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Montana ranchers share the landscape with grizzlies

Malou Anderson-Ramirez, a third-generation rancher in the Tom Miner Basin, kneels by a calving pasture on the Anderson Ranch on April 24. The pasture is encircled by electrified fladry — basically rectangular red flags sewn to a strand of electric fencing — designed to deter predators. Since the ranch started using fladry eight years ago, Anderson-Ramirez said it has been "100% effective." (Joseph Bullington/Livingston Enterprise via AP)

LIVINGSTON, Mont. (AP) — When Malou Anderson-Ramirez, 37, was a child, her family rarely saw grizzly bears around their ranch, the Anderson Ranch, in the upper Tom Miner Basin.

These days, caravans of tourists truck daily up the basin's dirt roads because, at certain times of year, the place offers the closest thing there is to a guarantee of seeing a Yellowstone grizzly in the wild. Probably you'll see a few.

"We've been up here a long time and we've seen things change," said Anderson-Ramirez, who is the third generation of her family to ranch in the basin. Two years ago, her 92-year-old grandmother had to go into assisted living, she said, in part because a grizzly bear came into her house — twice.

To her, the reason for this particular change is clear: Climate change has contributed to a rapid die-off of white bark pine trees, the nuts of which provide a key, high-calorie food source for grizzly bears. With less of these high-elevation trees around, grizzlies have begun to range farther from the mountain strongholds of Yellowstone National Park, the Absarokas and the Gallatins in search of food. Many of them find it in the form of caraway roots, dug by the clawful in the Tom Miner, and in some cases livestock.

Management removal for conflicts with livestock is the No. 1 cause of grizzly bear mortality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Livingston Enterprise reported .

Anderson-Ramirez said she thinks ranchers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — because of their proximity to the park, because their land is used by many species as a migration corridor, because their land is home to threatened species like grizzlies — have a "unique responsibility" to protect this landscape, to learn to ranch with large predators and wildlife around, to adapt as the landscape changes. These ranchers, too, she said, are an endangered species, and if they don't learn to adapt they, too, will disappear.

In an effort to preserve the rural ranching way of life as well as the natural systems that sustain it and the basin's diversity of wildlife, Ramirez-Anderson and her sister-in-law Hilary Anderson formed the Tom Miner Basin Association in 2012. The association works on projects to promote "shared landscapes" — where livestock and predators can coexist — protect functioning ecosystems and offer financial assistance to ranchers looking to undertake such projects.

"We believe in preserving functioning ecosystems already at work," she explained. "We are learning to learn from these ecosystems rather than trying to dominate them."

Ranching, she said, has played a large and under-appreciated role in preserving the West's intact landscapes and, through the association, she hopes to help ranches adapt so they can continue to play this role.

"For the layperson, they don't understand how important ranching is to open spaces," she said. "We ranchers have deep ties to the traditional rural way of life. And while a number of those traditions work well, a number of them don't work the way they used to."

On the ground, the association's efforts mostly take the form of four programs: range riding, portable electric fencing and fladry, carcass management and wildlife tracking.

Wildlife tracking means learning the behaviors of wildlife that frequent the ranch.

Carcass management means disposing of dead livestock or at least moving it to a part of the ranch far from cattle. The point, said Anderson-Ramirez, is to not habituate predators to livestock.

The range riding program, which has riders out with the herd and patrolling the ranch, helps ranchers find carcasses faster and, if the animal has been killed by a predator, it helps them get compensated for the loss by the state and federal governments. Range riding is also designed, Anderson-Ramirez said, to help "rekindle the wild herd instinct in cattle," by bunching the herd at dusk and dawn so they are less vulnerable to predators.

Finally, electrified fladry — basically rectangular red flags sewn to a strand of electric fencing — is used to surround calving pastures to deter wolves and grizzlies.

The Anderson Ranch has hung fladry around their calving grounds for the last eight years, with the help of the Park High FFA chapter for the last four years, and has seen 100% success, said Anderson-Ramirez — they have not lost a single calf in that time.

Predators are looking for babies, she said, and literally the year before they started using fladry they lost a calf.

The Tom Miner Basin Association makes fladry available to area ranchers for free, courtesy of federal and state grants, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife.

"This is a gift, basically, given to us by people who really care about shared landscapes," said Anderson-Ramirez. Defenders of Wildlife, she said, will not only give fladry to ranchers for free, they'll come out and hang it for them, too.

Fladry is hung 18 inches off the ground to encircle the calving ground and connected to a solar-charged battery. The flags alone, she said, are usually enough to deter wolves.

"It's a human, rectangular, red shape and that's very disturbing to wildlife," she explained. "It's not a shape that occurs in nature."

The key is to take it down as soon as possible, she said, so predators don't become habituated to it.

"The moment that last calf is born you take it down," she said.

However, the electric charge is needed to keep bears away, she said.

"The idea started out as a wolf deference thing," said Shane Stender, the Park High FFA advisor who brings his FFA students up to the basin every year to help the Andersons hang fladry. "But due to the fact that the fence is electrified it deters bears as well, because no animal likes electricity."

Stender said FFA decided to take students up to help hang the fladry because they thought it would be a good fit for an agriculture based organization.

A lot of his FFA participants, he said, are ranch and farm kids who are skeptical of predator deterrence efforts.

"A lot of people are pro just shooting the wolves," he said. "I think it's a good option to take a step in deterring before other means are needed. So it has been a really good learning opportunity. It's been able to help students open their eyes a little bit and see different sides."

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