Ride with the Wolves (WH, June 2009)

Your next vacation: Track the West’s most lethal predator, the gray wolf, through Montana’s backcountry.

Range RidersThe premise of this wildlife fairytale is well-known.  In 1995, 14 wolves were introduced into Yellowstone National Park.  Fifteen years later, the dens runneth over and an estimated 1,250 wolves now inhabit the tri-state region of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.  It’s a good-news, bad-news situation.  For wildlife viewing, you can see wolves on their native ranges for the first time in a quarter century.  For ranchers, though, the number of cattle killed by wolves increases every year.

“The wolf is a killing machine,” says horseman Jim Powers of Whitehall, Montana.  He and wife Marilyn Powers should know, they are “Range Riders” – hired hands that ride the mountains of southwestern Montana protecting cattle from wolf attacks.

“Our job is to keep the wolves away from the cattle,” he says.  “When we find their dens, we harass them so bad you think they’d leave the country.”

Jim Powers

The Range Rider program is a collaborative effort between the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group and Keystone Conservation, a Bozeman-based wildlife organization.  Now in its seventh year, the program is a harbinger of hope that ranchers and environmentalists can work together.

“Our interest is in balance,” says Jacqueline Rieder Hud, Keystone Conservation’s Executive Director.  “A ‘keystone’ is the center piece that holds all the other stones in place.  Similarly, the wolf is a ‘keystone species’ that needs to be in place for all wildlife to be healthy.”

When WH last checked-in with the Range Riders (August 2005), there were 64 wolves living in southwestern Montana.  According to the most recent official tally in 2007, that number has grown to 87.  Naturally, more wolves equals an increase in wolf-livestock conflicts.

 “In the area where we ride, 3 cattle were killed by wolves last year, and only 1 the year before that,” Powers explains.  Considering that they ride guard on a herd of 1200 cattle, it’s not a bad ratio.

“We’ve proven that the Range Rider program works, we just need more of them,” Hud says.  She adds that Keystone Conservation would hire the Powers some help, but money is tight.  Enter this year’s fund-raising venture: Riding with the Wolves.  Riders assist with tracking wolves and moving livestock and they meet with ecologists and ranchers to learn first-hand what it takes to coexist with wolves.

“Most folks only see wolves in an enclosed park,” Marilyn Powers says.  “Very few see them out in the wild.  Now the public can learn what it takes for a Range Rider to keep cattle safe.”

The trip isn’t for everyone, though.  There’s an application process so that Keystone Conservation and the Powers can be sure the best candidates make it to Montana.  “You have to be able to ride,” Jim Powers warns.  “You need to know how to interact with ranchers, and you should have some knowledge of basic cattle behavior.”

In an outfitting industry where packtrips and trail rides are the norm, Riding with the Wolves is a refreshing opportunity, and a cutting-edge solution that keeps cattle safe and the wolves at bay.

Read this press release for more information.

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