Reweaving Relationship: Communication, Collaboration & Coexistence with Wolves
By Molly Murfee
Author’s note: Back in February I spoke to the history of wolf eradication in the United States and our responsibility towards whole land stewardship in "Reweaving Relationships: On Stewardship, Wholeness & Wolves." Any talk of wolf reintroduction, however, must include solutions for our ranching communities. Here, I offer some preliminary thoughts.
Many of the Gunnison Valley ranches date back to the mid and late 1800s, in cases the fifth generation in place now taking the reins on running the family business. In my years of writing, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many of them. In those chats, over kitchen tables after a twelve-hour day, or above the roar of tractor bouncing through the fields during hay season, I’ve learned they are a people of strong handshakes and strong ethics, honesty and hard work. They take a lot of pride in not only providing good food to the world, but in their care of the land that supports them.
Aside from being friends and neighbors, the ranching community provides a lot of services to the rest of us here. From them we enjoy the pastoral landscape of rolling fields instead of tracts of houses. They provide wide-open vistas and contribute to the agrarian-based persona of our valley. They help preserve habitat. Through their holding of water rights, our rivers stay here, rather than being piped over the divide to other locales.
They feel a lot of pressure. Development surrounds them with new neighbors unaware of their joint responsibility in maintaining fence and ditches. They feel pressure from recreation as more and more throng to the area, leaving open gates, causing the cattle to get out and expensive retrieval to begin. Recreationists unwittingly push on herds and ranchers get the blame for habitat impacts. The costs of management constantly rise, as do the time-consuming demands of interacting with the complicated policies impacting land and water.
Our ranching families are good people and I know the reintroduction of wolves feels unsteady. They aren’t making millions here, and their dedication to their craft is one of love. The financial margins of success are slim, and the taking of cattle by wolves is a financial burden that we as a community must acknowledge and remediate.
We owe a lot to the ranchers, one of which is an open dialogue based on inclusion, collaboration and communication should the Colorado Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative pass come this November. Proactive interaction and education is important, even in this preliminary junction that signifies big change could be afoot. It’s best to be prepared.
We have an opportunity to take a more positive path forward for humans and nature to coexist.
There are 11 states with wolves and a lot of good examples, research and mistakes to learn from. One of the most progressive is the Range Rider project initiated by Conservation Northwest in partnership with ranchers, scientists, independent wolf experts, and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.
The goals of the program are to reduce conflict; demonstrate the effectiveness of non-lethal wolf deterrent measures; and work with wildlife and ranchers to successfully coexist. Its multi-tiered approach includes easily accessed education and information for all as well as trainings and cost sharing support for proactive wolf deterrent measures ranchers are asked to take.
Once a normal part of doing business, Range Riders disappeared when the wolf was eradicated. The Range Rider program of Washington reintroduces the position – a person trained in wolves, cattle and the landscape, who supervises the herd to both calm it and disrupt wolf hunting.
Patrolling Range Riders are on ATV, horseback and even mountain bike, and have confidential access to wolf location through collar tracking systems. A special team of Rapid Response Range Riders are prepared to act quickly where a conflict is brewing. In 2019 just three range riders were able to cover 136,000 acres and just under 2,000 cows and their calves.
The program also aids with carcass composting of dead calves so as not to attract wolves; and the installation of fladry, or bright flags hung on fencing, often electrified, to deter them. It helps provide guard dogs and offers education on special animal husbandry techniques that help prevent a herd from being targeted by wolves in the first place.
Conservation Northwest contributes monetary support to the hiring of Range Riders. Coupled with matching grants from the state often means ranchers can fully offset their costs. Additionally, ranchers are compensated for an animal lost to wolf depredation by funds from Conservation Northwest, the state, and larger national conservation groups such as Defenders of Wildlife.
Perhaps there are other ways the community can support ranching in the Gunnison Valley to ease the pressure. We can work to better educate recreationists and newcomers about the importance of closing gates and sharing the costs of mending shared fence. We will need to assure our existing open space stays open, so everyone has room to move. We will need curb our own hedonistic desires to fragment these lands with an overabundant web of trails to order to release pressure off both cattle and wolves.
What I’m interested in here is the collaborative, pro-active, solutions-based approach made in conversation with all stakeholders at the table – ranchers, conservationists, hunters, scientists, wildlife managers and beyond. Advisory groups of such to help shape policy and plans. Citizen science initiatives to support study and deepen knowledge.
To me it demonstrates what good community looks like. It is not shying away from seemingly difficult issues to tackle, but rather jointly approaching them with education, understanding, compromise and an ethic of coexistence – for both the wildlife, and the humans.
Creative non-fiction and place-based author Molly Murfee specializes in nature and environmental writing cut with cultural and societal critique. Sign up for the Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her ongoing book project; field-based Writing & Connection Workshops; online advertising and syndicate column opportunities; and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.