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A winter on the road in the working wild

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The Q Ranch, Wyoming. Photo by Carrie Olsen.

Following Easter weekend, a traditional marker of the onset of spring (despite an Easter high of 27 degrees), I find myself with a moment of quiet, due to our current social distancing policies, to reflect on my first winter with Western Landowners Alliance. Calving season is now upon us across the Northern Rockies, and words like afterbirth and prolapse are a part of the vernacular in these parts (another sign of spring). But these words are exotic, even frightening, to the vast majority of the public. It is a reminder that less than two percent of Americans now work in agriculture, and even fewer directly in animal husbandry. How can we communicate our challenges across this divide?

Connecting with producers

As the Working Wild Challenge program coordinator, I am tasked with, in part, convening seven “roadshow” events in communities across the Northern Rockies where ranching amidst conflict-causing wildlife – grizzly bears, wolves, and elk – is creating economic challenges to already marginal businesses. The goals of these events are to promote peer-to-peer learning across geographically isolated communities and facilitate landowner-led discussions with local stakeholders to bring additional resources into communities. We want to address the local challenges of working lands in wild places.

This winter, WLA held the first two of these events. We started in Alder, Montana, in partnership with the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance and Madison Valley Ranchlands Group. The second was a “Ranching with Grizzlies” seminar hosted by the Blackfeet Nation Stock Growers Association. I also coordinated a landowner listening session in my own neighborhood of Cody, Wyoming. It has been a privilege to glimpse and, in some cases, take a deep dive into local community dynamics that impact how livestock producers approach maintaining their livelihoods while living among wildlife that are a part of the fabric of these communities yet reduce the profitability in businesses where unpredictable events like the weather highly influence profit margins.

Overwintering on the road

That’s why, shortly after the new year, I found myself driving from the Ranching with Grizzlies seminar in Choteau, Montana across Blackfeet Nation tribal lands through a driving snowstorm where the only light on the landscape came from my headlights reflecting on falling snow. I drove into the Great White North where the Communities and Carnivores Committee of the Waterton Biosphere Reserve was hosting a community meeting. I awoke the next morning in Cardston, Alberta, where just out of town the white of snowy pastures merged into the white of the clouded sky with the only separation between the two – cattle – black specs in the distance. A few days later, I was on the road again, this time to Sheridan, Montana to meet with the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance for their first monthly meeting of 2020.

The landscape in each of these communities is dominated by open space and cattle, but each has unique history, experiences, and practices that make a one-size-fits all solution to livestock-wildlife conflicts impractical. While each community has a slightly different cultural approach to ranching with wildlife, particularly grizzly bears, each is showing their resilience. The landscape of the West demands resilience from its inhabitants. On the long drive back to my home, a small, first generation family farm, in Powell, Wyoming, I pondered how we can support resilience in communities across the West facing challenges of working in increasingly wild landscapes.

Difficulty Creek Ranch in midwinter. Photo by Carrie Olsen.

Respect and understanding

Easy answers are absent on this topic, but I am inspired by the voices in these rural western communities to tell the story of stewarding the land. Through our roadshow events and listening sessions we have heard a call to “bridge the rural-urban divide.” Respect for working lands stewards, who carry significant responsibility in maintaining habitat for wildlife, is critical to find solutions to the challenges of ranching amidst grizzly bears, wolves and elk. Look for stewardship stories telling the challenge of working in wild landscapes in the upcoming inaugural issue of On Land, a new magazine from the Western Landowners Alliance, and the voice of stewardship in the American West.

Resilience starts with the land

Support local land stewards

We urge you, dear reader, to follow CDC and government advice to help slow the spread of coronavirus. If you are able, please support those in your community who are being hit hardest by the disease and the social and economic impacts of the response. Some great ideas for how to help from home can be found here: 

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