As silvery moonlight washed across the Montana meadow, it sent long shadows over the grass. Tonight, I didn’t need the gentle clang of the grazing bell to tell me where the horses were feeding. My leggy quarter horse was as brightly silver-white as the full moon. The distant lowing of cows across the meadow confirmed that all was well. Somewhere in the distance, a wolf pack was probably making evening rounds, but tonight they likely wouldn’t visit this meadow. I swung up into my horse trailer’s tack room and wriggled into my sleeping bag as my dogs made way for my arrival. The next morning I’d rise at daybreak and head toward the sound of the cattle.
Through a unique partnership between federal agencies, state departments, regional nonprofits, and local people, I was range riding as a federal USDA Wildlife Services employee this summer, helping to manage carnivores as a public resource and provide a service to ranchers. I spent four months in Northwest Montana’s Salish Mountains, mostly astride a horse. Monday through Friday, I camped in the forest, riding horseback on old logging roads and cow trails. My charge was broad: check cows and report any injuries or illness that might attract predators; look for carcasses so ranchers can remove them and apply for reimbursement if they were killed by wolves, grizzlies, or lions; and survey for predators and report their presence to ranchers so that they can better manage their cattle. In addition to my eyes on the ground, my presence around the cattle could prove another deterrent to predators. A modern shepherd of sorts, range riding has emerged as one tool in the toolbelt to reduce the number of livestock lost to wolves and grizzly bears.
The Kootenai National Forest has a long history of grazing. Ranchers have leased rights from the USDA Forest Service to graze cattle there for more than 100 years. The land provides producers with vital summer forage, something that can make a difference in sustaining operations. But with wolf and grizzly populations rebounding from 19th century lows, livestock losses to predators are a reality for many Montana producers.
Cows are expert at disappearing; they duck into the trees and are gone. But they leave a story in their wake — tracks, disrupted grass, manure. Forest animals also leave clues. Wolf scat, bear tracks, hair, bones, carrion — they all provides glimpses into the lives of mysterious predators. I looked for these signs and reported what I saw to the ranchers.
I placed wildlife cameras on trails and gated roads where scat and cow pies indicated predators and cows had passed by. Bear cubs and their mothers, wolf families, coyotes, and the occasional mountain lion all were visitors. This year I didn’t find any bovine carcasses, but I found hotspots where wolves and cows both traveled, spurring me to spend even more time in those areas.
My season ended at the close of September, as cooler weather brought cows down off the mountains. Their sojourn in the forest was over, as was mine. Looking back on my time there, I go back to one question: how do we ensure circumstances are livable for people and wildlife? An ongoing USDA Wildlife Services study to assess the effectiveness of range riding in helping to mitigate producer conflicts with predators might eventually yield answers, and an interim report on this season’s efforts and impact is expected in the coming months.