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Range Writing

Grizzly Recovery Reflected in Upper Green Conflict

in Agriculture/Column/News/Range Writing/wildlife
Upper Green River Wyoming
2233

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The Bridger-Teton National Forest’s announcement of its decision to reauthorize cattle grazing in the Upper Green River region 30 miles north of Pinedale was met with the predictable hysteria of anti-grazing activists who claim the plan “institutionalizes overgrazing” and “negligent livestock management” on national forest lands. These activists are pushing to rid public lands of livestock and cite conflicts between grizzly bears and cattle in the Upper Green to justify their position. It’s no matter that the truth undermines their outrageous claims.

For perspective, the Upper Green is the largest cattle grazing allotment in the National Forest system, used annually by area cattle ranchers for well over a century. With more than 80 percent of Sublette County in federal or state land, public lands livestock grazing is a vital component of the area’s character and ag economy. The county’s pastoral landscapes with majestic mountain views showcase the glorious mixture of land uses, from primitive recreation, hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing, to tourism and energy development. As the Forest Service notes: “In places where agriculture increasingly operates alongside a larger, non-agricultural economy and greater range of adjacent land uses, farms and ranches continue to be important. They contribute to local economic diversity, the scenery they provide can be part of the mix of amenities that attract and retain people and businesses across a range of industries, and they are often an important part of local culture and community vitality.”

The Bridger-Teton decision authorizes a maximum of 8,819 head of livestock annually (or 8,772 cow/calf pairs or yearlings, and 47 horses), from mid-June to mid-October. The agency found that there is more than enough forage for both livestock and wildlife, noting that even when overestimating forage utilization, the “combined elk and livestock forage use on lands suitable and capable for grazing was less than the amount of forage available.”

This is not a prescription for overgrazing, and the grazing association have been active land stewards. “The Upper Green River Cattle Association is proactive in the management of the Upper Green River allotment,” according to the Forest Service record of decision reauthorizing grazing, which noted that this is demonstrated by the “voluntary permittee monitoring and adjustments to grazing practices that have occurred on the allotments for over 30 years. The permittees regularly seek information and assistance from experts in research when a problem confronts them and have a documented willingness to try new management concepts and options or take on additional responsibility if it is to the benefit of the natural resources.”

One of the biggest problems has been grizzly bear depredation on cattle, and the Upper Green has been a hotspot for these conflicts – even though it is located more than 25 miles outside the original grizzly bear recovery zone. From 2010-2018, there were 527 confirmed conflicts, and 35 grizzly bears were removed from the allotments in response. 

Noting that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population has exceeded recovery goals and continues to expand into new areas, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) reports: “This means historical activities, which are comparable to the proposed action, have had little to no discernable effect on the population’s trend toward recovery, and we do not expect continuation of these activities to reverse the trend.”

Conflicts in the Upper Green have increased an average of 9% per year as the grizzly population density has increased, and FWS noted, “The conflict and management data indicate an expanding grizzly bear population with the action area concurrent with increasing occupancy and distribution of grizzly bears throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Because more bears are moving into areas with more human and livestock use, we expect even more conflicts and management actions will occur in the future.”

FWS issued a biological opinion for cattle grazing in the area, determining that it “will not jeopardize the continued existence of the grizzly bear.” The agency estimated that 72 grizzly bears could be removed from the Upper Green over the next 10 years, primarily due to management removal within the allotments, and that “will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery of grizzly bears.”

FWS also noted that the cattle permittees have tried a variety of practices over the years to reduce conflicts “with varying degrees of success,” including conducting several conflict reduction workshops, changing grazing rotations and systems, hiring 5-6 range riders and utilizing five rider camps on the allotments in addition to day help, and experimenting with herding techniques in attempt to deter predation.

The top human causes of grizzly bear deaths in the Yellowstone ecosystem are defense of life and property (20.2% of all mortalities 1997-2017), followed by hunting-related defense of life and property (18.2%). The grizzly bear mortalities in the Upper Green due to livestock depredations accounted for 7.28% of all grizzly mortalities in the ecosystem from 2010-2018. Despite daily human presence in an area with a high grizzly bear density, there have been no self-defense actions taken by range riders, although FWS notes that this will always be a potential.

FWS notes that although in the last two years the number of problem grizzlies removed from the Upper Green has increased, “these bears were chronic depredators over the last few years, removal of these bears may reduce the number of conflicts and removals in the next year or two.”

 “The number of removals has been cyclical: as the depredating individuals have been removed, the number of conflicts in the following years has temporarily decreased until other bears learn depredating behaviors and the scenario repeats itself,” FWS wrote. “We believe the increasing trend in conflicts and removals and the cyclical nature of these occurrences is due to an expanding grizzly bear population, which we expect will continue in and around the action area. As a result of an expanding bear population, we believe the action area will continue to experience a regular increase in the number of conflicts and management removals over the next 10 years of the grazing permit.”

Grizzly bear mortalities in the Upper Green due to conflicts with livestock are not the result of a failure to manage grizzlies or cattle. It’s a reality of the success of grizzly bear recovery. Those who advocate the non-lethal management of conflict bears are more interested in removing livestock grazing from public lands than providing for a landscape in which traditional uses can continue.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Get real: Dumping Disneyland for nature

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Range Writing elk in traffic
National Park visitors oblivious to the danger posed by a bull elk among them. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)
2201

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

When instances of human-wildlife conflicts make the news, wildlife and land managers should feed reporters “thematic information or contextual data,” including information about the low likelihood of such conflict, as in “only the nth time in x-years,” in attempt to “help counteract the intense emotions” media consumers may feel that after learning of these conflicts, which “can lead to unfavorable opinions about the risks associated with spending time in nature and national parks.”

That’s the point of a paper published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin last year by three researchers at Colorado State University (CSU), which also noted that when a grizzly bear killed a person in Yellowstone National Park in 2015, the National Park Service failed to mention that there were only 38 reported cases of humans injured by bears in 36 years, while 104 million people visited the park, “and only 8 known fatalities in the park’s 145-year history.”

This kind of media framing  – especially those noting that “only” X number of people have been killed by a particular species – sets my teeth on edge. When journalists are reporting breaking news about a severe conflict (such as that involving the death of a human being by a wild animal), thematic reporting be damned. Each death is a loss of human life, a human’s story, and it is entirely appropriate to report in an episodic manner.

I would hate to be a family member reading an article about the attack on my loved one only to see that loss of life minimized by taking the thematic approach, which seems to be advanced in order to minimize the negative aspects of such human-wildlife encounters. It’s like when I have a dozen dead sheep in my field due to a wolf attack, and wolf advocates respond that livestock losses to wolves are less than one-half of one percent of the nation’s livestock inventory.

The CSU researchers wrote: “We conclude that it is reasonable to assume that if a reader with minimal experience in nature reacts with emotion to these episodic stories, those emotions are likely to be of the sort that has a negative effect on attitudes about spending time in nature, such as fear.”

Perhaps it’s past time for the public to learn that wild animals are not the Disneyesque characters they’ve been portrayed for decades. Perhaps scaring people into the reality that human-wildlife conflicts do exist across the nation is what’s needed. Perhaps people should once again learn some fear and respect for the wild animals that share the planet. Perhaps then we won’t have people trying to put wild bison calves into their cars so they don’t get cold, etc.

Besides, every year we hear news stories of “rare” attacks on humans by large carnivores. Since it’s every year, and multiple times every year, perhaps it’s not so rare in the modern age. 

I generally try to keep up with scientific literature involving human-wildlife conflicts, and a new paper in the journal Human-Wildlife Interactions by Michael Conover examined the number of human fatalities, injuries and illnesses in the United States due to wildlife, conservatively finding that more than 174,000 people were injured and 700 killed by conflicts with wild animals every year in the United States. This includes everything from wildlife-vehicle collisions, snakebites,  and zoonotic diseases, to attacks on humans by large predators. Conover said large predator attacks were “rare,” while also noting that “attacks by alligators, cougars, polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, and coyotes have been increasing in recent decades in North America.”

According to the Conover paper, the “best estimate” of the annual number of people injured by grizzly bears in the United States is 0.8. But I contend that this number is grossly understated, and based on outdated information (plus the source cited in the paper referred only to grizzly bear attacks on humans in Alaska).

According to other current research, there were 62 attacks by grizzly bears on humans in the tri-state area of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, from 2000-2015, and seven fatalities during that time. There were an additional 51 attacks in Alaska, with another seven fatalities. This totals to 7.53 attacks annually for the United States – substantially higher than Conover’s estimate.

But back to the fear issue, Conover noted that rebounding populations of animals “which currently enjoy either complete or partial legal protection, certainly have less reason to fear humans than they did previously. Fear of humans have deterred predator attacks in the past but less so today.”

And the fear needs to flow both directions, according to Conover. “Today, many people no longer have a healthy fear of dangerous animals and engage in activities that put them in harm’s way. This naivety also contributes to the increasing frequency of people being injured by wildlife.”

Conover recommends: “Biologists can teach dangerous animals to fear humans and educate humans to recognize and avoid dangerous situations involving wildlife.”

With more than 80 percent of the American public residing in urban areas, I understand the importance of connecting people to nature. But rather than have the American public remain ignorant about the natural world and its wild animals, we need to work to educate the public of the reality of human-wildlife conflicts so that we can seek to minimize these conflicts.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Dear Hunters

in Column/Range Writing
Wyoming mule deer
A mule deer buck stays in the shadows on Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)
2172

Dear Hunters,

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I am happy that you’re out having adventures, and hopefully getting some tasty meat for the freezer. I know that you look forward to hunting season all year long, and it’s a big part of why you are in this great state, whether as a resident or a visitor.

And I appreciate that so far this year, all but one of you have honored our ranch gates by leaving them as you find them. (We’ve still got six more yearling heifers to move into the correct pasture because of the one who didn’t close the gate.) I really appreciate you hunters who stop and visit, so we can share where the livestock and wildlife are currently located as we attempt to avoid conflict and increase your chance of success.

So far it’s a better year for us than the past few when we’ve had a lock shot off a gate (and the game camera that captured the act stolen); other gates and fences were cut or left open; and traps set out for a critical animal damage control project were tampered with so they wouldn’t work. Last fall I was hollered at by a group of armed men that had climbed through a fence to kill an antelope on private ground and then tried to evade the game warden by racing out through the sagebrush.

But that was last year. We’ve tried to do better, to make things better for all of us. We repaired things that were broken, checked all the gates, posted more informative signs along property lines, and hoped for a better season this year. It was a real pleasure (and relief) to see some of the same great hunters this year as we have in the last few years, and once again we enjoyed visiting with them and their families as we helped pack their game back to their vehicles. They thoughtfully brought a box of dog treats for our working dogs, guaranteeing we’ll be happy to see them again next season.

What you probably don’t know is that after the hunters leave, we return to where the game carcasses have been dressed out to pick up the discarded remains – because we don’t want to have attractants bringing more predators to our livestock pastures. It’s something hunters don’t need to think about, but we do.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a few encounters with hunters this year that have left me fighting negative feelings. You asked me where to find some sage grouse, so I told you. You shot one right off the mud puddle where it had come for a morning drink. That bird didn’t even fly before you took the shot. Legal? Sure. Repulsive? That too. 

When you flushed that covey of grouse, you pulled the trigger even though my truck was approaching directly in your shot line. Since you missed both the grouse and my truck, I’m guessing you didn’t do a split-second calculation that the shot wouldn’t reach me, so that was a shot you shouldn’t have taken.

You watched me get out to open a barbed-wire gate, pull through and park out of the way before getting out to close the gate behind me. You pulled through that gate and didn’t even put down the window to thank me as you rolled through that cold morning. I was flabbergasted by such behavior out in the countryside, because that’s just not how we roll out here.

The same gate that two groups of hunters with permission to access private ranch lands for their own pleasure have passed through numerous times, but not stopping to lend a hand. 

I suppose I’m sensitive about these things because as I write, I’m overly tired. After starting the day yesterday with a flat tire on one ranch truck, that truck was abandoned while I was on the run all day, moving livestock and doing triage on a variety of issues that developed throughout the day, and feeding, managing, and doctoring animals, even putting one down. I didn’t get everything done before dark, and the truck with the flat tire is still sitting in the same spot next to the main ranch gate.

Adding to my distress was a hunter who spent the day hiding along the property line near our ranch headquarters. Yes, it was legal because the adjacent piece is public land (thousands of acres of it!). But hiding near livestock guardian dogs that are actively watching over livestock is generally a bad idea. After a dog alerted me to the man’s presence, I kept close tabs on the guardians and the man all day, but it was an added worry that kept me on that side of the ranch as I tried to keep on top of a trying day.

Parking a vehicle so that an access route is blocked is inconsiderate to other users of Wyoming’s outdoors. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)

Adding to my distress was a hunter who spent the day hiding along the property line near our ranch headquarters. Yes, it was legal because the adjacent piece is public land (thousands of acres of it!). But hiding near livestock guardian dogs that are actively watching over livestock is generally a bad idea. After a dog alerted me to the man’s presence, I kept close tabs on the guardians and the man all day, but it was an added worry that kept me on that side of the ranch as I tried to keep on top of a trying day.

And I’m missing an Idaho bowhunter this year who we always enjoy watching: the man will hike for miles before taking his game. Perhaps other things got in the way of your slow stalks through Wyoming sagebrush this season, but I’m hopeful you’ll return to your annual ritual in our neighborhood.

But today is a new day, time to try again. This morning, a hunter given permission to access private ground came through before sunrise, parked his 4-wheeler in the middle of the two-track road above the river, pulled the key out and walked away. It took every bit of personal willpower for me to resist the urge to hook onto that obstacle and drag it out of the roadway, just as I would a downed tree.

Let’s all do better tomorrow. I’ll try if you will. I’ll try to be a better host, to not let little things become major irritants, and to be considerate of your needs as a hunter. I’m betting that you will be willing to give me equal consideration for my job as a livestock and land manager. Let’s all remember that we share Wyoming’s great outdoors and share some of the best of ourselves in the process. Good luck out there!

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com

The World’s Gone Crazy Cotillion

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Range Pack livestock guardian dogs
Some legislative proposals ignore the reality of working dogs like these livestock guardian dogs on the range in western Wyoming. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)
2134

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Every now and then, my brain hits playback on the Waylon Jennings’ song “The World’s Gone Crazy (Cotillion)” written by Jennings and Shel Silverstein. Last week the song was stuck in my head, as the lyrics are apropos to much current news.

“The villains have turned into heroes
The heroes have turned into heels.”
Outdoor Dogs

For those of us who use dogs for outdoor work, pleasure, or sport, a bill making its way through the Massachusetts legislature is viewed as the next troubling trend in animal ownership, as our canine friends become “fur babies” instead of respected beings with unique ecological histories.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (an animal rights organization) named Massachusetts Senator Mark Montigny as one of America’s Top Ten Animal Defenders of 2019 for his work to protect animals, including his successful effort to allow civilians to break into vehicles to rescue animals, as well as enacting a state prohibition on leaving a dog outside at night or during extreme weather.

Now Montigny proposes to outlaw outdoor dogs. Although his new proposal, Senate File No. 990, claims to be “improving enforcement for tethering violations,” in reality the bill states: “No person owning or keeping a dog shall chain, confine, or tether a dog outside and unattended for longer than five hours, or outside from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

According to the bill, “outside and unattended” means “any dog who is exposed to the elements for a duration of longer than 15 minutes and not in visual range and physical presence of the owner. This expressly includes, but is not limited to, a dog in a securely fenced-in yard, a dog in a kennel, or a dog tethered. For purposes of this section a dog shall be considered ‘outside’ regardless of access to an outdoor doghouse or similar structure.”

Yup, that would be a ban on outdoor dogs. 

As others have pointed out, Montigny’s bill provides more stringent requirements of dog owners than it does on parents of children. Massachusetts doesn’t have a prohibition on leaving children outside for more than 15 minutes without an adult present and in visual range.

“The meek they ain’t inheriting nothing
The leaders are falling behind”
Spotted Owls, Again

Earlier this month, WildEarth Guardians celebrated its successful lawsuit to shut down all timber management on 12 million acres of six national forests to protect the Mexican spotted owl, a threatened species.

Although federal officials have determined that range-wide population monitoring of this elusive little raptor is “logistically and financially impossible,” the court ruled that “claims that the range-wide monitoring is not feasible because of budgetary concerns do not relieve Defendants from finding a solution” and “Budget complications are no excuse.”

So federal agencies are not allowed to issue biological opinions that determine that specific timber management actions will not jeopardize the species, and without those “no jeopardy” opinions, no timber activity is allowed – effectively halting all timber management in six national forests in Arizona and New Mexico. 

Last week the U.S. Forest Service issued a public notice that in light of the Sept. 11 court ruling, all “timber management actions in Region 3 national forests must cease pending formal consultation,” and that it had immediately “suspended issuance of active and new commercial and personal-use forest product permits.”

It’s not just commercial timber sales that are impacted. Residents of New Mexico and Arizona are no longer able to get fuel wood permits, and agency use of prescribed burning to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires is banned. Restoration-focused activities including thinning operations and hazardous-fuels reduction projects designed to benefit wildlife and protect communities from fire danger are also prohibited by the court order, as is the elimination of diseased trees. The order includes all national forests in New Mexico and the Tonto National Forest in Arizona (the fifth largest forest in the nation).

The Albuquerque Journal reports that the Forest Service has asked the federal court to clarify if the order includes activities such as the cutting of already dead or downed trees, and is awaiting court direction on that issue. 

After the huge public backlash caused by the order, WildEarth Guardians has also asked the court to allow firewood permits for personal use, but it is not known when the court will rule on the group’s motion. The Albuquerque Journal reports that there are about 9,000 active fuel wood permits that can no longer be used by people who traditionally visit the national forests to collect firewood for winter heating of their residences.

WildEarth Guardians got exactly what it had requested from the court, and human beings are set to suffer from the court order. This is the group that made news earlier this year when one of its staffers and an outside contractor were reportedly caught embezzling from federal and state grants for restoration work. In May, WildEarth Guardians turned in one of its staffers in the felony fraud kickback scheme. 

“The dealers all want to be lovers
And the lovers all want to make deals”

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

The Nature of Conflict: Managing Wildlife Damage

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
2080

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I spent last week in our nation’s capital, one of 20 citizens from around the country gathered to serve on the national advisory committee for USDA Wildlife Services. The committee’s job isto provide recommendations to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue, on policies and program issues necessary to manage damage caused by depredating wildlife to safeguard our nation’s resources and safeguard public health and safety. Since Wildlife Services is tasked with resolving wildlife conflicts, much of what we discussed was about conflict.

From fellow committee members, we learned about the millions of dollars of bait fish and food fish lost annually to depredation by cormorants, and the inability to utilize measures to combat those losses due to a federal court ruling and the bird’s protect status under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act despite its abundance. That prompted discussion of similar conflicts involving other wildlife species protected under federal laws, from eagle and black vulture depredations on livestock, to conflicts involving large carnivores.

We learned about feral swine issues that plague most of the country, with an annual cost of more than $1 billion for damage and control efforts. Some states seek to eradicate this invasive species, while others use feral swine as an economic engine that funds wildlife agencies through license sales and wild pig hunting enterprises.

Wildlife Services personnel led the committee through thenational program to combat rabies in the United States, and its current focus on controlling the disease in raccoons. Although the canine rabies variant has been eliminated in the United States, wildlife populations continue to harbor the disease, with raccoons responsible for spillover infections into dogs, cats, and other wildlife species. Last year Wildlife Services distributed more than 10 million vaccination baits in 17 states to reduce rabies in wildlife. Rabies has the highest mortality rate of any known disease on the planet, and still kills one person every nine minutes globally, so the importance of this program to publichealth can’t be overstated.

Although our discussions moved from one conflict to another, our recommendations targeted methods to minimize or reduce conflict.

We talked about chronic wasting disease in ungulate populations, and how to position Wildlife Services and its National Wildlife Research Center to assist state and tribal governments in advancing scientific understanding of this disease to help combat its spread in ungulate populations.

We advanced recommendations on providing for emergency response to natural disasters, animal disease outbreaks, and other national emergencies, as well as emerging wildlife conflict issues and techniques to minimize these conflicts.

We expressed support for the development and registration of wildlife toxicants for lethal control of depredating animals, and to continue the use of existing toxicants, including M-44 devicesfor coyotes and sodium nitrite for feral swine. As animal activists work to eliminate each method of lethal control of problem animals (either through litigation or the ballot box), it’s important that Wildlife Services continue to be innovative in method development.

The use of lethal methods to resolve wildlife conflicts will remain a hot-button issue for some members of the public, and we recommended that Wildlife Services become more proactive in communicating the positive impacts of protecting resources through integrated wildlife damage management, and the relevancy and value of Wildlife Services activities to the public’s quality of life.

And no surprise to those who know me, I worked with biologists on the committee to advance a recommendation addressing scientific research, urging publication of objective science-based reviews that incorporate economic and ecological effects of wildlife damage management and the value of wildlife management for the promotion of healthy ecosystems.

Wildlife Services employs a fleet of about three dozen aircraft for conducting wildlife damage management and emergency response nationwide. From dropping rabies vaccine baits in eastern states, to capturing and tagging various species, and aerial gunning of targeted predators in the West, the aviation program involves high-risk flying, often at low altitudes and relatively slow speeds. Aviation safety has to be a top priority within the agency, and the committee’s recommendation was that the Secretary of Agriculture create and sustain the Wildlife Services Aviation Center of Excellence in Cedar City, Utah to focus on providing unmatched training services to personnel, to modernize and standardize the agency’s aerial fleet, and to encourage pilot recruitment and retention.

Although Wildlife Services may make headlines for killing millions of animals each year, those headlines never reflect that half of those animals were invasive species, and that 80 percent of the millions killed were starlings or blackbirds actively causing damage. The headlines should have read that the agency protected more than 8 million head of livestock last year, andprotected 185 threatened or endangered species, and protected the flying public at more than 800 airports.

Contrary to the slant adopted by animal activists, this agency isn’t rogue or secretive. Want to know how many animals the agency has killed in each state, for any species, any given year?It’s all available on the agency’s website.

Wildlife conflict management isn’t an easy or pleasant task, but it is necessary. The issues addressed by this federal agency have far-ranging impacts to human and animal health, public safety, and food security. 

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Not To Be Critical, But Let’s Try Critical Thinking: From fast fashion to landlocked public lands, the devil is in the details.

in Column/Range Writing
The devil is in the details
2043

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I’m a news hound, and when I come across a topic that interests me, I try to read about that topic from a variety of news sources in attempt to see a range of perspectives. I read news from major media in the United States, Europe, Russia, and Turkey on a regular basis. Every few days I hear or read statements that give me pause. I am routinely perplexed at reporters allowing these statements to go unchallenged – not even questioning the veracity of the claims being made.

For example, last week as Dana Thomas, author of the new book “Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes,” was making the rounds talking up her new book, some of her statements were grating, such as her insistence that vegan “leather” may help to replace “industrial farming which is horribly polluting on so many levels” and how this is great because then people won’t be killing animals to make clothing.

Of course, leather is a byproduct of meat production; sheep and cattle aren’t killed for the purpose of making leather. But what really struck me was a statement I heard Thomas repeat as she made her media rounds: “the average garment is worn seven times before it’s thrown away.”

What? Seven times? Who does that? A quick internet search revealed news outlets around the globe repeating the claim during the last four years. Australian women, British women, American women – apparently we all discard our clothes after wearing them only seven times. It took about 15 minutes to track down where this claim originated: from Barnardo’s Retail, which encourages women to donate clothing, which is then sold at its 590 stores across the United Kingdom. How did they come up with the wearing-seven-times-before-tossing number? According to a press release, Barnardo’s conducted a 2015 survey of 1,500 British women, hardly providing for the worldwide consumer insight being touted. 

Other alarming statements making the news come from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and onX (a GPS tech firm) claims that “The American people are currently locked out of 9.52 million acres of our own public lands” and “Wyoming holds the most inaccessible public lands with 3.05 million acres – or almost a third of the total landlocked acreage across the region.”

Although the press release for the “Off Limits, But Within Reach: Unlocking the West’s Inaccessible Public Lands” report didn’t go into the details, the report itself added an asterisk to these claims, directing the reader to the details of the calculations.

As they say, the devil is in the details, and the report defined landlocked public lands as federal lands “that cannot be accessed directly from a public road (direct access) and cannot be accessed via adjoining public land by way of a public road (indirect access).” Thus, the report deemed land as landlocked unless it can be accessed by a public road.

The report also noted: “Only permanent legal access was considered for this report, but existing access across some private lands may be given at the discretion of the landowner, and in many places permanent public access is assumed but not proven. Unless such access is legally documented, it was not included in our analysis.”

And since “comprehensive public easement data is not available for federal public lands,” no lands with such public easements were deducted from the total landlocked acreage calculation.

There are huge information gaps that are being used to claim that millions of acres are “off limits.” The existence of “checkerboard” lands is one example. Checkerboard land ownership is found throughout the western states, the result of railroad land grants offered by the federal and state governments in the mid-1800s for western expansion and construction of infrastructure. 

In Wyoming, much of the I-80 corridor is alternating public and private lands in one-square mile plots. This huge checkerboard corridor stretches for 80 miles from north to south and across most of the southern tier of Wyoming. Most of the private property in the checkerboard is held by energy and railroad companies, and grazing associations, many of which leave their properties open to the public unless otherwise marked.

And the importance of state access programs isn’t even factored into the “landlocked” claims. Last year Wyoming’s Access Yes Program provided hunters and anglers access to 2.6 million acres of private, state and federal lands that otherwise lack legal public access. In Montana, 1,200 landowners enrolled more than 7 million acres of land in that state’s Block Management Program which provides free hunting access to private land and isolated public land.

While western states do have landlocked public land, which should be a priority for land exchange or other remedies, the problem isn’t as extreme as the claims being made. Millions of acres are accessible through state programs, goodwill of landowners, and other means. What some parcels lack is permanent legal public access, which is entirely different than the American public being locked out of more than 9 million public acres.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Are “Guard Coyotes” A Thing?

in Column/Range Writing
Guard coyotes
A coyote paruses the Wyoming range. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)
1993

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Predator-prey systems (including predator-livestock conflicts) are complicated, multi-faceted, and site-specific, but an Oregon Extension publication has provided a broad solution for those of us in animal agriculture, virtually eliminating the need for lethal control of predators: Keeping well-behaved breeding pairs of coyotes in place in their territories to exclude other coyotes that may kill sheep. Thus, keeping these “guard coyotes” and “guard wolves” in place serves to protect our livestock.

Using Coyotes to Protect Livestock. Wait. What?” is the title of an article posted by the Oregon State University Extension Service that has garnered much attention (and is widely shared among animal activists) but its claims have received little scrutiny. The Oregon paper is rife with oversimplification and omissions, but I’ll limit myself to a few points that are important since they form the premise of the entire piece.

Oregon Extension dives into the issue by citing a USDA study as claiming “researchers found that as more predators were removed, more livestock were killed.” Now that’s an interesting slant, and it’s absolutely true: the researchers did find that more predators were removed and more livestock were killed. To Oregon Extension writer, that apparently means that when you remove predators, more livestock are killed. So the message given to the masses is that “Coyotes can protect your livestock from predators” and we should all be protecting our livestock with these “guard coyotes.”

But what the USDA paper actually stated was this: “There is a strong correlation (probably causative) between predator-livestock conflicts and the subsequent removal of predators.” That makes sense: predators are removed in response to conflicts. It doesn’t claim that because predators are killed there are increased conflicts with livestock.

And what both the USDA paper and the Oregon Extension article fail to mention that the wolf population that was the subject of the USDA paper had increased 336% during that same time period, from 152 to 663 animals. The truth is that as the predator population increased, so did the number of livestock killed by wolves, as did the number of wolves killed in response to depredations. Leaving out this important fact changes the entire narrative.

It reminds me of the fun research paper published in a major medical journal last year in which researchers concluded that parachute use did not significantly reduce death or major injury when compared with an empty backpack if you have to jump from an aircraft. What’s important to know about the parachute study is that the people who jumped from the aircraft in the study did so while the aircraft were parked on the ground, jumping about two feet. If we omitted this fact, the entire narrative would be different.

The Oregon writer then focused on a 13-year study at the University of California Hopland Research and Extension Center, claiming “researchers found that trapping of coyotes did not reduce sheep losses.” What the researchers actually found was this: “the number of sheep killed and kill rates decreased with increasing numbers of coyotes removed.”

But the Oregon writer then added, “In fact, scientists found that as trappers worked more hours, more lambs were killed by predators.” What the researchers actually found was “There was a positive correlation between the number of lambs killed per year and number of trapper hours worked” per year, and “There was also a positive correlation between the number of coyotes removed per year and number of trapper hours worked” per year. Sounds a lot different when all the facts are presented, doesn’t it? Context is important.

Coyote in Wyoming. (Photo credit Cat Urbigkit)
Coyote surveys a snowy meadow in Sublette County, Wyoming. (Photo credit Cat Urbigkit)

But the Oregon writer plucks a few sentences from a detailed research paper, while ignoring the all-important context. Broad statements, including “Most coyotes do not kill sheep” are not accompanied by citations or context. And although the Oregon writer claimed that sheep are “usually ignored by adult coyotes in an unexploited, stable population,” the Hopland researchers found “All breeding pairs in territories with access to sheep eventually killed sheep” – regardless of whether these pairs successfully bred or whelped pups. The researchers also noted that at Hopland, “all pairs with access to sheep eventually killed sheep, suggesting it is unlikely that there are nonkilling pairs when sheep are present year-round.”

But according to Oregon Extension, with the use of a proper nonlethal program, “lethal control should not be necessary except as a last resort to selectively target and kill a demonstrably habituated, dangerous, or chronically depredating individual.”

Such broad statements lack credibility. Even the scientific literature cited by the Oregon author don’t make such claims. One paper noted regional differences in sheep production and coyote depredation, suggesting “preventative, selective removal of breeding female coyotes prior to whelping, but too late for replacements to breed, may be the most effective lethal control strategy” in the Intermountain West where the spring-summer lambing season coincides with pup-rearing. In contrast, “corrective, selective removal of breeders in response to depredations may be the only effective approach to coyote control” in north-coastal California where sheep are present in pastures year-round and the lambing season begins in late fall.

When I read the Oregon Extension piece, I wondered how such a piece had made it past fact-checkers. I hadn’t heard of the author, so I did an online search and found he is a member of the Benton County, Oregon team advising area ranchers on nonlethal methods of predator control.

Four of the six program advisors are affiliated with Project Coyote, the California “compassionate conservation” organization seeking to change human attitudes towards coyotes, wolves “and other misunderstood predators by replacing ignorance and fear with understanding, respect and appreciation.” These are the people telling livestock producers how we are to successfully coexist with predators.

I am offended when those who know little or nothing about animal agriculture and specific conditions in the field try to tell me how to run my ranch. Now consider how my fellow producers will feel when they learn their advisors weren’t being entirely truthful in the first place. Lying by omission is knowingly peddling a storyline to drive a false narrative.

Now that I’ve added some context to the “guard predator” hypothesis, I’ll add that there is some validity to the concept, which has been oversimplified nearly to the point of unrecognition by the Oregon Extension piece. We’ve left non-depredating coyotes in place on our home place, and watched their numbers grow to a pack of seven adults that hunted pronghorn antelope on their crucial winter range. We left the pack in place until the next spring when they took to killing lambs on our lambing grounds. We’ve done the same with a local wolf pack – they’ve left our well-guarded sheep alone for now, but I know it’s only a matter of time before the quiet is once again broken.

I’ll take livestock guardian dogs over guard coyotes and wolves any day.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Range Writing: Meet the Sugar Ray Leonard of raptors

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Kestrel
1913

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

In all my half-century of life, I’ve never encountered a kestrel without being happy about it. Just seeing a kestrel perched on a wire gives me a thrill – it always has, and I suppose it always will.

What is it about this little bird that causes such a reaction? A kestrel is the size of a mourning dove, and is striking in its beauty, but its level of intense fierceness is all out of proportion. A kestrel’s strength, agility, and fancy footwork allows this smallest of North American falcons to take on opponents far outside its six-ounce weight class – it’s the Sugar Ray Leonard of raptors (and Lordy, I loved watching that boxing master).

My Louisiana friend Matthew Mullenix (who literally wrote the book on the use of kestrels in falconry: American Kestrels in Modern Falconry) described them this way: “Kestrels’ speed over extended distances is not great, but they are aggressive, nimble and determined in close quarters.”

Kestrel

The American kestrel is North America’s most abundant bird of prey, often seen perched on fence posts or wires with a seemingly intense scowl aimed at those who dare disturb their hunt. The subject of the hunt? Kestrels often prey on grasshoppers, dragonflies, spiders, moths, voles, mice, snakes, small songbirds, and sometimes even kill prey as large as red squirrels and Northern Flickers. Kestrels pounce on their prey, seizing with their feet, and often carrying victims back to a nearby perch to feast.

Farmers and ranchers have long understood that kestrels can help to control pest damage, but researchers recently took a pen to paper and tallied the dollar value of kestrel services to Wisconsin’s fruit growers.

Kestrels are cavity nesters, using old woodpecker holes, tree hollows, or rock crevices to nest. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the male kestrel will search for potentially suitable nesting locations, and “when he’s found suitable candidates, he shows them to the female, who makes the final choice.” (Not to anthropomorphize, but this seems familiar.)

Kestrel on a branch in Wyoming

Since we know that kestrels need cozy nooks for nesting, humans can welcome more kestrels into their neighborhoods by erecting nesting boxes. That’s what Michigan State University and USDA Wildlife Services officials did in eastern Leelanau County, Michigan, installing 25 nesting boxes within or next to cherry orchards.

I can’t see a downside to increasing kestrel presence in neighborhoods, whether urban or rural. With American kestrel populations on the decline for decades (for reasons still unclear), it makes sense to install kestrel nesting boxes, both to curb this decline, and to increase the presence of this species that offers such valuable ecosystem services. For information about how to build nesting boxes, check out The Peregrine Fund’s American Kestrel Partnership.

The researchers discovered significantly less fruit-eating birds at orchards with active kestrel boxes than those without nesting kestrels, and for every dollar spent on nest boxes, $84 to $357 of sweet cherries would be saved from fruit-eating birds. Not only did kestrels kill and consume birds that damage fruit (including robins, starlings and blue jays), but their presence acted to increase the perceived predation risk to the extent of decreasing the abundance of fruit-eating birds in orchards with kestrel nest boxes. Kestrels didn’t kill a large number of birds but did so on such a regular basis that it elicited a strong antipredator behavior in other birds, or as the researchers phrased it, the predation risk was “reinforced by actual predation events.”

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Bear Attacks Increasing Worldwide

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Grizzly bear
1874

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

A French composer on a trip to Canada’s Northwest Territories to record the sounds of nature was attacked in his tent in the middle of the night and killed by a grizzly bear earlier this month. Such an unprovoked attack is rare, according to wildlife officials, although large carnivore attacks on humans are on the increase worldwide. Grizzly bear attacks on humans in Wyoming are part of that worldwide trend.

A new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports examines brown bear attacks on humans worldwide between 2000 and 2015. The report reinforces what we already suspected: attacks have increased significantly and are more frequent at high bear and low human population densities.

Researchers tallied 664 attacks on humans during the 15-year study period, including 183 in North America, 291 in Europe, and 190 in Russia, Iran and Turkey. There were more than 60 other attacks in Japan, Nepal, and southeastern Europe in which not enough information was available for their inclusion in the analysis.

The attack rate is about 40 attacks per year globally, with 11 attacks per year in North America, 18 per year in Europe, and 19 per year in the East (Russia, Iran and Turkey). About 14 percent of the attacks resulted in human fatalities, including 24 deaths in North America, 19 deaths in Europe, and 52 in the East (Russia, Iran, and Turkey). Of the brown bear attacks causing human injury in North America, 51 occurred in Alaska, 42 in British Columbia, 29 in Wyoming, 25 in Montana, and 18 in Alberta.

Globally, attack victims were almost exclusively adults, and most attacks occurred while the person was alone, during the summer, and in daylight hours. About half the attacks were categorized as encounters with females with cubs, while 20% were surprise or sudden encounters.

Bear awareness reminder against Palisades (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)

Interestingly, there were 15 attacks classified as “predatory” in which a predator attacks a human as prey: 9 in Russia, and 6 in North America. The bear attacks at the Soda Butte Campground just outside Yellowstone National Park in 2010 involved a sow grizzly killing a man camped alone in his tent, and injuring two other people in other campsites the same night, in what was deemed predatory attacks. The next summer, a female grizzly with cubs killed a man in Yellowstone National Park in what was then viewed as a defensive attack, but the same sow was linked to the death of a second man a month later in which the man’s body had been partially consumed.

Romania

Some Greater Yellowstone bear advocates point to Romania as an example of bear-human coexistence, noting that Romania is roughly the same size as the Yellowstone region, but hosts a bear population 10 times more numerous. Not surprisingly then, when it comes to brown bear attacks on humans, that almost half of Europe’s total number of attacks happen in one country: Romania. It’s worth a quick history lesson.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu worked to rid the Romanian countryside of its human residents by “collectivizing” farms and razing entire villages, forcing residents into “state-controlled urban hives,” as David Quammen wrote in The Atlantic more than a decade ago.

Under Ceausescu’s leadership, brown bears thrived. For decades, Romanian gamekeepers tended to hundreds (if not thousands) of feeding stations for bears, keeping bears numerous and fat so that the dictator and his party elite could have trophies to shoot from the comfort of nearby blinds – all the while the few remaining rural residents were prohibited from having guns.

After Ceausescu was deposed and executed in 1989, hunting of brown bears was opened to rich foreigners willing to pay tens of thousands for a trophy, but that lasted only a few years. The hunting of any large carnivores in Romania was halted in 2016, with few exceptions. More than 40 bear attacks on humans were recorded in Romania in 2017, and three people have already died this year due to bear attacks. Half of the Romanian attacks in the 15-year study involved bears attacking adults who were working outside; shepherds tending flocks, drovers with their cattle, and farmers working the landscape.

Self-defense tools are rather limited since gun ownership is extremely restricted in Romania, and although it’s legal to carry bear spray, it is not a common practice. In many European countries, pepper spray is illegal or its use is tightly regulated.

The researchers found at a global scale, bear attacks are more frequent in regions where the human density is lower and bear densities higher, and that attacks are also more frequent where recreational activities in bear areas are more common. In Europe, that might be people hiking or gathering berries, but in Wyoming, it tends to be hunters seeking large game.

Legal protection has resulted in recovery and expansion of brown bear populations worldwide, with more than 200,000 brown bears now in existence. As grizzly populations continue to expand their range, it’s important for recreationalists in shared territory to be ever-mindful of grizzly presence.

Bear Attack Sign

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recommends that if you surprise a grizzly bear at close range, drop a nonfood item (like a hat or bandanna) on the ground and slowly back away. Speak softly, but avoid eye contact, and never run from a bear. If the bear charges, remain standing. Carry bear spray and be ready to use it. If a bear makes contact with you, drop to the ground and play dead.

That’s what we’ve been trained to do in grizzly country when it comes to surprise or defensive encounters.

But a predatory bear is a different beast, and requires the opposite tactic. If a grizzly bear approaches a human in a persistent manner, with head up and ears erect, behaving in a curious or predatory manner, you need to be aggressive and fight back.

Predatory bears do not give warning signals or use threat displays or bluff charges to attempt to scare you away, as a defensive bear will, according to the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. A predatory bear will demonstrate keen interest in a person, often quietly and intently approaching, eyes locked on its target. Predatory attacks end only when the bear is overpowered, scared away, injured, killed, or kills you. If a bear attacks a person at night in a tent, fight as hard and loudly as you possibly can. 

Remember the general rule: Play dead for a defensive attack, but fight for your life in a predatory attack. The fact that predatory attacks on humans are rare is of little comfort when confronted with a predatory animal.

For more in what to do in a bear encounter, read this from the Wyoming Game & Fish Department’s recommendations.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

In defense of gun ownership, a primer on a varied and valuable American tool

in Column/Range Writing
The gun as a tool
1833

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Twenty-some years ago when a wolf pack entered our sheep pen at night for the first time, the only firearms we owned were single-shot shotguns. It quickly became apparent that we needed better tools for the threat invading our front yard that night.

At that time, I was a newspaper reporter in western Wyoming, mostly writing articles about natural resource issues and government actions: brucellosis, grizzly bears, predator control, forest management, and public lands policies. Each controversial issue has deeply impassioned advocates, and sometimes those advocates crossed the lines of civility and became threatening.

As I would later learn, two of the three men who threatened me had mental health issues that were being treated by medication in which both men had stopped taking. All three men lived in my community, and one was a former co-worker. My brother-in-law was moving abroad and gave me a revolver, instructing me in its use. I practiced, and decided I liked the pistol, so I kept it in the pocket of my truck.

After the threats began, when I covered meetings in town at night, I would go upstairs into our empty office building located directly across the street from the county sheriff’s office and sit down at my desk to write an article, a pistol perched on the desk beside my tape recorder and reporter’s notepad. My former co-worker walked upstairs in the darkened building one night to find me working at my desk with my pistol accompaniment – but my husband stepped out of the shadows behind the man. There was no violence that night, but a clear message had been sent that I wasn’t going to be a victim.

In the second case, the man backed me into a corner of the public library at the conclusion of a meeting as he yelled, but other men present in the room stepped in to intercede. I then actively avoided the man, and he was institutionalized (for reasons unrelated to my encounter). Not long after he was released, I once again became a target for his attention.

A third man was simply an anonymous coward leaving a message on my home’s answering machine while my child was inside – but I wasn’t. I listened to the message and recognized the voice although I didn’t know the man. I’d heard the voice coming from a recent visitor to the newspaper office, and my co-workers told me his name. He was married to a federal agency employee and was unhappy with my reporting about that agency. When confronted by the sheriff’s department, he admitted to leaving the message and pledged to leave me alone.

All three men who threatened me were angry, and in two cases, local law enforcement became involved. In the third case, I adopted a different tactic.

I went through the process of obtaining a concealed weapons permit, including hunter safety class, being fingerprinted and undergoing a background check, working with a former military officer to decide what was the best gun and holster for me, and then practicing. A friend and photographer documented each step of the process, and we printed a two-page newspaper feature, with the final image showing my freshly issued concealed carry permit. I had very publicly notified the world that I should be expected to be carrying a gun. 

Years later I still had local peace officers comment on that feature, asking if I still conceal carry, to which I affirm. I continue to renew my permit when it comes due, even though most of the time I openly carry a firearm– because I keep guns in my work truck as a rancher. I’m a woman who works alone outside on most days in a remote region that is home to numerous large carnivores, so yes, I am armed. 

Firearms are valuable tools in my life, just as necessary as standard fencing pliers, rope, an assortment of gloves made from leather, cotton, and wool, and the ever-present shovel.

My firearm use is a result of my personal journey. As I became more proficient with each gun, and we have changes in our lives and on the ranch, my need for various types of firearms and calibers changes. Much as the case of our shovel collection.

Living on a ranch, we have numerous types and styles of shovels: plastic shovels to push snow off our steps; strong but lightweight shovels strapped onto snowmachines; short, narrow shovels to dig up weeds; wide, curved shovels for firefighting; manure shovels; and traditional wooden-handled shovels in every ranch truck. Each shovel is best-suited for specific tasks, as each firearm we wield.

I’m disappointed to listen to national news media talk about gun ownership in America as though it were an alien idea. Interviews with gun owners are rare, and tend to involve either members of the gun lobby, or people at a shooting range – both of which are members of our “gun culture,” but neither of which are representative of the varied users of guns in America.

When major media in our nation talk about guns, the discussion involves speakers in metropolitan areas, usually after a horrendous tragedy. They aren’t airing interviews of people who take their children out with gundogs to hunt birds; elk hunters preparing for mountain trips they’ve dreamed about for years; former military members who enjoy competitive shooting sports; women who train to never become victims; gun collectors dedicated to preserving history; or ranchers who use firearms as tools, to name a few.

Our stories may be alien to those who haven’t shared the same life journeys, but they are the stories of American gun ownership. In a way it’s no wonder we don’t hear our stories in national media. With the current gun debate so narrowly defined, what gun owner would be willing to be interviewed by a national network or news outlet? The risks are great: nuances will be missed; statements can be taken out of context for a soundbite; and the internet backlash/cyber bullying by cowards with keyboards is nearly guaranteed.

We’ve become the silent majority.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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