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Range Writing

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

in Column/Range Writing
The gun as a tool

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.

On Climate Change & Cattle Production

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
On climate change and cattle

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The latest report coming from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is focused on climate change and land, but something must have been garbled in the translation from Geneva because much of the U.S.-media translation emphasized that people should eat less beef and quit wasting so much food. That unfortunate result comes from reporters unwilling to make the time and effort to read the report itself, which – at hundreds of pages and still in draft form – makes for an interesting but not-pleasant task.

The report has some important findings, such as this: “Policies that operate across the food system, including those that reduce food loss and waste and influence dietary choices, enable more sustainable land-use management, enhanced food security and low emissions trajectories. Such policies can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation, reduce land degradation, desertification and poverty as well as improve public health. The adoption of sustainable land management and poverty eradication can be enabled by improving access to markets, securing land tenure, factoring environmental costs into food, making payments for ecosystem services, and enhancing local and community collective action.”

But that’s not what made the headlines last week.

As the Sustainable Food Trust points out, “Contrary to some of today’s headlines that are calling for a shift to exclusively plant-based diets, the conclusions of the report actually find that balanced diets should include animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse gas emission systems, and that these present major opportunities for climate adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”

“As the report highlights, diverse, locally appropriate mixed farming, which counters the damage done by years of continuous arable cropping reliant on chemical inputs, will have a transformative effect on the environment, climate and public health.”

The problem with a global report is simply that it’s global, and each locality/county/state/nation has its own issues that add to the global situation. When it comes to livestock emissions, the IPCC report notes: “All estimates agree that cattle are the main source of global livestock emissions (65–77%). Livestock in low and middle-income countries contribute 70% of the emissions from ruminants and 53% from monogastric livestock (animals without ruminant digestion processes …), and these are expected to increase as demand for livestock products increases in these countries.”

Most (90%) of the world’s cattle are not located in the United States. India has the largest cattle inventory in the world, at more than 300 million, or 30% of the world’s cattle population (domestic water buffalos are included in India’s statistics). While it’s legal to send buffalos to slaughter for human consumption, across majority-Hindu India (which views cattle as sacred) the slaughter of cattle is illegal and the country has enacted numerous cow protection laws. Poor people unable to afford to continue feeding and caring for unproductive livestock are unable to sell the animals, so many are simply abandoned.

Brazil is the number-two country for its cattle inventory, and has been widely criticized for its clearcutting of forest to accommodate more grazing, but that widespread practice has been substantially curtailed in the last decade.

Increasing cattle productivity, as we’ve been doing in the United States, has brought great gains in reducing GHG emissions. Although the cattle inventory in the United States declined over the last 40 years, cattle productivity has increased at the same time (providing more pounds of beef), and most importantly, total methane emissions from the nation’s cattle decreased during that same time. 

Cattle producers in the United States will continue to provide leadership in mitigating the impact of their animals through genetic improvements and selection for feed efficiency, and overall improvements in animal health, reproduction, and reproductive lifespans.

So while we should all strive to eat healthy foods, you don’t need to feel guilty for enjoying American beef – especially beef that comes from the western range {See Figure1: Livestock methane emissions}.

From “Discrepancies and Uncertainties in Bottom-up Gridded Inventories of Livestock Methane Emissions for the Contiguous United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, 2017512313668-13677, Publication Date: November 2, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.7b03332.
Figure 1.* Gridded (0.1° × 0.1°) livestock methane emissions (Mg/yr/km2) for the contiguous United States: enteric fermentation, cattle (panel A); manure management, cattle (panel B), manure management, cattle, swine, and poultry [panel C; swine and poultry emissions are presented on a county level for the top 5−6 producing states (see text) and on a state level for the remaining states], and cattle enteric and livestock (cattle, swine, and poultry) manure management (panel D, which is the sum of panels A and C). 

As the IPCC reports: “In contrast to the increasing trend in absolute GHG emissions, GHG emissions intensities, defined as GHG emissions per unit produced, have declined globally and are about 60% lower today than in the 1960s. This is largely due to improved meat and milk productivity of cattle breeds.”

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.

* Note on Figure 1: From “Discrepancies and Uncertainties in Bottom-up Gridded Inventories of Livestock Methane Emissions for the Contiguous United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, 2017512313668-13677, Publication Date: November 2, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.7b03332.

Facebook Needs Agriculture, & Ag Needs Facebook

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Cat Urbigkit animal agriculture

The world needs more people sharing stories of life with animals.

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

A lot of my ag friends are switching social media platforms, leaving Facebook (FB) for greener pastures. Green as in $$, since FB’s commerce policy forbids posts that “promote the sale of any animals.” Although animal-sale posts are still rampant on the platform, FB began cracking down on the posts in the last few years and has increased that activity in the last few months.

But animal sales aren’t the only animal-related items undergoing the FB smackdown: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has complained that FB has upped its use of warning screens on PETA videos. That means that rather than PETA videos popping up in a FB-user’s news feed, the videos are replaced with a warning screen that must be clicked on before the video can be viewed. I love these warning screens, but PETA hates them.

Since FB wrecked PETA’s social-media campaign, PETA adopted a new strategy: purchasing enough shares in Facebook to enable them to send out a press release noting this radical group is now a FB shareholder. For those who have lived under a rock and don’t know much about PETA, the animal-rights organization opposes any human use of animals (including keeping animals as pets, or used in agriculture, entertainment, as clothing, etc.). PETA “opposes speciesism, which is a human-supremacist worldview.”

The post-press-release frenzy from those opposed to PETA was predictable for those willing to read past the headlines. PETA’s shares simply enable the group “to submit a shareholder resolution, attend the company’s annual meetings, and ask questions of executives there.” That’s it. It’s not a corporate takeover; it’s a successful ploy to grab headlines. PETA doesn’t stand a chance at turning Facebook into an animal-rights activism site – at least not under the platform’s current structure. For more on that, check out this great Vox article.

Between the FB crackdown on animal sales, and the PETA press release, ag producers are leaving the platform in droves (excuse the pun), and turning to other social media platforms that allow animal sales. But I beg those involved in animal agriculture to please keep posting about their lives with animals on Facebook. Facebook may be the only place that many members of the public will know anything about animal agriculture – even though we feed the world.

Animal agriculture needs Facebook to reach the masses, to tell our stories to the world. We need to keep showing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg what it is we do, and to give him reasons why he should pay us a visit every now and then, like he did to a South Dakota beef cattle outfit in 2017.

He also visited drilling rigs in North Dakota, a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and rail yards in Nebraska. I say good on Zuckerberg for his willingness to learn. It’s our job to continue to teach.

FB users have utilized a variety of ways to get around the FB policy banning animal sales, including posting animals in discussion groups (rather than the FB Marketplace). Some groups are infiltrated by animal rights activists who report the violations to get the groups shut down, and, ironically, some animal breeders are apparently reporting posts written by their competitors to the same affect.

In case you’ve had the fortune to be blissfully unaware, parts of the horse and dog sales worlds are highly competitive and somewhat cutthroat. But that isn’t a reflection of most people involved in animal agriculture. We’re more of an independent lot who prefer to do our own thing.

We need Facebook as a platform to share our stories of what it’s like to live in close association with animals, and with nature. To share the stories of how animals feed our bodies, nourish our souls, and sustain the world. To share how we develop partnerships, those critical human-animal bonds, and how animals solve our problems, make our lives both easier and more pleasant, and how living and working with animals opens our eyes to art, science, and beauty every day. To share stories of how we think about and communicate with animals, about how these human-animal relationships both fill us with wonder, and crush us when those bonds are severed. 

Please, my friends, stay with me on Facebook, and continue to share the world of agriculture to the masses that are far removed from this way of life.

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.

Conflict Prevention Takes A Genius

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Be bear aware

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and presidential hopeful known for his animal advocacy and veganism.

John Barrasso, a conservative Republican from Wyoming who serves in a top leadership position for Senate Republicans, is known for his support of animal agriculture and our nation’s energy industry.

What do they have in common? Both have an interest in reducing human-predator conflicts. Barrasso is the primary sponsor of the bill, but Booker joined together with Tom Carper (D-Delaware), and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), to cosponsor Senate Bill 2194, Promoting Resourceful and Effective Deterrents Against Threats Or Risks involving Species (PREDATORS) Act. If enacted, the bill will amend the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act to establish the Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize for reducing human-predator conflict.

Last week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard testimony about the possibility of providing a financial incentive for the development of non-lethal, innovative technologies that reduce conflict between human and wildlife predators.

While human fatalities caused by grizzly bears are a concern to Barrasso’s constituents, the committee also heard testimony about shark attacks, as well as conflicts involving mountain lions and alligators. Brad Hovinga of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department provided testimony, as did Animal Planet’s Extinct or Alive host Forrest Galante, and Dr. Nick Whitney of the New England Aquarium.

Hovinga told the committee: “Wildlife agencies use a variety of innovative, non-lethal technologies to aid in reducing conflicts. These technologies include the use of chalk and pepper balls, weapon-fired beanbags, a variety of pyrotechnics and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Wyoming recently trained personnel in the use of conducted electrical weapons, commonly known as tasers, for use as an aversion tool for wildlife.”

Hovinga talked about the both the importance and limitations of pepper spray, and the need for innovation in improving conducting electrical devices for use as both an aversive conditioning tool and a temporary immobilization tool.

“Improvements in unmanned aerial vehicles, or drone technology, that allow for the deployment of aversive conditioning tools would greatly improve our ability to keep people safe and influence the behavior of habituated or aggressive wildlife. Developments in FLIR and thermal camera technology for the use with UAVs would significantly increase human safety when assessing dangerous situations.” Hovinga said. “Lastly, long-range acoustic sound devices, or sound cannons, are devices that directionally deliver sound over long distances. The potential for development of long-range acoustic deterrents for wildlife management exists. Work to develop an appropriate aversive conditioning tool for addressing wildlife conflicts would be greatly beneficial.”

One difference I noted between both the senators speaking during the hearing, and the witnesses giving testimony, was perspectives on encroachment – whether humans are encroaching on animals, or animals are encroaching on humans. While some conflicts occur when predators in Wyoming come into urban areas seeking prey (such as mountain lions pursuing deer in urban developments), Delaware Senator Carper noted that human-predator interactions are increasingly common as more people recreate “in wildlife habitat.” Carper said “as humans continue to encroach upon wildlife habitat and compete with predators for the same space and the same natural resources, our relationships with these animals can become, in some cases, adversarial.”

Some committee members emphasized the need to address habitat loss and protect predators, while others expressed the need for more scientific research to understand changes in animal behavior due to climate change, and pressed for public education about wildlife species.

Near the close of the hearing, Barrasso pointedly asked Hovinga: “since the goal of the Genius Prize we are considering is to protect both predators and humans, regarding predators, the key to protecting their lives involves preventing conflicts with humans in the first place. Can you explain why, from your years and history and knowledge, after a conflict with humans occurs, it may be necessary to euthanize some of these predators?”

Hovinga’s reply reflected the reality involved when large predators come into conflict with humans. He said: “That is an unfortunate reality sometimes with wildlife management and wildlife behavior, that we have to realize. With a lot of wildlife, bears specifically and other large carnivores, those behaviors that end up becoming a part of an animal’s everyday behavior, that becomes dangerous toward humans, those are learned behaviors. Those are typically learned through successes over time. It usually revolves around those successes in obtaining food.”

Hovinga gave an example of a black bear that learned when it approached people, the people would drop their backpacks and run away, allowing the bear to receive a food reward from the backpacks. Over time, the bear repeated the action, and the more aggressive the bear became, the higher the probability the person would drop the backpack and run away. He added, “Fortunately, we were able to intervene in that situation, prior to that becoming dangerous and actually somebody becoming injured.”

He continued: “Those learned behaviors are very, very difficult for animals to unlearn. They typically don’t unlearn them. It is irresponsible for us as a wildlife management agency to allow animals to remain on the landscape that engage in behavior that is dangerous toward people. Unfortunately, sometimes those animals need to be removed from the population. The populations are nearly always doing well enough that those removals are not significant in the scheme of the population management, but certainly, a requirement to keep people safe.”

This is an issue all state wildlife managers have to deal with and must justify to the public when wild predators are killed to protect human safety. Listening to the testimony before the committee, it became evident that to some, living with wild predators is more of an idea than a reality. It’s a reality for wildlife manager Hovinga, and to a majority of Barrasso’s constituents. 

As it should, the committee hearing provided a forum for a variety of views on a diversity of predator-human interaction issues. That Democrats from densely populated areas would have differing views than Republicans from sparsely populated areas is to be expected. That they are talking and sharing their experiences for a wider audience is important.

Both Barrasso and Hovinga represented Wyoming well.

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.

Nature Below The Knee

in Column/Range Writing
Wyoming sage grouse

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The natural world on the ranch provides for daily wonders. Each spring we watch the pronghorn antelope fawns speeding past with their mothers, and get “barked” at by the bucks. We relish the bugling trills of sandhill cranes calling across the landscape in the dawn hours, and admire their gangly grace. But much of nature’s wonders at this time of year occur below knee-level to a human.

Last week my son Cass reported that there were thousands of fat tadpoles sprouting back legs in our grassy irrigation ditch, so we took turns going over to have a look at them before they completed their metamorphosis to frogdom.

When Maggie dipped her toes in the water, the tadpoles came over to inspect her feet, and soon a tiger salamander made an appearance as well. Salamanders prey on tadpoles, so it was terrific to watch both predator and prey in their shared aquatic habitat, especially since there is much concern about declining amphibian populations worldwide. Since I know next-to-nothing about Wyoming’s amphibians, I then sought out our go-to site for such knowledge in the state: The Wyoming Naturalist (wyomingnaturalist.com), which is operated by Dan Lewis out of Douglas and is highly recommended.

In the early mornings while I drive out to check the sheep and feed the livestock guardian dogs, I encounter broods of sage grouse feasting on insects in the irrigated meadows. When the sun gets too high, the grouse will fade back into the nearby sagebrush habitat to escape the heat.

Skirting around ant mounds, as we walk through the sagebrush and into the meadows we kick up multitudes of small grasshoppers and crickets, and are pleased to see both the diversity and density of insect life. Why would we be pleased by having so many insects? A thriving insect population can be a sign of ecosystem health. Importantly, certain insects provide the path to survival for sage grouse chicks, especially orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, etc.) and coleoptera (beetles) and hymenopterans (wasps, bees, ants, etc.).

Newly published research in the journal Environmental Entomology links the importance of these ground-dwelling arthropods with persistence of birds like sage grouse, and details the role of livestock grazing. Montana State University and University of Montana researchers compared arthropod populations in land that had been retired from livestock grazing for more than a decade to land subject to rest-rotational livestock grazing in Central Montana from 2012 to 2015. They found that bird-food arthropods were twice as prevalent in managed pastures as compared to idled lands. The idled pastures had at least double the number of predatory arthropods (such as spiders), including a fivefold increase in wolf spiders. These species are not considered to be a food source for grouse.

“In contrast, managed lands supported a more diverse assemblage of ground-dwelling arthropods which may be particularly beneficial for birds in these landscapes if, for example, diversity promotes temporal stability in this critical food source,” the researchers wrote. “Our results suggest that periodic disturbance may enhance arthropod diversity, and that birds may benefit from livestock grazing with periodic rest or deferment.”

Unfortunately, the Montana researchers didn’t find higher numbers of dung beetles on grazed land despite presumably greater dung beetle resources (livestock manure). The researchers suggested that the reduced dung beetle population may be associated with the use of veterinary parasiticides used on livestock, since parasite treatment residues may pass from the treated animal to the pasture through dung.

A walk through our rangeland pastures reveal that most piles of cattle dung (cowpies) have been flipped over by birds as they seek out dung beetles. These beetles are an important part of our environment that we strive to keep in good health, which in turn helps to keep the grouse population in good standing. Dung beetles provide an additional service to livestock by reducing intestinal parasite survival in pastures in arid climates. As one researcher put it, “If dung-beetle populations are allowed to thrive and recover, they can help naturally control the parasites farmers are treating.”

The next time you take a rangeland walk, spend a little time looking at the environment found below the knee. You may be surprised by the treasures you find 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.

Extremism, Not Journalism

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Extremism not journalism

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

“This Land Was Your Land.” With a headline like that, I should have known that it was click-bait. But I took the bait and clicked on The New York Times opinion piece last weekend, only to see that the author was none other than Christopher Ketcham. His work is currently widespread in anticipation of the release of his book “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West.”

Don’t bother to read the NYT piece. It’s largely fiction, the creation of an extremist who only sees ugly if a trace of humankind is evident. The Brooklyn, New York-native Ketcham is billed as an “environmental journalist” but I’d say he’s an environmental extremist with a tendency for getting paid to write bulls**t stories that aren’t fact-checked by editors. If you make use of public lands in any way other than for environmental extremism, you’re probably on his list of vile enemies. Really.

Extremist? Edward Abbey was the guy’s hero. According to a pre-release book review posted to Outside Online (which noted Ketham’s “tendency to follow in Edward Abbey’s footsteps to subject us to a bit of macho bravado”), Ketcham wrote that groups like the Wilderness Society should “either take up the fight armed to the teeth or disband and get out of the way.”

Two years ago, Ketcham wrote about his opposition to killing coyotes with “I walked up the mountain in the howling snow and the drifts and the flashing of the moon behind the clouds, looking for coyote traps to sabotage.”

While the Camp Fire was burning last year – California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, killing at least 85 people – Ketcham wrote a Counterpunch column titled Build In A Fire Plain, Get What You Deserve: “I’ve always hated the human infrastructure in California, and so I can’t say this is a bad thing.”

The guy calls for the decommissioning of roads in national parks, an end to public lands grazing, and the use of the Endangered Species Act to “smash the entire exploitative economy on the public lands.”

In March 2016, Ketcham penned “The Rogue Agency: A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species” – a look at USDA Wildlife Services, the animal damage control experts used by other wildlife agencies to control or kill predators killing livestock, and to keep birds from hitting planes at airports across the country.

Ketcham described the article as detailing “the stupid, cruel, wanton waste of the USDA’s wildlife slaughter program called Wildlife Services.” That Ketcham relied on grossly outdated and inaccurate account didn’t matter, and USDA administrator Kevin Shay responded, “We will not apologize for putting people’s livelihoods and the interests of human safety on equal footing with the noble cause of animal conservation.”

Hatchet jobs are Ketcham’s specialty. In 2015, he wrote for Harper’s Magazine on “The Ruin of the West: How Republicans are plundering our public lands” – another assault on public lands livestock grazing, and, as always, using an anti-grazing activist as his primary source.

Ketcham spreads his vile message to other magazines as well. In its “The Earth Died Screaming Issue” in May 2015, VICE published another Ketcham piece about his lawsuit “against the National Park Service in protest of the government’s brutal and stupid policy of slaughtering wild bison” as they exit Yellowstone National Park and enter Montana.

For those of you who know about the complexities of brucellosis transmission involving elk, bison, and cattle, don’t expect to find a nuanced (or even balanced) discussion of this issue, because what you’ll find is more of Ketcham’s rabid blathering as he explains why he joined the ACLU in suing the National Park Service: “The goal of the ACLU lawsuit was to see, smell, and hear, up close, bison corralled, beaten, whipped, raped, sorted, and moved onto the trucks that carry them to their death.”

Yes, Ketcham claimed that bison were “raped.” Of course they lost the lawsuit, after a federal judge denied their request for an injunction, agreeing that the Park Service had not violated their rights by applying reasonable limitations for watching the culling process.

When wolves in the Northern Rockies were removed from the list of federally protected species, Ketcham wrote in his “Wolves to the Slaughter” piece that “the federal government last year scheduled wolves to be killed in huge numbers across the Northern Rockies.” To Ketcham, removal from federal protection is the same thing as “scheduling wolves to be killed in huge numbers.” Ketcham’s slant is impeccably transparent.

In a May 2014 piece for VICE, Ketcham was at it again, “How to kill a wolf – An undercover report from the Idaho Coyote and Wolf Derby” in which Ketcham and two Idaho activists infiltrated a coyote derby, apparently because, Ketcham wrote, “I wondered whether the residents of Salmon were looking to kill wolves out of spite. They hated these creatures, and I wanted to understand why.” They had to pretend to be hunters, Ketcham wrote, because: “Many pro-wolf activists across the American West, especially those who have publicly opposed the ranching industry, have reported similar threats and acts of aggression — tires slashed, homes vandalized, windows busted out with bricks in the night.” The coyote hunt organizers were so convinced of the Ketcham clan’s authenticity that they helpfully “suggested spots in the surrounding mountains where we could find wolves to shoot illegally.”

Ketcham noted: “The number of cattle and sheep lost to wolves and other predators each year is negligible. In 2010, just 0.23 percent of cattle in the US died from ‘carnivore depredations’ (as wolf attacks on livestock are officially categorized).” No mention that wolf depredations do not occur at the national-herd level, but at the local herd/flock level.

But cattle are despicable, according to Ketcham, “In fact, cows mess up just about everything in the ecosystems of the arid West.”

Of course, no wolves were killed during the two-day coyote derby, despite the “How to kill a wolf” title of the piece. Contempt for those who would kill predators, or graze livestock on federal land, drips throughout Ketcham’s writings – a hallmark of sorts.

Ketcham consistently uses the same sources – sources known for their anti-grazing activism, including Brian and Natalie Ertz of Idaho, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Watersheds Project. The result is agenda-driven ranting.

It’s unfortunate that humans in the West are a villain to Ketcham. He’d prefer cow-free, car-free, human-free landscapes. Ketchum can’t see through his own hateful vitriol to the beauty that surrounds him when he visits here.

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.

Retired At One: The Story of Boo

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Boo a Wyoming livestock guardian dog

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I could hear the livestock guardian dogs raising hell that morning a little over a year ago when I stepped outside to begin to check how all the animals had faired during the night. The sheep had fled their bedground, and most of the dogs were half-crazed in their aggression directed toward the rocky ridge that rises just behind our house, so I knew that wolves had paid a nocturnal visit. I spotted six-month old Boo flat on her side in the sand along the ditch, just below the rocks. I called out to her, but she didn’t lift her head. I hurried over to her wounded, bleeding body, but Boo remained unmoving except for her naturally stubbed tail, which she wagged gently when I said her name. In the wee hours that summer morning, the wolves had caught young Boo and taken her down. 

I screamed for help, and within minutes Cass had scooped the limp dog up into his arms, cradling her in the back of the truck as we hurried toward the house. As we’ve done before, I called the vet clinic an hour away so they would be ready for our arrival.

We had high hopes for Boo’s survival. As the vet shaved her bloody mane, he noted that much of the blood in that section of her body wasn’t Boo’s: she had inflicted some bites on her attacker during the battle. But she had deep bite wounds to her neck, the top of both hips, and nasty scrapes on her underside. She was hypothermic, going into shock, so the team administered antibiotics and painkillers before placing her in warming blankets. They would clean out her wounds once she rested a little, giving the painkillers time to work.

Boo recovering on the living room couch after being wounded in a wolf attack in Sublette County. (Photo courtesy of Cat Urbigkit)
Boo recovering on the living room couch after being wounded in a wolf attack in Sublette County. (Photo by Cat Urbigkit.)

None of us believed her wounds were life-threatening that morning. But after I left, and the vet went to clean the wounds, he found just how severely the wolf had injured our brave Boo. It grabbed her neck in its powerful jaws, clamped down and shook her. The other dogs must have intervened, or else Boo wouldn’t have survived.

It would be a long 24 hours of waiting to learn if the damage was simply too much for Boo’s young body to bear. But while the vet clinic crew worked on her, Boo continued to wag that silly tail. When I went to see her late that afternoon, she woke up long enough to wag while I kissed her velvety nose. Sweet, sweet girl.

I went up the mountain that evening and sobbed, as only a mountain could cope with such sorrow. Later that night as I slept fitfully, the wolves returned to our pastures, but the remaining guardian dogs kept them from inflicting further damage. The wolves moved on, into the neighbor’s cattle herd, killing two calves.

Armed with wound-care instructions and medications from the vet, we brought Boo home the next afternoon, as her best chance for recovery would be in familiar surroundings. Jim and Cass took turns carrying Boo outside so she could relieve herself, and would then carry her back to the security of the house, gently placing her in a favored spot on the couch. We brought lambs into the yard so she could spend a few minutes each day interacting with those she loves best. The next week was a blur, filled with rough days for the young dog, and for us as the wolves made repeated night-time visits, trying to get into the sheep flock. We killed a few wolves but others remain, and I suppose there will always be wolves here.

Boo’s body eventually recovered from the attack, and she tried venturing back out with the range sheep, but she no longer had the heart for it. The attack had changed her, and she was afraid. 

Boo now spends her nights locked in the safety of a kennel, and ventures out during the day to the relative safety of the ranch yard where there are always a few sheep and guardian dog retirees. She plays joyfully in the ditch in the summer, and naps on the hay feedline set out for the sheep in the winter. She hunts gophers in the sagebrush and seems content enough with her new life, but I wonder if she’d be better off as a couch dog in a house full of children. Every now and then, we’ll see a flash of her old spunk, and it saddens me that such a young dog has chosen to retire from a life she loved. The wolves changed her.

Boo wasn’t the only dog injured by the wolves last year in our area of the southern Wind River Mountains. Two dogs were killed at a nearby shepherd’s camp, another had to be put down, and huge Bear-Bear fought nearly to death but survived. Two other dogs, our top two guardians, simply disappeared. But the pain is still too fresh for me to tell their story.

Livestock guardian dogs are noble beasts: gentle to weaker animals, yet fierce in their defense of others. Through the repeated wolf chaos of last year, the guardian dogs kept our sheep and cattle safe, even as our neighbors suffered losses. But it wasn’t easy, and it came at a cost.

There are increasing calls for ranchers to use non-lethal means such as livestock guardians to keep livestock safe from large carnivores, as if guardian animals are merely tools to be used. While our guardians are an excellent deterrent to predators, the coexistent relationship with wolves is not non-lethal. Sometimes protection comes at great cost: the death of a beloved working dog, the loss of a working partner.

Some may love the thought of wolves, but we loved Beyza, and Mos, and other dogs we’ve lost to the crushing jaws of wolves.

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.

Why a Federal Agency Kills Millions of Animals

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing/wildlife
USDA Wildlife Services

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Within the last week Wyoming Wildlife Advocates has been busily posting on social media about USDA Wildlife Services, including this statement: “Wildlife Services kills millions of animals in the U.S. each year for no purpose.”

That is a lie – a deliberate falsehood.

With WWA spreading fabrications about this federal agency and its activities, it should have come as no surprise to see that a WWA supporter responded to one such post with “Kill those who allow this senseless slaughter of innocent animals.” When questioned whether the poster was advocating the murder of humans, the poster replied, “let me just say I am for preserving wolves over humans.”

WWA left the post advocating murder of human beings in place without comment, but when someone posted in support of wolf hunting, WWA had repeated responses about why wolves shouldn’t be killed. WWA’s lack of response to the murder advocate is a rather revealing tell, as they say in poker.

Groups like WWA love to hate USDA Wildlife Services, the federal agency specializing in wildlife damage management. They call Wildlife Services a “rogue agency” and cite the millions of animals killed by agency personnel each year in order to generate outrage.

Let’s take a look at what Wildlife Services actually did last year:

  • Worked at 843 airports to reduce aviation strikes with wildlife, and trained nearly 5,000 airport personnel in wildlife identification and control methods.
  • Collected more than 46,000 samples from wild animals to test for 37 different wildlife diseases and conditions in wild mammals, birds, and reptiles. One-third of these were for surveillance of avian influenza, and another third were for rabies testing.
  • Killed 2.6 million animals – half of which were invasive species. Eighty percent of the animals lethally removed (killed) were either European starlings or blackbirds removed under a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service depredation order because of damage to food crops, other commodities, property, and livestock. The agency used nonlethal methods to move another 41 million starlings and blackbirds from areas where they were causing damage.
  • Protected 185 threatened or endangered wildlife and plant species from the impacts of disease, invasive species, and predators, including removing more than 55,000 non-native Northern pike minnow in the Pacific Northwest to protect federally threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.
  • Of the 42.9 million animals encountered in damage management activities, 94 percent were dispersed unharmed.
  • Removed more than 73,000 feral swine, a 12-percent increase in removal of this invasive and destructive species.
  • Coyotes were the native mammal most often killed, with 68,000 killed in 48 states (for comparison, hunters and trappers in 39 states took 440,000 coyotes in 2014-2015).
  • At the request of other agencies, killed a total of 357 wolves in five states in response to repeated livestock depredations, or to protect localized wildlife populations.

Half of Wildlife Services’ funding last year was spent to reduce or prevent wildlife hazards to human health and safety, while 25 percent of funding was spent protecting agriculture, and the remaining quarter went toward property and natural resources protection, including threatened and endangered species. The agency provided technical assistance to more than a quarter-million customers nationwide in 2018.

Wildlife Services does not attempt to eradicate any native wild animal population. The agency is charged with managing problems caused by wildlife, and does so in cooperation with other federal, state, and local agencies. To pretend that Wildlife Services is out to kill millions of wild animals with no purpose is as illogical as pretending that human/wildlife conflicts don’t exist. It’s simply not true.

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.

Range Writing: Moving Away From Nature

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Wyoming sheep dog

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The New York Times opinion writer Timothy Egan has done it again, proclaiming in a “Fake Meat Will Save Us” piece that “At a moment when animal-based agriculture is near the top of planet-killing culprits, ditching meat for substitutes, faux or otherwise, is the most effective thing an individual can do to fight climate change….”

Not distinguishing between types of ag operations, Egan complains about animal agriculture, while conceding that the new meat alternatives that will save humankind “are highly processed Frankenfoods hatched in a lab.” But hey, at least industrial ag isn’t as bad as the current president, which Egan calls “the worst threat to the planet now.” Given his political agenda and tendency to exaggerate, it’s hard to take Egan seriously. But his column is a reflection of some troubling public policy questions.

When I read about global-scale food and agriculture policies, my mind most often goes to the people of rural Africa, and I question how that policy or advance in technology will help my friends in that landscape. Most often these policies and new technologies are advanced and touted by elitist white men inhabiting cities in industrialized countries.

These people know nothing of cattle and sheep production on the western range, of migratory livestock herds in Africa, or even that meat production occurs outside of feedlots, and that not all animal production is done on an industrial scale. That there are people all over the globe who live close to nature and know how to feed themselves doesn’t receive a thought.

When Egan writes that it takes 660 gallons of water to create a burger, I realize that a person who would advance such a notion has never looked at an African cow and how it is raised.

The current view that new food technology will be our salvation results in a drive that pushes the human population further away from nature and away from a reliance on the land to sustain our bodies. When it comes to food production, it’s a predictable cycle, with a predictable outcome. I’ve just finished reading a book that is an excellent study for those of us who tend sheep but would hold little interest from most of the general public called The Art & Science of Shepherding: Tapping the Wisdom of French Herders, edited by Michel Meuret & Fred Provenza.

The book sketches the history of agriculture in southern France. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, sheep raising in southern France was not for wool or meat production, but for the production of sheep manure to maintain fertility in two-year cereal crop rotations.

Most flocks were wethers that were not slaughtered until they were four or five years old. Later agricultural modernization resulted in the view that rangelands were worthless, as producers turned to “new, high-performance animal genotypes, which require a standardized, nutrient-rich diet for meat or milk production.”

Scientists advised that productive herds be kept indoors or on forage crops where ration optimization could be calculated, based on feed value tables. As ag operations became specialized, they became concentrated on arable lands, and rangelands were abandoned or planted with trees.

What was lost in the process? Shepherding skills, and the knowledge of the natural world. Industrialized agriculture in France resulted in ag production growing by 250 percent from 1954 to 1992, and farm labor productivity increased tenfold, while the farm population declined to a quarter of its former size.

Within a few decades, southern France’s countryside had lost its diversity of meadows, forests and grasslands, and had become a closed and unmanaged landscape of dense brush and forest, with most human activity confined to the valley floors.

A variety of factors led to the next change, but at last the public and governments took notice of the degraded landscape, abandoned farms, loss of farmers, and noted the need to restore the land. The loss of biodiversity and increased fire hazards could be corrected through traditional livestock grazing.

Livestock could be used as an environmentally friendly way to restore the land, reduce the risk of wildfire, and provide healthy food. At last, the livestock were allowed to be turned back outdoors – and bewildered livestock producers were given financial incentives to do so.

Those former peasants who had herded sheep in the past were suddenly viewed as experts in valuable traditional knowledge, and schools sprang up to help spread this knowledge. The book details the 11 categories of shepherds and goatherders in France, and the various governmental support and structure for these positions. Grazing trusts provide financial support for capital expenditures, including the construction of handling facilities, while other funding may provide for supplies to be dropped on mountain pastures via helicopter.

Public policies, backed by financial support, has livestock producers focused not just on producing a quality meat product, but in providing for a variety of ecosystem functions. French farmers may receive $30-270 per acre annually to provide these ecosystem services.

Half of all the lamb consumed in France is imported, mainly from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and sheep production in France receives support from European Union ag subsidies – which account for more than half of a producer’s net income.

The conservation of nature is a big deal in Europe, and animal agriculture is viewed a key component to maintain outstanding biodiversity. Perhaps the fake meat elitists need to spend some time actually harvesting food grown in nature, rather insist that the public eat something manufactured in a laboratory.

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.

The Bloody Sire Inhabits the Sagebrush Sea

in Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Pronghorn nursery

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine

The fleet limbs of the antelope?

What but fear winged the birds, and hunger

Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?

Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values.

From: The Bloody Sire by Robinson Jeffers (1940s)

It’s been an interesting week on the ranch, which is located amid the sagebrush sea of western Wyoming. We had our first confirmed depredation of a 20-pound lamb by a pair of adult bald eagles. This was somewhat of a surprise since our livestock guardian dogs tend to harass big birds that come near the flock, and because most confirmed eagle depredations on livestock are inflicted by golden eagles – not bald eagles. I had watched a pair of golden eagles hunting over the sheep flock the week prior and was relieved when a spring snow squall pushed the eagles away from the flock.

While we were on watch to keep eagles away from the lambing flock, our game cameras revealed the presence of a radio-collared wolf making numerous forays onto the ranch, even coming within a short distance from the house. The cameras revealed our livestock guardian dogs tracking the wolf but returning to their sheep a few hours later. This male wolf was new to the neighborhood but is in addition to an adult female wolf we helped collar last December after numerous livestock depredations and removal of several members of her pack. That at least two collared wolves were roaming our lambing grounds along the Wind River Front is a concern akin to a ticking time bomb. There will be violence – the only uncertainty is when.

With everyone on high alert in trying to avert an animal catastrophe, the sheep are bedded on high ground each night about a half-mile from the house. I’m out as the sun starts rising to feed the guardian dogs and see the sheep off to their day’s grazing. We can generally tell by the behavior of the livestock guardian dogs whether there are wolves in the area. When the wolves are making their forays onto the ranch, the dogs are hyped up, driven by adrenaline, and looking for a fight. When the wolves aren’t around, the dogs are much more relaxed.

Pronghorn triplets
A pronghorn antelope doe with her triplet fawns.

Spring seems to have come late to western Wyoming this year, but by the second week of June the pronghorn antelope that shares our range were dropping their fawns in all directions. It seemed nearly every predator we saw in the last few days had a fawn carcass in the grip of its jaws. Worried about the survival rate of these fawns, an event I witnessed gave me hope and reminded me of the Robinson Jeffers poem quoted above.

As I drove down the county road which splits our pastures, I watched a coyote cross from one pasture to another. A mixed group of pronghorn antelope does and bucks were in that pasture, and a doe immediately took to chasing the coyote. It wasn’t enough to chase it out of her immediate vicinity – the doe performed like a good cow horse, meeting every dodge and turn of the coyote with her own maneuvers, and coming so close to stomping the coyote into the dirt.

The doe chased the coyote over half a mile before it fled under the far boundary fence to safety. According to scientific literature, the doe’s anti-predatory defense isn’t unusual, and this aggression exhibited by a prey species toward a predator is nearly always undertaken by adult females. (I also found a great account of a pronghorn doe teaming up with a short-eared owl to harass a coyote away from an active owl nest.)

Pronghorn chases coyote
A pronghorn doe aggressively pursues a coyote.

Generally as wolf densities increase, coyote densities decrease, but we have both species on the ranch, and know that both species prey on pronghorn antelope here. But many predators – from coyotes and wolves to eagles and bears – are successful at searching out newborn prey species that hide.

A study of grizzly bear depredation on elk calves in Yellowstone National Park found the most common hunting technique used by grizzlies was searching for bedded calves, with one bear catching five calves in 15 minutes. Like our pronghorn doe, cow elk will attack predacious bears, as do cow bison.

Research on white-tailed deer fawns in Minnesota found that all radio-tagged fawns in the study were killed by predators, with a near-even split between wolves and black bears.

The first two weeks of life are the most dangerous for newborn fawns and calves, but as each day passes, they grow and gain strength. By the time pronghorn fawns are two months old, they are outrunning predators nearly as ably as their protective mothers.

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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