The following is a guest blog written by Daniel Anderson, a native of Tom Miner Basin and a range rider for the Tom Miner Basin Association. NRDC has supported the TMBA’s range rider program since it began in 2013. This is the second in a series of essays on the challenges, rewards, and complexities of range riding, from the perspective of the riders themselves.
Growing up in Tom Miner Basin, I recall memories running through the upper basin foothills and aspen groves, a seemingly ever-expanding world of adventure and exploration for a young mind to tap into. At the time, we didn’t have the influence of wolves, nor did we have the population density of grizzly bears that we see today; sightings that now occur almost daily.
My first attempt at range riding was at the age of roughly seven atop a horse—bareback—guarding sheep from the troublesome appetite of coyotes. My siblings and I shared the workload, and we each had a taste of what it feels like to be both wild at heart and humbled through hard work and four seasons of ranch life in Southwest Montana.
The 1995 reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park marked the beginning of a transformation we as a family and upper basin community would be required to face. It wasn’t long until nights that formerly echoed the call of coyotes now included the long draw of howling wolves. It was an uneasy feeling for many of us.
And then one night, the howling struck close to home when a group of wolves killed seven of our family’s sheep. Within minutes, we were shown the truly raw power that wolves possess. And within just a few years we began to tally the loss of our beloved Great Pyrenees guard dogs, from one to a total of four. Losing dogs to wolves remains a reminder of the extreme pain associated with loss of animals, teaching us how delicate life can be when living in wild landscapes.
As a family we were forced to embrace this challenging time with an understanding that ‘choice’ was one of the only things we had within our control. We could choose to be victim; to follow paths of least resistance as many of our ancestors and peers might have. If there is a threat, remove it.
But as the voices of opposition began to emerge within the communities around Yellowstone Park, we saw a pattern that resembled something that didn’t feel true to our family’s values of appreciation for the landscape and all of its residents. In the process of losing livestock and dogs, we looked deep within our core values, reminding ourselves that diverse and complex landscapes are essential to our own existence, and that we—as stewards—must understand how integral we are in such diversity.
In the face of the conflict between strongly held beliefs and the pain of loss, we chose to further embrace our beliefs in diversity and to explore how we could more successfully support those beliefs, rather than deciding to eliminate the part of the system that had wounded us. From here, range riding and a variety of other ranching practices were born, marking the beginning of a new chapter for our family.
It’s been five years since Hilary, my sister-in-law, implemented the first season of formal range riding in Tom Miner Basin. As a range rider, I strongly believe in the importance of these emerging practices. Range riders are advocates for the survival of cattle equally as much as being advocates for the survival of predators. It is the combination of specific tasks such as “bunching” (keeping cattle gathered together, mothers with calves, and herds calm and settled at night) and having a consistent presence in the landscape that makes the scope of a range rider’s work so appealing, and thus, so important to the larger goals of coexistence.
It’s fascinating how animals can adapt to change. Grizzly bears in Tom Miner, for instance, have unearthed the calorie and protein-dense benefits of Caraway; a direct shift in eating and behavioral patterns due to the degradation of whitebark pine, formerly considered a staple to their diet.
For our family, adaptation has meant the embrace of a changing landscape and emerging land-stewardship practices. Coexistence practices such as range riding are proving to sustain the survival of highly influential predators like grizzlies and wolves while nurturing an evolution of 21st-century ranching practices that are more embracing of biodiversity, more supportive of economic well-being, and more enabling of a rebirth in cultural values for those who live and work in wild places.
Rachel Carson—writer, scientist, and ecologist—once described the meeting point of earth and sea as “a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change.” Nature’s grandest display of “the edge effect.” Range riding, in comparison, represents the meeting point of humans and wild landscapes, so too embodying a place of compromise, conflict, and eternal change. And while range riding can require unique skillsets in horsemanship, knowledge of wildlife behavioral patterns, wildlife tracking, animal husbandry, and even grassland ecology and soil science, the heart of the matter, for me, rests in carrying a deep level of respect and appreciation for the complexity, beauty, and even rawness of nature.
Actively engaging in the landscape of Tom Miner Basin, whether on foot or horseback, has been one of the most rewarding and grounding experiences of my adult life. Staring into the eyes of a wolf or grizzly bear from 25 yards is a humbling experience, not one seeded with fear. It is this simple shift in perspective that transforms a range riding experience way beyond specific skillsets. It is the meeting point of truly wild and human experiences. It is also one of purpose and appreciation for being connected to something much bigger than ourselves.
Having grown up in the ranching community of Tom Miner Basin, Daniel became familiar with a lifestyle immersed in “wild” landscapes. Daniel has also lived on both American coasts and has developed a range of professional applications from construction engineering to sustainable business practices, and human/predator conflict. He is an advocate for preserving wild places and for cultivating relationships between people and the natural environment.
This is the second 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 first essay here.