Compassion & Conflict: Women of a Wild, Working Landscape
Bear spray and camera in hand, I stand watch and analyze the scene, shifting my focus between everything and nothing. The cow carcass lies at the bottom of the creek - right where it was found a few hours earlier - but the fresh dirt sprinkled over its body tells us there has been a visitor since then. Bree works her knife along the shoulder and down the back. My eye returns to the viewfinder as I crouch down next to the carcass. Bree lifts the skin up and my shutter closes, capturing hemorrhaging and puncture wounds all consistent with a grizzly kill. While we try to work with a heightened sense of awareness and self-preparation - picking up on the bears’ and wolves’ behavioral patterns over time - it doesn’t make this time of year any easier.
Here we stand at the perceived center of the conflict. This is the fourth carcass we’ve discovered this week.
Bree Morrison and I are range riders for Montana’s Tom Miner Basin, which sits on the northwestern edge of Yellowstone National Park. We ride alongside Hilary Anderson, who is the project coordinator and co-founder of the Tom Miner Basin Association with her sister-in-law and Basin native, Malou Anderson-Ramirez. The Association was created to unite the community through a single vision of a wild and healthy landscape that supports both sustainable ranching businesses and diverse wildlife populations for generations to come. Like many other ranching communities along the Northern Rockies, Tom Miner Basin realized a growing conflict when predators returned to the landscape. Yet instead of seeing danger or loss, Hilary and Malou saw the opportunity for positive change, and that translated into creating the range riding program four years ago.
By name, range riding is as old as the Wild West itself. However, the concepts behind it have evolved and adapted to a new, emerging West - one that, from where we’re standing, looks to be even wilder. Today’s version focuses on our potential to minimize livestock-predator conflict through a deeper understanding of the ecosystem and all its intricate, shifting relationships. We try to listen to everything from the soil to the sky to learn when and why depredations occur on our landscape.
Most view predators as being perfectly designed by nature to simply and successfully take down their prey. And when people look at a cow facing predation, all they see is vulnerability. Often in the interest of our own safety, humans have taken away livestock’s best defense, be it rugged terrain or sharp horns. Despite this, each of us has personally witnessed and documented when the opposite is true - when cattle have had the upper hand against predators.
Just last year, Bree, my then three-month-old pup, June, and I took off on foot, running across the valley ready to haze four wolves that were heading towards cattle. Two of the wolves began testing the group searching for a weak link. Just as we were about to act, three of the cattle broke off from the herd and began chasing the wolves out of the pasture. Instances like this have reinforced the importance of a willingness to learn and unlearn, as I replaced what I thought I knew about cattle with a deeper appreciation for how successful ungulates - domestic or wild - can behave when facing predation risk.
This same idea sparked the motivation to find ways to encourage this kind of behavior in our livestock. Low-stress stockmanship was part of that answer for the Anderson family. These techniques work to rekindle the herd instinct, making them less vulnerable to predators, similar to how bison defend themselves. Instead of choosing “flight” giving coursing predators such as wolves exactly what they want, we handle cattle in such a way that encourages them to stick together and hold their ground. While this isn't a stand-alone, fail-proof method for preventing depredations, we try to put our herds in the best position to protect themselves.
Yet sometimes the greatest way we can help our community through this struggle isn’t by focusing on the animals or the landscape, but by listening to its people and their stories, because conflict - even that between domestic and wild animals - is rooted in human differences. Sometimes the most meaningful thing you can do in a single day is just sit down with that rough and tough seventy-year-old cowboy over a glass of whiskey to get his outlook on the world and learn what this conflict means to him.
Through the Association, Malou and Hilary have given a voice to each person in the Basin whether they’ve called it home for months or generations.
When Bree, Malou, Hilary and I meet with the different stakeholders, we hear a wide range of perspectives. By sharing these views, it has allowed us the opportunity to learn from everyone and has challenged each of us to think critically about our own beliefs. There might be a rancher who doesn’t want predators on the landscape at all, and if one is seen, he wants to shoot it in order to protect his or her livelihood. Another rancher tolerates wolves and grizzly bears and understands that losing cattle to predators is to be expected on a shared landscape. His or her experience may be that in most cases, cattle, bears, and wolves can coexist in same area without much trouble. There may also be an environmentalist who doesn’t want a single grizzly or wolf to be killed in response to a depredation and sees cattle as being unjustly valued over native predators on the wild landscape. Yet another environmentalist supports the lethal removal of predators as an option to increase tolerance within the communities that are struggling to live alongside their wild neighbors. He or she believes that compromising now could support the population’s survival in the long run. As the dialogue continues, small shifts in outlook and opinion can happen over time.
Yet, if we truly desire change on a larger scale, we must be willing to move our mindsets away from stereotypical ideas of ranchers, environmentalists, cattle, predators, and our place in the ecosystem, and view it all in a new light.
Experience of this conflict doesn’t end at the edge of the Basin, though. We are just a small part of the bigger story that’s playing out well beyond our fence lines. We communicate and even visit with other communities whether they’re experiencing similar struggles, anticipating them in the near future or simply wanting to learn about them. This effort to share ideas, give feedback and inspire creativity not only increases our resources, but also makes us more resilient as a collective.
Approaching livestock-predator conflict in a collaborative manner takes compassion. Bree, Malou and Hilary consistently give so much of their energy, thoughts, and time into this work, yet this isn’t their only focus in life. Hilary and Malou are raising beautiful families, starting businesses and running ranching operations. Bree lives and works in London with her husband for half of the year and returns to the States by herself to continue leading our efforts in the field. As a team, we can only do good work and be there for our community if we’re there for each other.
Each of the women I work with offers something both unique and valuable for me to show up as my best self. Hilary helps me to see a world with no ceiling - one where dreaming of the most audacious and uplifting ideas is not only encouraged, but expected. Malou’s ability to listen with an open heart provides a warm refuge for me on any given day. Bree encourages me to be my most honest and fearless self, leading by example in the saddle and even on the dance floor!
As you drive up the winding dirt road into Tom Miner Basin, the landscape reveals itself with an energy that many feel is maternal - equally delicate and powerful. The Sheep Eater Indians who existed in the Basin well before us were distinguished by their mountain medicine, which was regarded as the strongest of its kind amongst Shoshone tribes. The women in these families carried a strength that was essential to their survival in areas and altitudes that were considered uninhabitable. I can't help but think that same spirit has lived on through all the incredible women who are connected to this place and work.
I have had conversations with other people who are emotionally invested in this conflict who think my optimism is foolish, pointing out every flaw in our approach. Yet, even when we take steps backwards, we’re still looking ahead. Conflict is a journey, one that we will experience our entire lives. None of these counterparts are static, whether it’s the rain that falls or the pack of wolves that runs on this wild, working landscape. But we get to decide our attitude and approach towards it.
We can choose to hand down a story of fear and loss for future generations to carry on or one of compassion and opportunity. Riding alongside Bree, Hilary, and Malou, it’s hard for me to see anything less than hope.