APACHE COUNTY — Ever since the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into the wild in 1998, ranchers in wolf country have been dealing with a predator their ancestors worked to eliminate.

And the wolves very nearly were eliminated. The wild wolves that now roam the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest are the descendants of only seven remaining Mexican wolves left when a recovery effort for the species was launched in the mid-1970s after the passage of the Endangered Species Act.

Now, nearly 20 years later, ranchers in wolf country are still coming to terms with how to handle an another predator in a business that includes many variables that affect the bottom line and are outside ranchers’ control.

Some ranchers have found an unlikely partner in dealing with wolf-related livestock losses — an environmental group called Defenders of Wildlife.

Since 2002, Defenders of Wildlife has offered a Range Rider program in which the environmental group helps pay the cost for a summer position for a person who will stay out on the range with the cattle and help keep track of the wolves.

The program has quietly grown over the years, as the number of wolves has expanded and the number of ranchers who want to participate has also grown. Starting with only two riders the first year, Defenders is now sponsoring 15 Range Rider projects with ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico.

Everything about the program focuses on building partnerships and trust between ranchers, the Interagency Wolf Field Team that manages the animals, and environmentalists. Creating those relationships between people who have been outspoken opponents of the Mexican wolf and suspicious of one another has been a slow task requiring delicate diplomacy. And it is work that wolf extremists — both haters and lovers — often oppose.

Craig Miller, the coordinator for the Mexican Wolf Range Rider Program for Defenders, tries to protect the relationships he’s worked hard to develop over the past 15 years. He’s happy to tell you about some aspects of the program — how it’s funded, how it works, the kinds of tools and techniques riders use. But when it comes to the people involved in the program, he won’t, and can’t, tell you anything.

Defenders has developed a strict confidentiality clause that is part of the contract a rancher signs to become part of the Range Rider program. That confidentiality is important because the Mexican wolf is such a lightning-rod issue that ranchers who participated in the program in the past have been ostracized in their communities.

“We’ve intentionally kept the project low-key,” Miller explained in an interview. “Nobody wants to be labelled a wolf-lover. The wolf issue has the potential to create that kind of conflict in a community. It also has the potential to bring out the best in people to come together to solve problems.”

Focusing on the practical

One of the first things Miller makes clear about the Range Rider program and the partnerships it forges with ranchers is — nobody is trying to change someone else’s opinion about wolves or wolf politics.

“People on the ground have legitimate concerns about raising livestock in the presence of wolves,” Miller said.

Instead, the Range Rider program focuses on the practical and thorny problem of how to successfully raise cattle in wolf country. The intentional reintroduction of wolves into a wild landscape shared with people has created a practical need for a new kind of relationship with the animal. Instead of killing wolves, how do we live with them?

“This was new. It was new to ranchers and it was new to us, it was new to wildlife managers. Nobody had done any of this before, so it was very exploratory,” Miller said of the wolf re-introduction.

Keeping a human presence near cattle is a time-tested method for protecting livestock. But putting cowboys on the range is not cheap. The Range Rider program provides $1,500 per month stipend from Defenders, which is matched by the ranchers with in-kind assistance for the rider, such as providing a horse and tack, a bunk and meals, access to a truck and fuel. Ranchers often recruit a person they know and trust for the position, and sometimes Defenders hires the rider. Every Range Rider position is uniquely structured to meet the needs of the ranch that sponsors it.

In the middle

The Range Rider’s job is to stay out in the middle — between cattle herds and nearby wolf packs that have a den with pups, because those packs have a greater need for food and may be more susceptible to killing cattle to meet their needs.

Riders keep track of the wolves’ location with radio telemetry equipment provided by the IFT and by looking for tracks and scat. They spend most of their time alone, out with the herd or looking for wolf signs. Many camp out in the field.

Brandon Babb is spending his first summer as a Range Rider, but he’s not a ranch-raised kid. Brandon is from Mesa.

“I didn’t grow up on a ranch. I have a lot more experience with hiking and camping,” he said. He spends his days riding an ATV instead of a horse, but his participation demonstrates the flexibility of the Range Rider program. Although he’s not a cowhand, Brandon can still fill the space between the cattle and the wolves, and keep an eye on both.

That doesn’t mean that he sees wolves frequently. Mostly, he says, he sees their tracks and scat.

It’s important, Miller said, for the Range Riders to give the wolves some space instead of trying to locate and see them, especially around den sites. If the wolves have found a good den site away from cattle, Range Riders do not want to unintentionally make them move their pups elsewhere by showing up on their doorstep. Plus, it’s just not practical, as Brandon explained.

“These wolves are pretty elusive, and there’s not that many of them,” Brandon explained. “So it’s much easier for me to make myself seen than to go and see the wolves. So that’s most of my mission ... to make human presence around the cows.”

So how do you make your presence known to the wolves? One of the simplest ways is to mark your territory the way the wolves do — with urine. Brandon also uses battery powered lights at night, called fox lights, to keep wolves away from cattle. The fox lights are about the size of a lantern battery, and they emit a bright random strobe light to scare the wolves away.

And Brandon moves around a lot.

“It’s important to not let my presence become fixed, like a scarecrow,” he said.

Brandon heads back to his host ranch when he needs a shower and a night in a bed. When he’s there, he will speak with the ranch manager if he needs to give an update on something he’s seen on the range. He also stays in regular contact with the IFT. The Range Rider contract also requires participating ranchers to maintain regular contact with the IFT.

The proof is in the beef

It is the results of the Range Rider program that have contributed to its steady growth.

“In places where we have Range Riders, we significantly reduce depredations,” Miller said.

A rancher who has participated in the program for a number of years spoke on the condition that they remain anonymous.

The rancher said that the program has definitely helped reduce losses from wolves. The rancher decided to participate in the program after losing more than 10 calves. The losses were confirmed to be caused by wolves.

“If you’re in the cattle business and you keep having these losses, you can become so degraded you could just walk,” the rancher said. “After all those losses in one year, we still use it (the Range Rider program) to this day.”

While the rancher still may lose a calf or two, some years there are no losses at all, even with more than one wolf pack in the area. The program, the rancher said can be costly but “is well worth it.”

Public-private partnership

The Range Rider program is funded by a $150,000 grant from Defenders of Wildlife and the Mexican Wolf Fund, and $150,000 of in-kind matching contributions from ranchers. Combining those funds allows states and tribes to apply for $300,000 in matching funds from the USDA Livestock Loss Demonstration Project which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Through a competitive grant program, states and tribes are awarded funds to reimburse ranchers for losses and to explore new methods for deterring predators. In 2015, the Arizona Game and Fish Department was awarded $40,000 from the program for depredation compensation and $80,000 for “payments for presence” and prevention measures.

Miller said the relationships that have grown up around the Range Rider program are the most valuable outcome.

“Most ranchers share the goal of wild places and wild things ... but are also committed to sustainable agriculture. Reconciling the differences, the conflicts that can emerge between those two is really where we try to focus our attention and resources,” he said.

Reach the reporter at tbalcom@wmicentral.com

(7) comments

Mexican Wolf Whistleblower

The Range Rider program has helped protect livestock from wolves, but who will protect us from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and their criminal agents?
Please call or write your Senators today and ask them to request a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into the crimes, cover-ups, and waste on the Mexican wolf project.

White Mountain Steward

Thank you, WMI, for this story on a common-sense approach to a complex issue that's important to many. Let's hope our elected leaders get behind collaborative solutions like this, instead of one-sided policies that fan the flames of controversy and make it harder for wildlife and the people who share their habitat.

White Mountain Steward

Thank you, WMI, for this story highlighting a solutions-oriented approach to this complex and important issue. Let's hope our elected leaders get behind initiatives like this, instead of continuing to fan the flames of controversy with one-sided policies that ultimately harm wildlife and the people who share their habitat.

leaton

Coexisting with wildlife does work if we give it a try. Non-lethal tools make a difference, keeps wolf-cattle conflicts to a minimum.

Delia Malone

Thank you for highlighting proven solutions to living with wolves. Livestock, wolves and other carnivores can live together sustainably on our public lands.

BBird

Thank you WMI and Trudy Balcolm for publishing this look at real conservation, on-the-ground. People are rolling up their sleeves to find answers to very complex challenges.

Michael M

A dedicated range rider develops a knowledge of where the wolves are during the spring and summer periods when cattle are released on larger acreage.
The most often single reproducing female must keep her pups in the den, and the rest of the family group bring transported food back. After this gestation and early sequestration, the family group, or pack, as they were formerly known (the pack most always consisting of two adults, their previous subadult/adolescent offspring, and the new pups) then moves to a more open "rendezvous" site where the pups can have access to water and remain under observation and care of all the family members.
From this necessarily nearby place, wolves continue to radiate outward, seeking food to return to the site and continue feeding the pups, now adapting to solids. It's not until the fall that pups can even have the strength to follow and learn from the elders.
Range riders are a key component of eliminating cattle depredation by predators. Different types of support for deployment have been used, from wildlife-protection organizations subsidy to volunteer, to state support in areas where the larger northern wolves have begun to recover to local ecologically balanced populations.
Humans have used the equivalent of range riders for uncounted centuries, to fit within natural systems of life. The facile and thoughtless idea that we can or should attempt to kill our way to dominance is erroneous, but instead of arguing about that, let's just look at what really happens in the real world:

A word on wolf numbers:
Since 1/2 or less of the pups on average survive the year, and an even higher proportion of the remainder survive to reproduce in nature, the quick population recruitment seen when wolves re-enter wild habitats tends to level off after a few years. Yellowstone's experience illustrates this typical natural phenomenon, when the initial reintroduced wolves quickly rose to 172 in that limited area. It dropped back even more quickly from that high to what's now a steady fluctuating population of around 110, where it remains.
So, wolf density can never increase beyond the natural capacity of the landscape of wild prey to support them, although their reproduction follows the densities by a year.
It has been shown through aggregations of studies of predation over 25 years in Northern states, that lethal management of wolves in response to livestock attacks, that killing wolves either through random hunting or targeted removal of members of a pack, that this method generally only increases wolf predation.
This occurs because wolves are learners, and when the young are deprived of the more careful avoidant patterns of a parent or other elder skilled in long-term survival, they become hungry, both seeking easy prey and unable to learn how to cope with their wilier natural food animals. such analyses have been conducted on most predators world wide, with the same findings.
My area of study has been on the behaviors and cognitions, the communications, interactions, and intimate lives of animals, including our own kind (psychology is human ethology). this has required attending to the complexity and wonder of the minds of all animals, whether bovines, ovids, corvids or my favorite, due to their consistent lifelong learning and familial care and nurturance, the wolf.
In doing so, I've had to look deeply at genetics, and molecular process through which brains, memory, development, and cognition operate. Ecologists think of populations in terms of their performance of roles in the living community. They recognize that each type of animal must exist in numbers that allow them to preform those roles.
In nature, no animal seeks the eradication of other kinds.and the interactions of the wolf with other species has given us a greater understanding of the processes through which animals influence plants and other animals. Because of wolves' effects on such others as coyotes, foxes, and other small animal predators can increase, reducing excess rodents and herbivores that would bring increased disease to all, through overpopulation, and indeed, through oversedentism ( laziness and inactivity)..
The complexity that returns with wolves reduces erosion as well as reducing the need for human expense to restore other wildlife. Should we restore them, allowing balance to return, we restore the regeneration of the complex richness and beauty of the land which drew our forebears here,

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