A day in the saddle: Supporting range riders in the Centennial Valley

Recently, I had the opportunity to join the Centennial Valley Association’s Wildlife Program Coordinator, Sarah Hale, for a day in the Centennial Valley. It was a gorgeous cold day that smelled like horses and sage and looked like a visit Montana postcard, exploding with big blue sky and yellow aspens.

 Cattle in the Centennial Valley of Montana. (Photo Sarah Hale, Centennial Valley Association.)

Cattle in the Centennial Valley of Montana. (Photo Sarah Hale, Centennial Valley Association.)

My day started with a 3:45 am departure from Bozeman. I drove over Red Rock pass down into the valley in the dark. Countless stars above and many miles of dirt road reminded me how lucky we are that there are such remote corners of Greater Yellowstone. I arrived to meet Sarah just as daylight was breaking, and we quietly tacked up the horses. We trailered to a participating rancher’s pasture and set out across the rugged, sage covered terrain to check in on as many cattle as we could find. Along the way, we saw wolf tracks and set up a wildlife camera to document the activity. When we returned to the bunkhouse, another range rider alerted us of two wolves roaming just up the hillside. I watched the animals in awe. They sat still, eventually moving on and disappearing into the forest.

 One of the wolf tracks found while riding through the pasture. (Photo Sarah Hale, Centennial Valley Association.)

One of the wolf tracks found while riding through the pasture. (Photo Sarah Hale, Centennial Valley Association.)

Range riders like Sarah are having a positive impact in places like the Centennial Valley. The technique increases human presence and provides the opportunity to find sick or injured cattle before they become prey in a landscape where all the native carnivores roam. Tracking wildlife and setting camera traps allows Sarah and her team to spread information about recent predator activity and potential for conflict with livestock. In short, range riding safeguards the livestock on which family ranches depend, while helping to keep bears and wolves alive and out of trouble.

 A wolf documented on the trail cam set up by Sarah and Brooke. (Photo Centennial Valley Association.)

A wolf documented on the trail cam set up by Sarah and Brooke. (Photo Centennial Valley Association.)

  Puncture wounds on a dead calf found by a Centennial Valley Association range rider. Further investigation revealed evidence that the calf was killed by a grizzly bear. In addition to the benefits of range riding for helping prevent conflicts, the technique also increases the chances of finding dead animals soon after depredation events do occur. When cattle are killed by wildlife like grizzly bears, finding the carcass before it has been fully scavenged allows for confirmation of the cause of death, which in turn allows the rancher to be reimbursed by the livestock loss board. (Photo Jack Cronin, Centennial Valley Association.)

Puncture wounds on a dead calf found by a Centennial Valley Association range rider. Further investigation revealed evidence that the calf was killed by a grizzly bear. In addition to the benefits of range riding for helping prevent conflicts, the technique also increases the chances of finding dead animals soon after depredation events do occur. When cattle are killed by wildlife like grizzly bears, finding the carcass before it has been fully scavenged allows for confirmation of the cause of death, which in turn allows the rancher to be reimbursed by the livestock loss board. (Photo Jack Cronin, Centennial Valley Association.)

The day was long and tiring and I felt a new sense of appreciation for how hard range riders like Sarah are working to ensure people, livestock, and wildlife like grizzly bears can live together on a shared landscape. GYC is proud to support range riders in the Centennial Valley and Tom Miner basin, and we are committed to finding ways to support creative solutions that allow people and wildlife to thrive across Greater Yellowstone.

—Brooke Shifrin, Wildlife Program Associate