Learn to Live with Wildlife conference causes ire, discussion | TSLN.com

Learn to Live with Wildlife conference causes ire, discussion

Rebecca Colnar
for Tri-State Livestock News

Trina Jo Bradley, a rancher from Valier, and Kim Johnston of People & Carnivores. Courtesy photo

Learn to Live with Wildlife.

The theme of the conference sounded intriguing to many ranchers in Montana, and the fact that it would be located centrally in Lewistown added appeal. What gave some ranchers pause—and others an especially strong motivation to attend—was the fact that the conference was being put on by the American Prairie Reserve. Some of those concerned about the APR's motives registered to ensure the viewpoint of the rancher represented, including a group called Save the Cowboy. Some ranchers figured there was potential value in some of the keynote speakers and workshops.

Maggie Nutter, a rancher from Sweet Grass, Mont., and involved in the Marias River Livestock Association said her group decided to attend the Living with Wildlife Conference with the goalin mind of making sure that the voice and experience of real ranchers was present.

"I went to this conference because I had gone to an Interagency Bison meetings which were all about buying up land for connectivity with wildlife corridors. When they showed the map, I thought: That's crazy. People live there!" Nutter exclaimed. "What we have seen is at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Meeting is that the "committee members" seem to think the spread of bears is a wonderful success but can be 'problematic on working lands' They believe education will increase tolerance of bears with ranchers and farmers. While we can appreciate the information and it is good for our children to learn how to use bear spray that does not necessarily mean we have increased tolerance or acceptance."

"There was some good information presented as in what do to do live with wildlife, and I've been to quite of few of those workshops, but this has to do with tolerance of pushing the tolerance of apex predators such as bears and wolves, on a larger scale," she said.

Trina Jo Bradley who ranches in Valier, Mont., said when she saw the advertisement for the Living with Wildlife conference, she wanted to be part of it. Since the conference was sponsored by National Geographic and hosted by American Prairie Reserve, Bradley knew what kind of message the attendees would be hearing — it wasn't going to be a good message for ranchers. She offered her help and was accepted as a panelist to talk about conflict prevention and living with bears.

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"The grizzly population is absolutely increasing, and as the numbers of bears goes up, there is nowhere for them to expand but out to the prairie which means farms and ranches and towns," Bradley told the group. "I grew up with grizzlies on Dupuyer Creek, so this is not a new concept to me. When I was a kid, they were constantly in our yard, in our garden, around the barn, but there were very few bears — if any — when I first moved to my husband's ranch on Birch Creek."

Now, 16 years later, bears are everywhere. "It isn't uncommon to see 10-15 different bears in the summer — most of them from our living room window, and rarely alone. Since the bear population has moved in, I have had to give up my garden, and my daughter will not play outside by herself, even though we have three dogs. I carry a gun everywhere I go, even if it's just out to the yard to mow the lawn."

The rancher explained they have had to change their way of ranching. "We have had to change the way we use certain pastures on the creek because we lose so many calves to bears. We have to be especially vigilant during calving, especially night checking. We've had to absorb losses every year — either from calves that have been killed and not found, or calves that have been trampled by the cows when a grizzly comes through the calving lot. We can't give creep feed or lick tubs to our cows and calves anymore because the bears eat so much of it."

Her advice to other ranchers? Know the laws. Talk to your local FWP biologist about your options and visit with People and Carnivores about electric fencing and livestock guard dogs. Look into the possibility of employing range riders.

"Do not just sit there and be angry as that's not helping anyone,' she advised. "Call your neighbors and work together to make life easier for all of you. If you don't get results, keep working."

Steve Skelton runs cattle near Bynum on the Rocky Mountain front and owns Black Bear Guardians, a working guard dogs. He attended the conference because he originally thought it was part of the Winter Fair, but said when he got there, he realized it wasn't simply an informative conference.

"When I got there, I could tell it wasn't "our crowd" but you realized you had to give it a go," he said. Skelton praised Trina Jo for telling her story about living with the bears and Kim Johnston with People & Carnivores, a group that gives ranchers relief in dealing with predators by helping with electric fencing and other deterrents.

"We became a highlight at this conference when people found I raised guard dogs," said Skelton. "There was a Grizzly bear biologist from Washington, D.C., who was thrilled about guard dogs because they can protect the rancher and their livestock and make the bears go away. However, with the bears being federally protected, their population has ballooned. People don't understand the tension and white-knuckled moments we have to keep raising sheep and cattle with these apex predators that have been pressed on up. I think the message that living with Grizzly Bears is like living with MS 13 in your neighborhood may have hit home with a few folks."

Skelton is wants to be part of the conference if it becomes an annual event. "This time there were about 30 APR speaker and only two ranchers. We need better representation.

Kris Descheemaeker and her husband, Dennis, ranch east of Lewistown decided to check out the conference. "The APR is moving this way from Phillips County and has purchased a building in Lewistown which has caused discontent in the ranching community. When the word came out that National Geographic paid for this conference, the ranching community was very upset, saying they were trying to make us feel good. Instead of being negative we decided to go and see what they're saying.

"It was interesting to hear from panelists who are ranchers talking about their experience with predators," Descheemaeker said. "I don't look at predators as wildlife. We on the Plains don't understand how they have had to change their operations to adapt because of those predators. I'm afraid those predators are here to stay, so instead of beating our heads against the wall, coalitions need to be built. If you don't hold dialogues, you can't come to any agreement on what you agree and disagree about."

The Lewistown rancher talked about one workshop she attended "I sat in on the grass-fed beef sustainability and marketing workshop. If you look at the APR web site under their Wild Sky Meats, you get the impression that they are purchasing cattle from their Wild Sky ranching families, when in reality this is not the case," Descheemaeker said. "They purchase no cattle in the area nor in Montana, but pay an incentive payment to their enrolled families who meet certain wildlife friendly criteria. The more steps the enrolled rancher does the more the payment."

When questioning the Strauss panel member, Ann Kolthoff, whose company provides the meat for Wild Sky, Descheemaeker said she had the impression the "grass fed" beef may go to a finishing lot, somewhat like a feedlot (the Strauss panelist called it a sacrifice area).

"They are being feed a grass ration in some kind of bunk system. It is not a true pasture grazing situation as I would think customers who are purchasing grass fed cattle are picturing," Descheemaeker noted. "Transparency is such an important part of the cattle industry and I feel like both Strauss and APR are misleading their customers in a huge way." F