Range rider, © Tom Miner Project

Living (and Making a Living) Alongside Wolves

What the return of the wolf can mean to the West

It was a cold, snowy day in January of 1995 when, lining the street near the Roosevelt Arch in Yellowstone National Park, local school children, environmentalists, biologists, ranchers, outfitters, tourists, and state and federal officials watched crates containing eight gray wolves carried into Yellowstone. Many in the crowd celebrated a great victory. Others looked on in dismay, fearful of what reintroducing wolves would mean for the future of their ranching and hunting heritage.

This renewed presence of the wolf in the West sometimes clashes with the multi-generational ranching operations that fill the landscape. The debate about wolves challenges relationships between friends and neighbors and between county, state, federal and tribal governments. Now, 20 years later, some ranchers have weathered the debate realizing that wolves are here to stay and are building operations that reflect the presence of this dynamic and cunning predator. Here is the story of one such ranch, the J Bar L Ranch, in the words of the owners and operators.

The J Bar L Ranch

The J Bar L Ranch sits in one of the most remote corners of Southwest Montana. We raise all-natural, grass-finished beef and sell it through our beef company, Yellowstone Grassfed Beef. Our cattle graze year-round in multiple locations surrounding Yellowstone National Park in an effort to have the right age of cattle, in the right places, and at the right times of year. We graze our cattle in a way that maintains wildlife habitat and diverse, healthy ecosystems. Our goal is healthy, productive rangeland, thriving wildlife populations and healthy, happy cattle.

With some of our herds grazing less than three miles from the Yellowstone, we know the challenges of ranching on a landscape shared with wolves and grizzly bears. Over the past few years, we have begun participating in community-based programs to combine grazing practices that improve range condition with methods to help minimize conflicts between livestock and predators.

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Range riders, © Tom Miner Project

Range riders keep the herd together, and keep a lookout for predators.

Following the Bison

For centuries past, bison roamed much of North America in the presence of large predators and human influence. The predators and people kept the enormous herds bunched together (since there is safety in numbers) and constantly moving. Our goal on the J Bar L is to have our cattle mimic these historic grazing patterns as closely as possible. The bison planted seeds with their hooves, pushed ‘mulch’ down onto the soil surface to minimize erosion, and fertilized the land with their dung and urine. By working together as a herd, bison stand their ground and defend each other from predators. None of this would be accomplished if they functioned as a scattered herd of individuals. Our goal on the J Bar L is to follow the ways of the bison. Doing this has given us greatly improved range conditions and few conflicts with predators.

One tool we use to accomplish this is low stress stockmanship. For six years, this practice has helped rekindle the herd instinct in our cattle, encouraging them to behave similar to bison by moving around more as a herd, and by sticking together in case predators are near. This differs from the traditional handling methods that encourage cattle to scatter out across the range.

Wolf © Tom Miner Project

A trail camera captures a shot of a wolf in the area. Images like this are a nice reminder that the methods the ranch uses allows the area’s wolves to remain safe in their own habitat.

In the past, we had noticed that most depredations occurred when cattle were scattered, alone and vulnerable when encountered by wolves. We have learned that if cattle are encouraged to stay together, they are less likely to run when encountered by a predator. To date, we have had no depredations by wolves in herds of cattle that are consistently bunched together.

By employing range riders, we have had the opportunity to be out with our cattle more often, and can remove sick or injured animals so they do not become a target for predation. It also means that when the livestock encounter wolves, we are more likely to be there to haze predators from the area. Hazing is a non-lethal technique that has been effective at discouraging wolves from targeting cattle, and keeps both wolves and cattle alive.

We also use portable electric fencing to keep cattle bunched together. This is another tool that encourages cattle to stay together as a herd, reducing the risk of attacks from predators. In 2014 we had an active wolf den near the pasture area, but using the electric fencing kept the herd together and the wolves away. All wolves and pups survived, and so did all the cattle – and with exceptional weight gain. Despite the consistent presence of wolves, we have not lost any cattle in areas where we are grazing cattle with temporary electric fence.

A Legacy of Conservation

To date, no wolves or bears have been killed on or off of the ranch as a result of our ranching business. We are proud of this legacy of conservation, stewardship, and love for the landscape we call home. If you appreciate our efforts, one simple way to advance this kind of ranching is to purchase our beef online at www.yellowstonegrassfedbeef.com. We ship the frozen beef conveniently to any location in the US.

We would like to thank Defenders of Wildlife for their support and encouragement as we try to redefine the ranching model to one that includes coexisting with predators and takes a holistic approach to management. Wildlife, cattle and communities can all thrive together.

Living with Wildlife

Defenders helps ranchers put proven, nonlethal solutions into practice to prevent attacks on livestock, from using range riders to patrol for wolves to using electric fencing to keep grizzlies out of small pastures or chicken coops.

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23 Responses to “Living (and Making a Living) Alongside Wolves”

  1. Sandra

    What a wonderful job you are doing to protect the wild life. I wish more people could take it seriously. I am also into raising awareness about the issue and maintain a blog – https://shauntaylor786.wordpress.com/

    pls do visit me and let me know what do you think and how can I improve
    thanks

    Reply
    • sandy brown

      This is wonderful news , love our MAJESTIC wolves ! Often wondered why ranchers don’t employ more of these deterrents? ?? So happy someone other than Ted Turner can understand co-existence with wolves and herds ! The use of the great Pyrenees mountain dogs have been used for generations because of their prowess in protecting their herd ! Thank you for all you have done !

    • carole solsrud

      Thank you so much for what you are doing. Your actions and results of those actions are a great example of living together and maintaining balance. So many don’t seem to realize how and why we need that balance to survive. Again thank you.

  2. Kathleen Bradley

    This actually made me so happy I teared up.
    I am so grateful to you and your family for continuing to respect the land that supports you :)

    For realizing that indigenous wildlife has a right to exist there, and taking the appropriate steps to ensure your presence isn’t a death sentence for them.

    You are an amazing example of the right/ethical way to run your business!

    Reply
  3. john madsen

    I appreciate the approach you’ve taken in respecting the land and it’s creatures. Thank you for sharing your experience, now let’s see the other ranchers follow your lead.

    Reply
  4. Barb

    You are to be commended! I wish all ranchers thought like you!
    Keep up the GREAT work!

    Reply
  5. Fiona

    I haven’t eaten beef in 5 years because I do not support traditional ranching practices. It’s nice to know I can now get a steak and still stick to my morals. They’ve earned a customer!

    Reply
  6. Donna Vance

    Great people take that extra step to make the world a better place, sure hope other ranchers follow in his steps. Right now I don’t have nice feelings about factory farms or greedy land hogging ranchers.

    Reply
  7. Elena Shepard

    This sounds so good. Logical and a more natural way of doing business. I hope that this is true. What do you do if bison move beyond the park borders? Is cross infection still a problem? Not trying to blow holes into a program that seems wonderful. A logical solution? Kuddos to the ranchers, haven’t been able to say that for a very long time. Also, if some of your livestock is ill, or weak, wouldn’t it be natural to let the wolves have them? After all, that’s their contribution to keep the herds strong.

    Reply
  8. Frances Pugh

    Great job. Very interesting concept and not only are you saving wild predators, but it sounds like you are saving an endangered species – the “range rider”. Glad that somebody values a good horse and a cowboy.

    Reply
  9. Bonnie Karlsen

    This is wonderful news to me. I’ve been waiting and wanting to hear exactly what you have written here. thank you

    Reply
  10. KnoxAnn Armijo

    J Bar L….good job…great article and the new way of thinking is working out for everything and everyone…I will download your site and see if I can find beef from your ranch. I know where this ranch is located. I grew up on small ranch just outside of Red Lodge…and we grew everything pretty much that we ate…bananas were a big deal treat…How lucky I was to grow up in such country in the shadow of the Beartooth Range.

    Reply
  11. Cath dexter

    What an enlightened approach and one I hope many other ranchers will adopt in America. Be great to see if similar strategies would work for our much maligned and heavily targeted dingos here in Australia .

    Reply
  12. Tricia

    You should be commended for the exceptional care and work you are doing to maintain the safety, health, and quality of life for your cattle and the environment around you. I will definitely support your efforts by ordering from you. Thank you for caring about the wolves, and thank you for your continued efforts to help them thrive.

    Reply
  13. Greg "Arnie" Armfield

    Congratulations on your innovative strategy to combine both wildlife and grazing animals together. Hopefully, more farmers will employ the same methods

    Reply
  14. vicki fuller

    Finally some positive news concerning the co-existence of wolves and livestock. These stories of intelligent conscientious ways of ranching need to be told to a broad audience to help balance all the misinformation and misunderstanding of the important role of top predators in the wild. Hats off to the J Bar L !!!!!

    Reply
  15. Willoe Traver

    Thank you so much for putting the effort into finding ways for cattle and wolves and ranchers to coexist! I do think this is what is meant to be and how we have all shared this planet in the past, thanks for taking a step forward peacefully for all involved.

    Reply
  16. Steve Hammond

    I am so very happy to hear about you and your family’s work to co-exist and make a living ranching in wolf country. I think I can speak for many Americans who would be willing to pay a premium for beef and other livestock raised by conscientious ranchers and fortunately your beef is available in several retail stores and restaurants here in Billings so I’ll be looking for it!

    Reply
  17. Holly

    I’m always happy to see when an effort is made to live peacefully alongside wildlife instead of wanting to kill everything in sight.

    Reply
  18. Celia

    This article made me cry. My reaction was pure and completely unexpected; it has been a long time since I’ve read evidence of humans acknowledging the need to work with and for wildlife–not to eradicate them. I’ll admit I’m someone who struggles with the dichotomy of the world; I need a place to live and thrive as do our fellow mammals- predators included. Thank you J Bar L Ranch for setting a successful model that I hope other ranchers will adopt.

    Reply

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