Spring is here and the frigid winter we all endured in Montana is fading into the distance. We spent one of those days where the cold just hurt with our friend and colleague Neil Barnosky on his cattle ranch outside of Sheridan, Montana. It was a day where most would have wanted to curl up by the fire with a hot beverage. Instead, we got a tiny glimpse into ranching life where such luxuries aren’t afforded. Neil was in the midst of calving season, doing everything in his power to care for his pregnant cows and newborn calves out in the cold.
The fact that Neil offered us a chance to spend the day with him making the rounds in his calving pasture during such a busy, stressful time speaks volumes to his generous spirit and commitment to building a lasting partnership. We know Neil through the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance, which aims to bring together conservation groups and ranchers on the premise that we agree a whole lot more often than we disagree. The group works to protect open space and knows this vision benefits working ranches and wildlife in the Ruby Valley.
GYC’s Director of Conservation, Siva Sundaresan, joined us for the day. GYC’s leadership supports these kinds of partnerships and recognizes the importance of the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance for building lasting, durable solutions on the ground.
We followed Neil around his calving pasture as he checked on newborn calves and tagged their ears for identification. Neil explained to us how to determine if a cow is close to giving birth. He showed us how to put ear tags on calves, and even let us give it a try. He described how to manage an especially protective momma, and explained how his operation unfolds after calves are born in February. Neil gave us some insight into the challenges he faces in his operation, especially with regard to conflicts between his livestock and grizzly bears and wolves.
Neil’s wife Gloria treated us to a delicious, warm lunch in their cozy home. We talked more about living among grizzly bear and how it affects their operation, especially those related to increasing calf deaths as a result of depredation. Grizzly bears are expanding their range into lands with more livestock, and as a result, opportunities for conflict are increasing. We discussed both grizzly and cattle behavior, and the challenges unique to the landscape when it comes to mitigating depredation risk. In the summer, Neil and Gloria run their cows and calves alongside cattle owned by other ranchers on massive grazing allotments in the surrounding mountains. They explained that the size of the landscape and number of cattle relative to the handful of range riders in the area make it very difficult to manage the risk of grizzly bear/livestock encounters.
With bellies full of broccoli cheddar soup, hot coffee, and warm bread, we headed back out with Neil. He showed us the barn where they bring in calves in need of special treatment or care, often due to cold temperatures. We made another round through the pasture, and Neil pointed out a cow he thought would give birth at any moment. We headed her direction, hopeful it would be our lucky day.
About a half hour later, we watched from Neil’s truck in awe as the same cow groomed her brand new baby. Steam billowed off the newborn into the cold winter air. It wasn’t long before the tough little calf was standing upright and looking to nurse. As visitors to Neil’s ranch, we were humbled by the extraordinary experience of watching new life come into the world on a cold Montana day.
As we drove home, we reflected on the reality that there are no silver bullet solutions for managing conflicts with grizzly bears. But the trust built through the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance has allowed for these kinds of opportunities to listen and learn from one another. With that foundation, maybe we can work together to ensure both people and bears can thrive on shared landscapes.
To read more about our work in the Ruby Valley, check out our story at John Anderson’s Ruby Dell Ranch.
-Darcie Warden, Montana Conservation Coordinator
-Brooke Shifrin, Wildlife Program Associate