OVANDO — When the sun’s at the right angle, Wayne Slaght can spot grizzly bear tracks on the hard-packed dirt road even when he’s whizzing along in a four-wheeler at 25 mph.
“That’s either a 6- to 8-year-old female or a 4-year-old male,” Slaght said, measuring the track with his Leatherman tool. “I’m told every inch of width is about 100 pounds, so that could be a 400- or 500-pound bear.”
And it’s one of probably 10 grizzlies roaming the Two Creek Cattle Ranch between the homes of Slaght and his partner and brother-in-law Ken Kovatch below the southern tip of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Having that many federally protected predators in the middle of a cattle ranch has kept Slaght and Kovatch on the hunt for tactics that keep them in business.
“The bears aren’t going anywhere and we don’t want to go anywhere either,” Slaght said. “So we’re living with them. The public wants me gone, not the bears. So the only reason I can be here is because I tolerate them. I’m willing to try anything. Bottom line — I want to stay here and the only way is to learn to live with them. The public would be fine with me gone. I moved onto this ranch when I was 4. My three kids have grown up here. It’s a way of life. It’s not about the money.”
In 1998, a grizzly killed a calf about 500 yards northeast of the Slaght’s home. Bears killed two more in the next two years. He’s spent the next two decades refining responses that keep the rest of his animals and property safe.
He credits three in particular: electric fencing, moving livestock feed and supplies out of barns and into railroad storage containers, and prompt off-ranch disposal of dead livestock. He hasn’t lost another cow since 2000. But he has lost seats in his four-wheeler, snatched by grizzlies seeking the salt from his sweat.
Figuring out things that work to reduce livestock-predator conflicts has become an urgent task for both ranchers and wildlife managers. In 2017, the Montana Livestock Loss Board and the Montana Stockgrowers Association teamed up to write a “Rancher’s Tool-Kit” of best practices to keep bears and cattle separate.
This spring, the Western Landowners Alliance released “Reducing Conflict with Grizzly Bears, Wolves and Elk: A Western Landowner’s Guide.” It takes a wider view of rancher-wildlife issues, compiling ideas across 11 western states, provided by more than 30 active livestock and land management professionals.
“I was impressed how well some of these folks have dealt with a really challenging situation and learned to coexist,” Western Landowners Alliance report lead author Rick Danvir said. “I’m a biologist by trade, and I’ve worked for ranchers for years. If I tell them something, they’ll listen and they’re grateful. But if another rancher says ‘I’ve tried this and it worked,’ that carries more weight.”
The guide has been sent not just to ranchers, but to wildlife agencies, environmental organizations and a wide range of other venues. Danvir said a secondary goal was to familiarize the wider public with the challenges livestock producers face. Bears and wolves don’t just occasionally eat cows and sheep; their threatening presence may keep domestic animals from putting on weight or maintaining healthy pregnancies. Elk graze pastures intended for livestock, raid hay stockpiles and wreck fences.
When grizzly bears gained “threatened” status through the Endangered Species Act in 1975, perhaps 600 still inhabited the Rocky Mountains of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Before that, grizzlies were viewed as much a pest as a predator. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statement at the time of listing noted, “The most critical factor in the grizzly’s past decline has been direct conflict with humans.”
Over the subsequent 44 years, the grizzly population of the Lower 48 states has grown to about 2,000 bears, including at least 1,000 in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem that surrounds the Two Creek Ranch. In 2018, a federal judge derailed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to remove federal protection from the estimated 750 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem surrounding Yellowstone National Park. The federal government has appealed that ruling, while grizzly protection advocates hailed it as confirmation that grizzlies are far from recovered.
“The bears are going to continue to expand,” Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley said. “Delisting is not the only answer. We don’t need to recover a species throughout its historic range. The bar for us is to get to the point they’re no longer endangered or threatened. Then we turn management over to the states. As long as they stay above that bar, they (state wildlife agencies) could manage bears any way they want to. We hope attitudes will be similar to wolves once the federal government is out of it.”
“Our ancestors did their best to kill all the grizzlies and wolves, and now we’re paying to bring them back,” Slaght said. Before that calf was killed at the end of the 20th century, Slaght said he couldn’t recall having a grizzly incident on the ranch. In the 21st century, the big bears are a routine part of the cattle business.
Slaght argued delisting the bear would give the same flexibility as he now has with delisted wolves, where he can shoot one threatening his cows without risking criminal prosecution or loads of paperwork. He also supported the return of a hunting season for grizzlies. Even after the Endangered Species Act listing, Montana continued a grizzly bear hunt through the 1990s. Slaght said he thought that taught bears to fear people and stay away from livestock.
That opinion has little scientific backing. Except for sows with cubs, grizzlies are solitary animals. Killing one bear isn’t likely to teach lessons to others, and wildlife biologists have repeatedly reported that wounding a bear tends to drive it toward easier food sources, like livestock and groceries.
When the Fish and Wildlife Service first tried to delist Greater Yellowstone grizzlies in 2007, its conservation plan claimed that the addition of trophy hunting would increase tolerance for grizzly bear recovery but had to add “there is no scientific literature documenting that delisting would or could build … tolerance for grizzly bears.”
“One consequence of successful conservation is that grizzlies and wolves are successfully recovered,” Danvir said. “And when they expand (out of recovery areas), you start having conflict. They’re moving into areas less suitable because there’s more human infrastructure and presence. That’s become an issue in the last few years. Western Landowners Alliance’s job is to deal with issues landowners have difficulty with. And we think maybe the best way to conserve wildlife is to partner and support the guys trying to do it.”
At the same time, the cattle business has changed in other ways. Candace Weeda, Northern Rockies representative for the Western Landowners Alliance, said costs of feed, equipment and land have been rising while beef prices have remained stagnant or fallen.
“When we raise cattle, we depend on a market price we don’t set, and that hasn’t been going up over the last 10 years like our input costs have,” said Weeda, who ranches near Cascade. “It’s a risky thing. We’re a price-taker instead of a price-maker. Ranching is capital-intensive. It takes a lot of land and cattle inventory to make a go at it. And it’s a business that’s getting more corporate. Young people have a hard time coming up with the money to get in business. Unless you have family to inherit from, or a corporate job you work for, there’s not a lot of job security. It’s not a real stable business.”
So even though losses to grizzlies or wolves may be a small fraction compared to cattle deaths from blizzards or lightning, those losses remain top-of-mind for many ranchers.
“You feel your job is to steward and take care of that herd, and you don’t want them killed or suffering,” Danvir said. “If you can’t protect them, it’s analogous to not protecting your family. You’re the guy — you’re supposed to do that.”
The guide covers a variety of other methods of reducing conflicts, from specially trained livestock protection dogs to redistributing livestock carcasses so bears will eat them instead of stalking calving grounds. Not everything will work everywhere. For example, Slaght discounted the guide’s proposal of breeding cows with better survival skills. A cow that can fight a grizzly might also fight a cowboy.
Slaght said the biggest improvement was the carcass pickup program the Blackfoot Challenge started in 2001. Kovatch said cleaning up the “death pit” was instrumental in deterring grizzlies from targeting the cows.
Two Creek has a round bale of hay in the driveway where the Slaghts put dead livestock for pickup. The bale is about 5 feet high. It’s ruined for feed, and will be burned after it gets too rank. Son Ben Slaght can hand-toss a dead calf on top of it, and uses a front-end loader to place larger animals.
“It’s a pride thing,” Ben Slaght said. “A lot of ranchers don’t want anyone to know they lost a calf. The pickup guy isn’t supposed to tell anyone who is getting a pick-up. But they’re afraid word will get around.”
Emotions remain a crucial factor in grizzly management, Wayne Slaght said. As the bears move farther from their mountain strongholds into places like Big Sandy and Two Dot, ranchers there will encounter a frightening and expensive challenge.
“When you have a grizzly depredation close to the house, you want to kill all the bears,” Slaght said. “That’s your bottom line for a while. I don’t know how long it took to get over it. I just wanted to shoot them all.
“We’re a lot more nonchalant than we were 20 years ago,” he added. “There’s no way to get all the bears killed. That’s not an option. We have to learn to live with them.”