By Trudy Balcom
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.”
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.