder, gentler ways of dealing with wolves and other predator species. Their efforts have taken on an even greater sense of urgency after gray wolves were removed from the Endangered Species list in Montana and Idaho on May 4.
Keystone works to pioneer innovative solutions that help people and wildlife coexist, says Jacqueline Hud, Keystone’s executive director. “We partner with rural communities to design strategies that save a place for America’s keystone species. Our programs combine local knowledge, hard science, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the West to devise and implement practical solutions for wildlife conservation.”
One of its most successful programs is the Range Riders program, begun in 2004 in collaboration with the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group. Every day, from dawn to dusk, for the past five summers, Jim and Marilyn Powers have patrolled 30,000 acres in the Antelope Basin near Yellowstone National Park on horseback looking for wolves and keeping them apart from ranchers’ cattle. Using a trailer near Ennis as base camp, the Powers ride the range from June through October. “We are seeing more wolves than when we started,” Jim reports. “We focus on the Horn Mountain pack, but sometimes we run into singles from other packs. We use visual sighting, no telemetry, and try to locate the den. “When we see wolves we harass them. We yell and throw objects. We shoot rubber bullets and cracker shells to make noise. They don’t like to be around humans and hopefully if we’re with the cattle it will keep them away,” he explains.
Keystone funded the Antelope Basin program from 2004-2007 and now shares that responsibility with the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group. It provided training and funding for a similar project in the Boulder Valley from 2004-2007 in partnership with the Boulder Watershed Association and plans to train Range Riders to work elsewhere.
Wolves represent a major new challenge to livestock production in Montana, Hud confirms, noting that in 2008 the Montana Livestock Loss and Mitigation Board paid $83,000 to producers in 15 counties before running out of money needed to compensate seven of the 83 claims submitted. Another Keystone success story is its Bear Aware, program, which teaches people, many of them ex-urbanites, to make homes, livestock and backcountry camps off limits to bears by removing attractants like food, birdfeeders and beehives.
Keystone has made bear-proof garbage cans available to landowners in conflict areas, worked with outfitters to help secure backcountry camps, set up bear poles for food storage, and helped ranchers install electric fence around calving yards and beehives to reduce availability of attractants.
Since 2003, Keystone also has supported a Predator Friendly Certification program recognizing meat, wool, eggs and honey producers who practice wildlife stewardship. Still growing, this recognition extends to about 20 producers who use techniques to reduce the risk of conflict between wildlife and livestock by using pasture management strategies, guardian animals like dogs and llamas. Certified producers guarantee not to use or authorize any lethal control of native predators.
Keystone traces its roots to the Predator Conservation Alliance founded in 1991. After initial success with its Coexisting with Predators program, that organization consolidated resources toward on-the-ground work to deter conflict between people and carnivores in 2005. “Rather than advocating for predators through the court system, we moved to partnering with people whose livelihoods depend on shared habitat to implement practical, non-lethal methods to keep carnivores on the landscape,” Hud explains.
The organization changed its name to Keystone Conservation in 2007 to reflect its focus on coexistence and ensure that ranchers and backcountry users know they are essential partners in their work. “Together with people who work, live and recreate alongside predators, we create a path to coexistence,” Hud said. •