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    Freedom to Roam: A Rancher and an Environmentalist Search for Common Ground on Wolves (Part 2)

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    Last week, in regards to the recent delisting of gray wolves as an endangered species and in conjunction with our Freedom to Roam campaign, we brought you Part 1 of an interview between NRDC’s Senior Wildlife Advocate Louisa Willcox and Montana rancher Becky Weed -- two individuals with two distinct points of view and a shared willingness to engage in constructive dialogue. Here's the second half of the interview. [Photo: Roy Toft, California Wolf Center]

    Q: How common is it to find ranchers who believe there is a way to protect wolves and their way of life?

    Becky Weed (rancher): ‘Seems like a simple question, but in fact no one has really good data on this. It is safe to say that many, many ranchers wish wolves had never come back and that wolves are yet another threat to a precarious way of life; that is certainly the dominant stereotype. But it is useful to remind ourselves that quite a few ranchers have already begun “living with wolves” since the reintroduction in the '90s. It has been difficult and has come at considerable cost in some situations, but some ranchers are climbing this learning curve in spite of themselves, and right now we have no systematic mechanism for monitoring that progress. Sometimes I fear the zeal of passionate enviros (and the inflammatory rhetoric that they are fed from distant fundraisers) blinds them to the embryonic progress that is so vital for a long-term conservation ethic that transcends rural-urban divides.

    It is also useful to remind ourselves that the sons and daughters of many of today’s ranchers are growing up amidst shifting paradigms of wildlife and agricultural perspectives. Many such young people have no desire to show disrespect for their parents’ traditions but they also know that they need to find their own way, and for some that means a new tolerance for carnivores. I can’t give you an exact figure on how many people are thinking that way, but several have visited our ranch, daring to explore the rancher/conservationist turf. The exact percentage almost doesn’t matter to me; these are the "early adopters," the innovators, the leaders. The numbers will come later – if we as a society do this right.

    Even though no one can answer your question precisely, I think we can say that the more  ranchers that are encouraged and supported concretely in their efforts to ranch alongside wolves, the more such ranchers there will be. To me this means that some lethal control will be part of the story, but it will not be the whole story. There may be some ranches, or some parts of ranches or grazing allotments where people conclude it doesn’t make sense to run livestock, but I and many wolf advocates do NOT favor simply running ranchers off the land. Such an oversimplified policy would be tantamount to cutting off our nose to spite our face. Ranchers, like wolves, live and work in communities and ecosystems. Thus the most strategic responses to wolf problems and benefits will also operate at that level.

    Louisa Willcox (NRDC): More common than you might think from reading the papers. I have met a number of ranchers who believe there is a way to protect both wolves and their way of life. But these ranchers often do not want to be publicly identified as being “pro-wolf” because of the potential for negative repercussions from their more conservative, anti-wolf/rancher colleagues. As long as hardliners like the Farm Bureau are in charge of the debate from the ranchers’ side, there is little incentive for the pro-wolf ranchers to engage. But thankfully, there are a number of tolerant ranchers out there. Without them, we would not have made as much progress as we have towards wolf recovery.

    Q: Would most ranchers be amenable to wolf protection if there was adequate compensation? Are there any ideas on where compensation might come from?

    Becky Weed (rancher): Any discussion of compensation for livestock losses must start with the caveat that compensation programs are at best an incomplete salve for the emotional and economic wound of livestock predation. Compensation doesn’t, by itself, make the rancher whole, nor does it obviate the wolf advocates’ responsibility to continue to help think this problem through. To simply keep killing livestock, wolves, and dollars is hardly a satisfactory outcome for our mutual dilemmas. 

    Even a generous compensation program won’t make ranchers "happy" with wolf protection, but it certainly can be helpful for withstanding losses. In the long run I think that both ranchers and wolf advocates will be most supportive of a compensation program if it is coupled to a suite of measures to prevent conflict; that is the best way to save both wolves and livestock. This will almost surely involve a combination of obligations – management efforts on the part of ranchers, and financial and other support from non-ranchers. Existing compensation programs have started down that road, but there’s much more to learn.

    Louisa Willcox (NRDC): This is a complicated question, and, in my experience, different ranchers have different views on this subject. To some ranchers, no amount of compensation is adequate, because they simply don’t want to be in the business of “feeding livestock to wolves.” Other ranchers whom I have talked to feel privileged to live in a place where wolves also live, and compensation is not an issue, even if they lose stock. Still others are frustrated that the compensation is not adequate to pay for the additional stress and work involved with living in wolf country. 

    One problem I see is that compensation comes at the back end, after depredations have occurred, rather than proactively helping livestock operators avoid problems. There are a number of different ideas being discussed about new sources of funding for compensation of different sorts. A recent bill championed by Senator Tester (D-MT) and Senator Barrasso (R-WY) will provide a source of matching funds at the federal level for compensation and implementation of non-lethal wolf management efforts. And some states and non-governmental organizations also provide compensation programs.

    But compensation is not the ultimate solution here; a different attitude towards wolves and approaches to working out conflicts will likely prove more effective.

    Q: Wolves can add significantly to tourist dollars, especially in Yellowstone. Do local ranchers benefit from this? If not, are there any plans to direct some of this revenue to local ranchers?

    Becky Weed (rancher): I don’t know if anyone has tried to analyze the benefits of tourism dollars specifically for ranchers, but it is certainly plausible to suggest that increases in local tax dollars and jobs benefit local ranchers. The effects will vary of course; some ranchers will find direct meat marketing or outfitting opportunities or enjoy a better-funded school system for their kids, whereas others will curse the hassles, the loss of privacy, the troublesome wildlife worship. Many will experience the ambivalence and complexity of both costs and benefits. There are examples of ranch communities that have begun to seek the benefits of wildlife by capitalizing on wildlife viewing, or seeking support funding from environmental groups (Madison Valley Wildlife tours, Gallatin Valley Land Trust, several conservation groups helping to fund conflict prevention efforts, etc.). But the direct means of channeling tourist dollars toward traditional lifestyles are, as far as I know, few and far between.

    I must confess that I would rather see us move toward market-based producer/consumer relationships that reward the wildlife-friendly ranchers with genuine business prospects than toward some token and arbitrary payment scheme that throws payment at ranchers as if they are one more exhibit at the zoo … easier said than done.

    Louisa Willcox (NRDC): Research has found that roughly $35 million is generated annually through wolf-watching activities in the communities outside Yellowstone National Park, and these dollars turn over in the communities four times. Communities benefit overall, and as members of these communities, ranchers receive indirect benefits from these tourism dollars. 

    There are ideas being discussed about new ways to direct additional resources to ranchers who have wolves on their land. In Sweden, for example, agriculturalists are paid if they have reproducing carnivores on their land. And there are programs in our region involving the government and non-governmental organizations paying livestock operators to retire allotments on public lands where there have been chronic conflicts with wolves and other carnivores. In this way, both ranchers and wolves can benefit.

    Q: Wolves have been referred to as a “keystone species” due to the effect they have on their ecosystems. How does their presence benefit ecosystems, and does a healthier ecosystem have a direct benefit to ranchers?

    Becky Weed (rancher): Wolves do affect ecosystems, probably in more ways than we have yet identified. The dispersal of ungulates; in some cases the reduction of ungulates, the restoration of some riparian areas, the reduction of dense coyote populations – all these effects and more can be beneficial to ranchers. Conversely, many ranchers observe the downside: in some areas ungulates may be forced into close proximity to livestock due to wolves, thus exacerbating disease worries or forage competition.  We’re still in the dynamic early phases of wolf reintroduction, and I’m less interested in declaring the outcome to be "good" or "bad" than I am in encouraging the resilience that comes from learning how to observe and respond to the interesting and hard-to-predict processes on the ground. 

    I increasingly believe that restoration of a grassland ecology is the best approach toward restoration of a grassland economy – that will benefit ranchers. And wolves can be a part of it. But I do not underestimate the challenges of heading in that direction. The near-term, dramatic costs often fall first on the shoulders of ranchers, in the form of predation and frail budgets. Ultimately consumers and non-ranching voters must find ways to share that burden and/or help address the problems and appreciate the value in the ag-land/wildland interface.

    Louisa Willcox (NRDC): Wolf reintroduction has had enormous and myriad benefits to the ecology of the Northern Rockies. In the 15 years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, scientists have found new evidence of wolves restoring the balance with elk and other prey, which, in turn, has improved habitat for streamside vegetation, songbirds, beavers, and other species. By killing coyotes, wolves indirectly increase the number of small rodents, which, in turn, helps all kinds of animals, including hawks and eagles. Pronghorn antelope populations in the Rocky Mountain region have also risen in response to reduced coyote populations. 

    By regulating elk, wolves can help reduce impacts on ranchers during the winter, when elk feed heavily on haystacks intended for livestock in some areas. By reducing coyote numbers, wolves can also reduce springtime coyote depredation on ranchers’ calves. One rancher I spoke to last year said that since a wolf pack had set up shop near their ranch, their problems with coyote depredations on calves had declined dramatically – and by keeping a close eye on where the wolves were, she hadn’t had any losses from wolves yet either.

    Q: Can you define what you think "success" looks like from your perspective and what the obstacles to that vision of success are?

    Becky Weed (rancher): This key question was not rigorously answered, or at least not fully agreed upon by all the players pre-wolf reintroduction, or before courtroom proceedings on wolf delisting. So it’s not surprising that the last few years have been conflict-ridden as wolves have increased in number and range. 

    From my perspective, “success” cannot come with delisting alone, but delisting may well be a prerequisite for moving onto success in the larger sense: I imagine that we can get to a point where wolves are functioning in large landscapes, filling an ecological role in which they influence the behavior of ungulates, livestock, and other carnivores, and moving and breeding across sufficient distances and populations such that they can maintain genetic diversity and health. However, this does not mean that wolves will be restored to their entire historic range, or that they will never undergo “management” at the hand of man. There is and there will be lethal control, but other means of minimizing conflict will also be in play.  

    “Success” will not come overnight, and if we try to make it so we will destroy its prospects, for it will necessarily take time to evolve the necessary livestock husbandry tools, wolf management ideas, and public understanding required to support both. Lasting success will come only if we find ways to integrate it with successful agriculture and an ethical hunting culture – both ecologically and economically.

    This is only the bare bones of a definition; it does not specify numbers and locations of wolves, ranchers, hunters, spectators. I am even more painfully aware that this cannot spell out what lasting success will look like for ranchers, for that will involve variables that go way beyond wolves. But this discussion has never been only about wolves in my mind. It is about discovering and enabling forms of agriculture that allow landscapes and inhabitants to thrive.

    Louisa Willcox (NRDC): In my view, success has several components. First, success means biological recovery of the Northern Rockies wolf population; that includes several thousand wolves, with genetic exchange between the subpopulations in northwest Montana, central Idaho, Greater Yellowstone, and Canada. It also means that wolves serve their natural ecological function on the Northern Rockies landscape.

    Success entails adequate state laws and plans that are effective in sustaining recovery and correcting problems that arise. This means sufficient resources and leaders in the involved agencies who are committed to ensure a healthy future for wolves.

    Success means tolerance of wolves at the local level. (An outspoken, well-armed minority of wolf haters can effectively undermine successful wolf recovery.) It also means developing and implementing effective systems to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts, utilizing the non-lethal tools we currently have and creating new ways to prevent and respond to conflicts. 

    Finally, success can only be achieved when we have social processes that are democratic, fair and transparent. We need to find new, respectful ways of working out our differences with wolves in concrete ways in the Northern Rockies. We need meaningful conversations with people who may have historic differences, such as ranchers, hunters, conservationists, and business people, about how to anticipate and resolve the challenges that arise in wolf country. In this way, successful wolf recovery is a process, not just a goal. And it must be a dynamic process that is responsive to future social, ecological and other changes.

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    A big thanks goes out to both Becky and Louisa for their important work and agreeing to do the interview. Please be sure and read Part 1 of this interview if you missed it the first time around. You can visit Patagonia.com for more information on our Freedom to Roam campaign.

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