Big Hole Range Rider Tracks Wolves To­ward Mid­dle Ground In Mon­tana

Riverbank News - - NEIGHBORHOOD VALUES -

JACK­SON, Mont. — Chet Robert­son found the spot he was headed to on a re­cent morn­ing by do­ing what he’s done six hours a day, July through Septem­ber, for the last eight sum­mers: fol­low­ing wolves.

The wolves that led Robert­son here, to a lit­tle is­land made by the braid­ing of Miner Creek, on the west side of the Big Hole, had cor­nered some elk and wounded one of them.

“But they headed right down this trail here,” Robert­son says, “so off I go.”

A range rider hired by the Big Hole Wa­ter­shed Com­mis­sion, a Di­vide-based con­ser­va­tion non­profit, Robert­son’s job is, at its core, pro­foundly sim­ple.

“I want the wolves to know I’m here, and I want them to know I’m here be­cause of them,” he ex­plains. “I want them to know that my whole world re­volves around them. You have to get in their psy­che. They’re very neo­pho­bic. . I think they’re al­ways just, ‘Where is this guy and what’s he do­ing?’ I think it just makes them freak out, and they move. They never stay any­where very long.”

That’s im­por­tant, Robert­son says, be­cause when the wolves are har­ried, they are less likely to prey on the cat­tle that graze on the seven For­est Ser­vice al­lot­ments that he’s tasked with rid­ing and which span an ap­prox­i­mately 200-square-mile area.

Those cat­tle be­long to the eight area ranch­ers who par­tic­i­pate in the BHWC’s Up­per Big Hole Range Rider pro­gram, al­low­ing Robert- son to ride among their graz­ing cat­tle and do his best to keep wolves, griz­zly bears, and moun­tain lions at bay; to help con­firm the cause of depre­da­tion when it does hap­pen, so that ranch­ers are el­i­gi­ble for com­pen­sa­tion; and to oth­er­wise keep an ex­tra eye on cat­tle as they roam through a for­est in­creas­ingly pop­u­lated by preda­tors.

While wolves and bears had been re­moved from the area — and much of the West — by the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tury, rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grams have brought them back to a grow­ing range that in­cludes the Big Hole and spans large sec­tions of the north­ern Rock­ies.

And as preda­tor pop­u­la­tions have flour­ished, so have ten­sions be­tween the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who spear­headed their re­cov­ery and the ranch­ers who do their best to make a liv­ing by rais­ing live­stock that some­times serve as these an­i­mals’ prey. That’s where Robert­son’s seem­ingly sim­ple, ap­par­ently an­i­mal-ori­ented job be­comes a lot more com­pli­cated and a lot more about peo­ple.

Ac­cord­ing to Robert­son, the larger “mis­sion” he’s pur­su­ing when he’s seem­ingly just track­ing an­i­mals through the woods is tamp­ing down ten­sions be­tween those with op­pos­ing views on the re­vival of wolves and bears.

“Every­body tends to be way over here or way over here,” Robert­son says.

On one side, he says, are those who want to kill all the wolves. On the other side are those who want no wolves to be killed. He calls the for­mer group “out of their freak­ing minds” and the lat­ter “ridicu­lous.” He lo­cates him­self “in the mid­dle.”

“I would rather the wolves weren’t here,” Robert­son says. “How­ever, the wolves are here. . We’re never go­ing to be rid of them again. Let’s try to get along with them to re­duce the con­flicts.”

The need to ac­cept the fact of the wolves while be­ing re­al­is­tic about the need to man­age their pop­u­la­tions de­rives from changes in habi­tat, ac­cord­ing to Robert­son.

“Our wilder­ness is not the great Wild West any­more,” he says. “Our wilder­ness is these lit­tle blocks of habi­tat, and our wildlife is pinned in these lit­tle blocks of habi­tat, which makes very good ter­ri­tory for wolves, be­cause they’re fenced in these lit­tle blocks. They (the prey) can’t just leave and be some­where else the next state over to­mor­row. So peo­ple have to un­der­stand that from both sides, that we have to learn to live with these things. But we don’t need them com­ing out our ears.

“By the same terms,” he adds, “it took poi­son to kill the wolves last time. Who in their right mind is go­ing to ad­vo­cate putting out poi­son to kill this an­i­mal? It ain’t gonna hap­pen. You’re not gonna kill all the wolves. We’re stuck with them. Let’s learn to live with them.”

This is an im­per­a­tive that Robert­son has taken al­most lit­er­ally since 2011, the year the BHWC ini­ti­ated the range rid­ing pro­gram and a group of par­tic­i­pat­ing ranch­ers picked Robert­son for the job from his post at the Jack­son Mer­can­tile, then a “fail­ing busi­ness” he owned and op­er­ated with his wife.

Since that time, the 57-year-old Wy­oming na­tive has be­come deeply en­grossed in his work — and in the wolves he fol­lows.

“My whole world re­volves around pieces of me­dia that will hold a wolf track,” Robert­son says. “I know where ev­ery piece of me­dia in this coun­try is. I’ll drive a mile out of my way to go look at 5 square feet of dirt, be­cause it’s in a good place and it’s good dirt and it will tell me, ‘Were wolves here or were wolves not here?’”

This com­mit­ment has made Robert­son ex­tremely knowl­edge­able about the lo­cal wolf pop­u­la­tion.

He tells de­tailed sto­ries about in­ti­mate facets of their lives: “There was one par­tic­u­lar wolf in this bunch that had three legs, which is very rare. Wolves usu­ally don’t tol­er­ate slack­ers. If you can’t make food, you are food. So we kind of as­sumed that this was the al­pha bitch or a pet to the al­pha bitch — a fa­vorite child.”

He has de­vel­oped novel the­o­ries about how they hunt: “When you think of a pack of wolves at­tack­ing an an­i­mal and tak­ing it down, you think of the mob climb­ing all over them and ev­ery­thing. I think, more of­ten than not, that’s not the case. You see it all the time. They’ll just go and bite it. And their mouths are so filthy that in two days, three days, it’s dead (from in­fec­tion) — and they’ll just come back and find it, eat it then. You don’t got to worry about get­ting kicked or any­thing.”

But for all he knows about the wolves, Robert­son isn’t pos­i­tive he’s help­ing keep them away from the live­stock: “It’s a re­ally hard thing to quan­tify, the ef­fec­tive­ness of what I’m do­ing.”

Ge­orge Ed­wards, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mon­tana Live­stock Loss Board, a state agency that works to pre­vent depre­da­tion and to com­pen­sate ranch­ers when it oc­curs, says that while it’s hard to prove, it’s easy to see that range rid­ers “can have a big im­pact on a rancher’s bot­tom line and help them be more pro­duc­tive.”

In the Big Hole, in par­tic­u­lar, Ed­wards says there has been “a steady de­cline in the num­ber of con­firmed death losses.”

“We don’t have any sci­en­tific data, but just from a claims per­spec­tive, we’re see­ing that there has been a de­cline, and we’re not see­ing the claims that we used to,” says Ed­wards, whose agency helps fund the $15,000-ayear BHWC pro­gram.

While he says Beaver­head County has tra­di­tion­ally been one of the state’s lead­ing coun­ties for depre­da­tion, there has been only one con­firmed loss — a cow, to a wolf — so far this year.

Sim­i­lar pro­grams have shown sim­i­larly strong re­sults around the state, ac­cord­ing to Ed­wards, and a grow­ing num­ber of ranch­ers are see­ing the ben­e­fits of range-rider pro­grams.

“It’s not just rid­ing around the pas­ture and say­ing there’s wolves in the area,” he says. “It’s that early de­tec­tion. It’s mov­ing the an­i­mals to cre­ate a dis­tance be­tween them and the preda­tors.”

Range rider Chet Robert­son’s job, left photo, is to “freak out” wolves to keep them on the move and away from graz­ing cat­tle.

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