Some Montana ranchers try to coexist with grizzlies

In Montana’s Tom Miner Basin, just outside the protected wilds of Yellowstone National Park, ranchers are embracing a variety of non-lethal strategies to deal with an influx of grizzlies, reports Ensia in a story done in partnership with the Food & Environment Reporting Network. It’s an experiment that could have broad implications for how the livestock industry manages these and other top predators as climate change restricts their traditional food supply.

In what conservationists call “predator coexistence” — the art of sharing the landscape with threatened meat-eaters like bears and wolves — the ranchers in Tom Miner have “decided to make space for their erstwhile enemies,” writes Kristina Johnson, “at a time when habitat is decreasing and government protection is increasingly precarious.”

A revival of range riding, in which unarmed riders stay with the cattle during the days in an effort to dissuade predators simply with their presence, is part of the approach. “But most attacks happen in the middle of the night,” Johnson notes, “when range riders aren’t there. So every morning and evening, when the riders in Tom Miner inspect cows, they use a relatively rare technique called low-stress livestock handling to encourage the cattle to behave more like the bison that used to graze these lands and knew to guard their young.”

This means rebuilding the instinct to protect their young and cluster together as a herd when confronted by a predator—instincts that have been bred out of modern cattle.

“A lot of ranchers see their cattle as the enemy,” says Whit Hibbard, a fourth-generation Montana rancher and the editor of the Stockmanship Journal, which advocates low-stress livestock handling. Most ranchers act a lot like predators, he says. “They’re basically attacking these animals with their yelling and their horses and their [aggressive] dogs, with their whips and hot-shots and all the torture devices that they use.”

It all has benefits for the cattle, the land, and the rancher, as well as the predators. The low-stress approach can improve the cattles’ “health, their ability to gain weight and the quality of their meat,” Johnson writes. “About 5 percent of the average beef carcass is discarded at slaughter because it’s bruised from rough handling when the animal was alive, a loss that costs the industry millions of dollars a year … And when cows are tightly grouped and grazing intensively in an area for a short period of time, their hooves work dung and urine into the ground, bury seeds, and break through crusted soil and club moss, all of which regenerate the soil and improve forage.”