Riding to Reduce Conflicts—by Melissa DiNino

Up before the sun, Melissa helps with gathering and moving cattle as they prepare to leave the Centennial Valley for the winter.
Credit: Photo: Louise Johns

The following is a guest blog post written by Melissa DiNino, who works as a range rider for Montana’s Centennial Valley Association. NRDC has supported the Association’s range rider program since it began in 2014. This is the first in a series of essays on the challenges, rewards, and complexities of range riding, from the perspective of the riders themselves.

My admiration for wolves goes back to my earliest memories. I can still remember reading The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig where the wolves construct a house of flowers that protects them in an unexpected way by bringing out the good in the “big bad pig.” This is when the first seeds of coexistence were planted in my mind.

Entering college, I never thought wolves would become the focus of my studies—manifesting my childhood dreams - especially in Connecticut. While studying biology and conflict resolution, I found time to work with New York’s Wolf Conservation Center and, later, with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. The human-wildlife conflicts that exist with wolves were consistently at the forefront of my everyday reality. With the mindset that these conflicts could be resolved, I realized a need to experience both sides of the story so that I could help tell the third, impartial story that exists within every conflict—in this case, it was the story of coexistence.

A trail camera captures a wolf traveling through the bordering hills of the Centennial Valley.
Credit: Photo: Melissa DiNino/Centennial Valley Association

After I graduated, I was presented with the opportunity to live at the center of the conflict as a range rider for cattle ranches in Montana’s Centennial Valley, so I took this as my chance to seek out deeper understanding. Within my first months, I experienced a shift in my relationship and connection to the land as I settled into my role as a neutral human presence.

As a range rider, I do not exist in this valley to lethally remove predators, and I am not here to save them all. Tracking wolves and bears allows me to understand how and when predators are using the landscape. I regularly discover some pretty magical places that human eyes rarely witness in a landscape so remote.

I am also led to some grimmer scenes like a wolf-killed bull elk, and as I follow the signs I am able to piece together and recreate the events in my mind. Yet in seeing all the creatures that visit this elk’s remains, I am reminded of how much life comes from death. The cattle ranches I work with only give me a deeper appreciation for this truth from which we all can become so easily disconnected.

All that remains of a bull elk a few days after wolves killed it.
Credit: Photo: Melissa DiNino

Each summer, cattle return to the Centennial Valley, some trailing in for over 60 miles. From that day forward (until snow returns to the mountains), I ride through different groups of cattle, monitoring for signs of sickness or vulnerability that could potentially attract predators. This increased human presence across the land also creates a stronger association between humans and cattle, and therefore presents a greater risk than reward to predators.

Moving between pastures and dispersed over more than 50,000 acres, it takes a constant effort to ensure the well-being of these cattle. When I do come across a cow that has either succumbed to illness or been killed by predation, I try to remove the carcass in an effort to keep predators from becoming habituated to the pasture and the live cattle as a food source. All of these measures are taken in an effort to meet our program’s common goal, a goal of preventing “depredations” (livestock losses to predators). While the goal may sound simple, it brings us one step closer to preserving the land and allowing nature to exist as it would without our presence.

Now two years into range riding, I am so fortunate and proud to call the Centennial Valley “home” with a family that only seems to grow each season. Being exposed to a range of perspectives from traditional to progressive and hearing their unfiltered, honest stories has become a valuable part of my personal work as a range rider.

Cows and their calves wait to be moved into the corrals and sorted through at the end of the season.
Credit: Photo: Louise Johns

With such a reliance on the land, no one in the Centennial community wants to see the health of the valley deteriorate. Range riders and the ranchers we work with recognize and appreciate native predators for the essential role they play in maintaining that health.

Even so, the journey of coexistence is not an easy one. These practices are not perfect and many do not translate well from one operation to the next for a number of reasons, such as terrain or pasture size. Non-lethal methods of coexistence, such as range riders, electric fencing, and livestock guardian dogs, must be adapted to an ever-changing set of needs and challenges. Yet these ranches are willing to face these challenges and try new, non-lethal methods. In many cases, the biggest obstacle to coexistence is what is financially realistic to ranchers, who tend to be rich in land, not money.

Unfortunately, not all ranchers in the valley are willing to take on this journey. Some do not want to work with us. Others do not see predators to be important on the landscape. However, ours is not a unique experience. This same imbalance exists outside of the Centennial and even across state lines.

Because of this, we need to recognize and reward those producers who do all they can to adopt predator-friendly practices and protect their livelihood in an ecologically sustainable way. By seeking out the opportunity to purchase beef and other products that are sustainably produced, we are aiding compassionate families who understand and care about their impact on the ecosystem.

While finding sources of sustainably produced beef may not always be simple, by increasing awareness and interest, we can also increase supply. Together we can encourage all major consumers—grocery stores, restaurants, schools, hospitals—to buy sustainably produced beef.

Organizations such as Predator Friendly, now a part of the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network, offer consumers the opportunity to buy Certified Predator Friendly Goods. Similarly, Grasslands Alliance is also looking to make sustainably produced beef easily accessible to businesses and consumers, and you can support this by submitting your comments and feedback on the newly proposed Grassland Alliance Standard until December 31, 2016.

With this movement we also create amazing potential for USDA Wildlife Services, the federal agency that responds to the needs of landowners in these conflicts. What if Wildlife Services assisted producers with adopting and practicing non-lethal measures to prevent predator conflicts?  By coming together, we have the power to make coexistence the collective response to human-wildlife conflicts.

Throughout the season, range riders and ranchers in the Centennial Valley work together to monitor and move cattle.
Credit: Photo: Louise Johns

Melissa grew up on the east coast, where she studied biology and conflict resolution at Western Connecticut State University. During this time she also worked at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY. Since then, she has volunteered with the Yellowstone Wolf Project and has worked as a range rider for the Centennial Valley Association for the past two seasons. She is passionate about tracking predators and building relationships to promote coexistence, and she is anxious to continue growing within this field as she looks to her third year as a range rider.

This is the first in a series of essays on the challenges, rewards, and complexities of range riding, from the perspective of the riders themselves. You can read the next essay here.

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