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Feature Story

The Rancher and the Grizzly: A Love Story

by Bruce Barcott

People, livestock, and a threatened predator are learning to get along in the new west.

As an afternoon rainstorm sweeps down Montana's Madison Valley, a verdant grassland 40 miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park, rancher Todd Graham stands inside a dusty barn and asks his neighbors for help. Dressed in workaday Wranglers and a Stihl Chain Saws cap, the lanky cattleman looks as if he spent the morning pounding fence posts.

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"If we're going to survive running livestock out here," he says, "we've got to rely on each other." Graham addresses a veritable cross section of the new West: sheep ranchers, cattlemen, conservation biologists, government officials, retirees, and second-home owners. Seated in folding chairs, they've gathered for a Living With Predators workshop jointly organized by the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group (which defends livestock) and Keystone Conservation (which defends animals that want to kill the livestock).

Graham offers a plea for the conservation of the biggest predator in the valley, one known to dine on the cattle he keeps. "We can live with grizzlies," Graham says, "if we as humans do our jobs."

Once a sleepy cattleman's paradise, the Madison Valley today is the crash point of two demographic trends: a hot western housing market and rebounding populations of predators. A wide, gentle basin in southwestern Montana's cattle country, the valley in midsummer is a sea of tall, swaying grass, punctuated here and there by the quaking leaves of an aspen tree. Penned in by parallel Rocky Mountain ranges, the valley runs north from the border of Yellowstone National Park to the headwaters of the Missouri River. Its snowmelt feeds the meandering Madison River, a pebbly waterway renowned for its "50-mile riffle" and the fat brown trout that rise easily to a fly. Pronghorn antelope graze on the grasslands. Thousands of elk overwinter on the valley floor.

About 7,000 people live in the valley, and cattle still outnumber them ten to one. But that's changing. Retirees and second-home owners, eager to claim their slice of Montana heaven, are snapping up 20-acre ranchettes carved out of 1,000-acre working ranches. Across Montana and Wyoming, the big spreads that aren't platted into "twenties," as locals call the ranchettes, are often bought by wealthy outsiders who don't depend on cattle for income.

Humans aren't the only creatures attracted to the valley. Yellowstone's grizzlies, once threatened with extinction, have made a strong recovery: Some 500 to 600 bears live in and around the park, up from fewer than 200 in the 1970s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the population sufficiently robust that it has proposed, rather controversially, removing the Yellowstone bears from the endangered species list (see "Yellowstone Grizzlies: Threatened or Not?" page 22). Having reached their population limit within Yellowstone -- these bears need plenty of territory to roam, forage, and mate -- they are fanning out beyond the park's boundaries.

"Everybody wants to live next to the national forest so they'll have big backyards," says Charles Schwartz, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who leads a federal-state grizzly research team. "But some of that happens to be grizzly bear habitat."

There is a long, sad history to this interspecies encounter. During the late nineteenth century, cattlemen and farmers helped extinguish the grizzly across most of North America. Farms, ranches, and growing towns deprived the bears of their habitat. Grizzlies, like wolves, were considered a mortal threat to humans and livestock and were often shot on sight. The threats grizzlies face now are more complex. "Most ranchers have been living with grizzlies for a long time; they've figured out how to protect their stock," says Louisa Willcox, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) wild bears project in Livingston, Montana. The biggest problems today, Willcox says, are people and their houses.

In addition to encroaching on grizzly habitat, rural development is attracting newcomers whose birdseed, dog food, barbecue grills, and garbage lure hungry grizzlies onto their porches. Bears that become a nuisance frequently end up dead -- usually shot by government game managers. As their numbers grow, Yellowstone grizzlies face a crucial test: Can they survive on land owned by ranchers, farmers, and the new wave of retirees, telecommuters, and vacation-home owners?

"We used to manage the bears," says Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone's chief bear biologist. "Now we manage the people."

Todd Graham, a new-school rancher with old-school roots, is part of this evolution in grizzly conservation. Graham grew up working on a neighbor's cattle ranch in Big Piney, Wyoming, and now manages the Sun Ranch, a 25,000-acre spread about 40 miles northwest of Yellowstone. Software millionaires Roger and Cynthia Lang bought the ranch eight years ago, motivated more by an interest in conservation than by a desire to raise livestock. Such nontraditional owners are becoming common in this part of the West. Between 1990 and 2001, 38 ranches were sold in the Madison Valley; all but one were bought by investors, developers, and other wealthy newcomers like the Langs. (The mother of all "conservation ranches," Ted Turner's 113,000-acre Flying D Ranch, sits at the foot of the valley.)

All were drawn to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an 18-million-acre landscape of grassy plains and rugged mountains encompassing portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. About the size of West Virginia, the region includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, five national forests, twelve federally designated wilderness areas, and three national wildlife refuges. One of the largest relatively intact temperate ecosystems on earth, the Yellowstone region hosts perhaps the greatest concentration of large mammals in the contiguous United States, including the nation's biggest populations of grizzlies outside Alaska. It's a region marked by concentric circles of wildlife protection. At its core are the national parks, which forbid hunting and allow only limited development. National forests, which permit limited logging, mining, and hunting, ring the parks. An outer fringe of private land, about one-quarter of the ecosystem, constitutes the final circle.

Private land in particular has become increasingly important for conservation, as bears nurtured in Yellowstone and the national forests expand outward. Biologists worry that these bears will die in increasing numbers as they push deeper into private land. That would effectively strand the bears within a circumscribed habitat and limit the population to its current level, which many researchers believe isn't big enough or diverse enough to ensure the grizzlies' survival.

"A population of 500 bears can persist for a long time, but you're putting all your genetic eggs in one basket," says Lance Craighead, a longtime bear researcher and executive director of the Montana-based Craighead Environmental Research Institute. "Prior to the last 200 years, bears were successful because they had big, genetically diverse populations. They could adapt to disease, the loss of food sources, and worse. If you cap the population and its gene pool, you run the risk of a single disease running through every last bear."

Development is happening fast, though. "If all those private lands are developed, Yellowstone could become an island in a sea of houses," says Alex Diekmann, a project manager for the Trust for Public Land. For the grizzlies that are marooned there, the future would once more look pretty bleak.




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Bruce Barcott writes frequently about the outdoors and the environment, both as a contributing editor to Outside and for such publications as the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and Sports Illustrated.

Photos: Vern Evans
Map: Mike Reagan

OnEarth. Winter 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council