Near the Three Forks Upper Ruby Allotment, before the cowboy camp. PHOTO BY KEELY LARSON

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Gravelly-specific range rider addresses livestock and predator conflicts, builds relationships with ranchers

After a 35-day government shutdown at the end of 2019, Congress approved a spending package to fund the federal government for the next fiscal year. Part of this package included $1.38 million for Wildlife Services (WS) to hire employees responsible for nonlethally reducing conflict between predators and livestock in 12 states.

Montana received about $150,000 from this funding and hired a new range rider, Brian Smith, to work specifically on public land allotments in the Gravelly Range. Smith’s position—like other range riders and fencing technicians that are supplemented financially by outside sources—was supported by a match from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC).

“There’s plenty of lethal options,” Darcie Warden, Montana conservation coordinator with GYC, said. “So, we wanted to provide space for a nonlethal option.” Range riders and fencing technicians are both nonlethal positions. The nonlethal component was a stipulation for the funding.

The Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance (RVSA), of which Warden is a member and which is supported by GYC, heard about the appropriations set aside for WS, applied for the money and received the partnership, hence Smith’s Gravelly location.

“The reason we decided, with the ranchers, to pursue this is because there is grizzly bear presence growing in the Gravelly Range. This is impacting their arrangement with their public land allotments,” Warden explained. One way to work with the growing grizzly numbers is to get more presence on the landscape and more support for ranchers and ranch-hired riders, Warden said.

“He’s (Smith) been a good fit for the job and I think having just the extra human presence out there is helping us. We won’t know for sure until we get the cows home and count off what we have at the end of the season, but we haven’t had a lot of depredation problems,” Rick Sandru, president of RVSA and third-generation Montana rancher in Twin Bridges, said.

Aided by GYC’s funding, WS was able to hire Smith to work full-time from the end of May through October. In the Upper Ruby Valley, he rides through allotments looking for predators, observing the health of the livestock and informing ranchers of his findings.

“He looks at their state, too. Are the livestock calm and kind of acting normal, or are they agitated? If they are really nervous or agitated then he’s spending more time there looking at what’s causing that,” John Steuber, Montana WS state director, said. “He looks for concentrations of predator activity, especially grizzly bears,” Steuber continued, and then suggests moving herds away from these concentrations to avoid conflict.

Smith is trained to do necropsies and identify how an animal was killed. Ranchers can be compensated for a livestock loss according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) market values, but the kill has to be confirmed by WS and enough evidence must be available to confirm a predator kill. The time in between investigations can prove to be costly if a WS representative is not able to make it to a kill site in time to identify what predator was to blame. Having Smith working specifically in the Gravellys is beneficial in this way.

“It’s a large area to cover and a lot of livestock, but so far I think the cattle producers appreciate it,” Steuber said. Being concentrated in one area, different from other range riders that covered the Gravellys but also much more land, allows Smith to get the feel of what ranchers and riders are dealing with. “From my perspective, I welcome him being up there,” Sandru said.

“It has really made a huge difference in our local WS agent being able to respond to the other concerns in the area because in the past few years, he’s been spending so much time on depredation calls on the Gravelly areas,” Sandru said. It takes about a day to confirm a wolf or grizzly livestock kill, which can be compensated by the USDA market value, and thus takes time away from responding to calls about other animals, Sandru said.

“The position really worked. It turned out there were good results and good relationships being made between WS and ranchers and the riders out there,” Warden said.

Sandru felt the most important component of having Smith on the landscape involved the partnerships that went into his position including GYC, WS, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and other conservation groups. These groups are able to gain a deeper understanding of the situation between ranchers and predators, better connecting to the land and the people on it.

“The Gravellys are an area that within recent history, the grizzly bear conflicts are fairly recent—five, six years or so—but it has quickly become one of the highest conflict areas in the state,” Steuber said, noting this as part of why it was such a priority to get Smith in the Gravellys. Sandru has been ranching for 31 seasons on the Three Forks Upper Ruby Allotment, an allotment that Smith rides, and has noticed a loss increase due to grizzly bears during this time.

“There are definitely more grizzly bears than there traditionally have been,” he said.

According to the Livestock Loss Board, six cattle were killed by grizzlies in 2013— when the board began accepting grizzlies for loss determinations—76 cattle were killed by grizzles in 2016 and 96 cattle were killed by grizzlies in 2019 across Montana

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