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Wolves in The Big Hole Valley

I slipped away from the U of M library this weekend for a much needed visit to Wise River and the Big Hole Valley.  La Nina has arrived and it looks like she means business.  Suspiciously absent from the snow covered fields were signs of wild life.  Where are the elk tracks?  Where are the deer? Where are the moose?  If any hunters or skiers have been out and about and have seen elk please reply!   In the meantime, check out the next chapter in the Big Hole's wolf saga:

New York Times

 After Years of Conflict, a New Dynamic in Wolf Country

By  of the New York Times

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="601" caption="Credit: Rich Addicks for The New York Times"]


JACKSON, Mont. —   As a fourth-generation rancher, Dean B. Peterson has a complicated relationship with wolves.

In the 1880s, they preyed on his family’s livestock after his great-grandparents arrived as homesteaders along the Big Hole River. By the 1930s, wolves were nearly extinct as a result of traps and poisons. By the time Mr. Peterson was born in the 1960s, the traps had given way to nostalgic tales about how clever the wolves had been.

Growing up, he thrilled to the sight of any wolf and to the sound of an occasional nighttime howl. But as an adult, witnessing a rebound in the gray wolf population, he did not hesitate to shoot one when it passed behind his sons’ jungle gym and headed for the cattle pen.

“I do not dislike or hate the animal,” said Mr. Peterson, who calls wolves “an unreal species that God created.”

Instead, he resents the conservationists who pressed the federal government to reintroduce the gray wolf to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s. That decision was shoved “down our throat with a plunger,” he said.

Yet the dynamic between ranchers and conservationists has begun to change, and Mr. Peterson is surprised to find himself acting as a grudging mediator.

The turning point came early this year as lawmakers from some Western states were demanding that the government remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list, and cede control of the animal in Montana and Idaho to state governments. In April, they succeeded by attaching a rider to a budget bill.

Aghast, some environmental groups had a moment of reckoning. Had they gone too far in using the Endangered Species Act as a cudgel instead of forging compromises with ranchers?

So a handful began reaching out to ranchers, offering them money and tools to fend off wolves without killing them. And some ranchers, mindful that tough federal restrictions could be reimposed if wolf numbers dwindle again, have been listening. Tentative partnerships are cropping up, and a few that already existed are looking to expand.

Working through Mr. Peterson, People and Carnivores, a new nonprofit group that promotes “coexistence” has, with help from the Wildlife Conservation Society,  built a five-mile, $15,000 electric fence adorned with flags to protect calves on a neighbor’s property. This summer, it helped pay for a mounted rider to patrol 20 square miles of grazing land shared by three ranches near Mr. Peterson’s as a deterrent.

“A lot of my neighbors think I am wet behind the ears to take money from these people,” said Mr. Peterson, who has not yet accepted aid for himself. “But the wolf is here to stay now, and my feeling is that those people who want it here should share the costs.”

The conflict dates back generations, but tensions soared in 1995 and 1996, when the government reintroduced 66 gray wolves in Idaho and in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The goal was to restore balance to the regional ecosystem: after the wolves died out, elk and coyote populations had increased alarmingly. Elk herds were destroying large tracts of vegetation, and coyotes had reduced second-tier predators like badgers.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service set a minimum population goal of some 150 wolves, plus 15 breeding pairs, in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. To their surprise, the wolves hit those targets in just seven years and spread beyond the wilderness areas.

Livestock kills began to climb, and the ranchers grew angry. They even blamed the wolves for cows’ weight loss. “They come off the pasture on average about 100 pounds lighter than before there were wolves in the area,” Mr. Peterson said. “They spend so much time looking around, they don’t have time to eat.”

By 2007, the total number of wolves in the three states was 1,513. Surveying the evidence, the Fish and Wildlife Service sought that year to have the animal “delisted” under the Endangered Species Act. But conservationists sued to block that move, saying Wyoming lacked an adequate management plan. A federal court in Missoula, Mont., agreed.

In 2009, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried again to remove wolves from federal protection in all areas except in Wyoming. The court would not allow it, setting the stage for a revolt by lawmakers and this year’s unusual Congressional vote. The Interior Department then brokered a similar compromise in Wyoming.

Wolf hunts began in Idaho and Montana at the end of the summer. Montana set a quota of 220 wolves to be killed, or 25 percent of the state’s total population; the hunting tags sold swiftly, which some attributed to pent-up rage among the ranchers.

The backlash led some environmentalists to question their approach. “I personally look back and say there were a number of things that conservationists did that were not effective and which blew up on us,” said Lisa Upson, executive director of Keystone Conservation, a Montana-based nonprofit group that offers ranchers help with nonlethal control measures. “Now we have to live with this horrible precedent.”

So her group and others are pouring energy into training mounted riders to fend off wolves. They are promoting husbandry techniques that allow calves to grow stronger in penned areas before grazing on the range. Drawing on a folk wisdom that dates from medieval times, they have hung lines of red flags along pastures to deter wolves from approaching.

Most acknowledge that such measures are not a panacea. Michael D. Jimenez, the wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service outside Jackson, Wyo., says federal and state agencies have tried guard dogs, noise aversion (cannons or sirens set off by motion detectors) and “scent aversion,” or placing wolf urine and scat on trees, for years. “Each works in some circumstances,” Mr. Jimenez said, “but are not necessarily a match for a robust wolf population.”

And ranchers may not embrace such tactics. Once, after Ms. Upson thought she had talked some ranchers in the Upper Ruby Valley in Montana into sharing half the cost of a mounted summer rider, she found that they had used the money to pay for fuel for helicopters dispatched for wolf shootings.

Tensions between conservationists and ranchers in the Big Hole area have run especially high. Two summers ago, wolves took about a dozen calves from Mr. Peterson’s herd as it grazed in the mountains. He complained to the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency, which responded by shooting only one wolf.

In Mr. Peterson’s view, that was hardly a solution. He says the government’s response has been hampered by too many rules and too little money. Ranchers are often asked by wolf hunters to pay up to $350 an hour for the helicopter fuel, he said.

If wolves are going to be part of the landscape,Mr. Peterson decided, he wants ranchers to get their share of the money “the people in Los Angeles and New York send” to conservationists to find solutions.

So he will continue to work with environmentalists and try to persuade his neighbors to do the same.“I think I should be able to shoot on sight on my land, no questions asked,” he said, but “I am willing to do my part to try and adapt.”

Fam. Internet Skiers does the Big Hole Valley, Part I

Porter Haney, co-founder, and his brother Dwyer joined me over Memorial Day for some good ole western fun.  I promised pictures, and better yet I have a blog post from FIS written by Porter.  Enjoy:

The Caboose is Loose

June 6, 2011

Hold your horses.  If you’re looking for ski content you’d better jump to part 2.  If you’re content learning about the wild west, then stick it out and read on through.  (Another note, if you’re a vegetarian, you might fast forward as well.)

The first order of business is to bestow my brother Dwyer’s new nickname (that he first bestowed upon himself) here on FIS.  From here on out, Dwyer is “The Caboose” and believe it or not, sometimes Dwyer gets a little wild and the Caboose comes Loose.

The Caboose and I packed up the truck for a Memorial Day weekend neither of us will soon forget.  Our destination was Southern Montana where our friend Wade helps run the Big Hole Lodge, a fly fishing lodge near the Big Hole River.
We had a lot on our agenda for the weekend, despite some dodgy looking weather, which included – branding cattle, a true cattle drive, floating the big hole river, shooting our limit of skeet, and of course some skiing.  True to FIS form, we packed it all in, and then some.

Late on a Friday evening we found ourselves 400 miles due north of Salt Lake City right in the heart of the Big Hole River valley.  First order of business was to drink some beers and hit the hay.  Second order of business was an early way up call and to get the weekend started the right way.  Shooting some skeet off the back deck.

Here the Caboose let’s loose off the back deck, and shows us what a true marksmen he is.

The A-frame is perfectly situated for skeet hunting, so we took full advantage.

Not only did we have clay pigeons in our sights, but we had a whole arsenal of mountains to choose from.

This portion of rural Montana is one of the last few remaining wild places that I’ve found in the west.  I’ve been to some very obscure parts of the inter-mountain west, but never have I been to a place quite like the Big  Hole Valley.  Most places are either populated in a few small towns, with modern amenities, or not populated at all.  Much of Utah is like this, city centers, then deserts filled with dirt roads and not a single human.

This portion of Montana was different though.  It had ranches, and people, albeit sparse, but it didn’t have much in the way of modern utility.  Cell phones ceased to get reception, folks refused to use the internet, and there wasn’t a single chain establishment to be found in the entire county.  Wisdom, Montana was like going back in time – 30 or 40 years – when life was simpler and without the distractions of the modern world.  It was peaceful – you could focus on the task at hand without any of the noise that the our lives normally drown us out with.

The first morning in town, after firing some guns as a wake up call, we took off to meet up with Wisdom’s resident cowboy, Dan.  Accompanying Wade, Dwyer and I were two lovely ladies, Nicola and Ashley.  They were to be  our hosts for the weekend, and they both put the girl into Cowgirl.  They wrangled horses like we wrangle skis.  The Caboose and I sure got a first hand lesson in the ways of the Cowboys.

Ashley (miss '09) got us ready with saddles and horses.

While Nicola played Western wear model -

We got everything ready to go, and hopped on our horses.  First order of business was to move some newly acquired cows to some far away pastures.  The Caboose was the first one to gallop up on those wily Herefords.  Dwyer doesn’t always ride horses, but when he does it’s typically bareback.

We quickly fell into a rhythm, and herded the cows down the road.

Along the way, Dan would lend a watchful eye to our group.  His lone piece of advice, “If you fall off and your foot gets caught in the stirrup, make sure to roll onto your stomach, it’s the only way to get your foot unstuck.”

With that in mind, Nicola, Dwyer and Wade took off.  Hell bent on rounding up every last cow.

Despite our amateur status as cowboys, Nicola never told us what to do or how to do it, she just looked on and made sure we weren’t pushing cows in the wrong direction.

The next order of business was to make sure we could keep track of all these cows.  The way of the west is the brand, and that’s exactly what we were to do.  The brand of the day was “3 bar C” and brand them we did.

The new-school shuffles the cattle down a cattle shoot, and into this cow trapper.  This cow trapper locks the cow in while it gets branded so it can’t flop around and hurt itself.

Despite the smell of branded cattle the girls were having a wonderful time.

One of the first cows in was a Hereford, one of the storied breeds of the American West.  Herefords are known for their excellent beef production and friendly taste. :)

In addition to get the “3 bar C” brand each cow got a shot to keep them healthy through the summer foraging season.

After a few hundred cattle had come through the cattle chutes, we decided it was time to do it the old fashioned way – with a lasso and some western ingenuity.  On horseback  Dan and Ashley proceed to rope up the cows.  Dwyer was put in charge of ground duty, which involved sliding the cow’s tail up through its back legs – which effectively put the cow in the sleeper hold.  Once the cow was pinned down, the branding iron would come over and they’d receive their brand much like their fellow cows did in the chute.

The Caboose doesn’t just like to be the closer in a big game of Flip Cup, he also likes to take care of the rear:

We proceeded to wrap up branding, picked up reinforcement shotgun shells, some T-bones, and some brews to round out our night at the A-frame.

The sunset views were stupendous -

Dwyer and Nicola used the evening light to their advantage -

Dang, how can you look that fresh after a full day of branding?!?!?!

And lastly, our crew gathered for a group picture, with every bit of Western flair that we could muster.

L to R, Owl, Wade, Nicole, Dwyer, Ashley, and Porter (center).

What a Saturday.  Next up was a Sunday filled with river floating (through a blizzard) and Monday with miles of road skinning, some partially frozen lake crossings, and some avalanche starting. (jump to part 2)