NEAR RAYNOLDS PASS, Mont.
tanding on a ridge, drinking in the shadowy
landscape between sips of hot cocoa, Ebbie Kunesh prepares for the
last ride of a day she began well before sunrise. She listens for
any bellowing or howls and then sets off - guided by a brilliant
full moon, her horse and instinct - to make her presence among the
cows and calves known to any gray wolves that may lurk nearby.
Somewhere else in the Madison Valley, her husband, Bob, has been
doing the same.
The Tucson couple are "range riders," hired to spend five
months camping among and protecting nearly 2,000 head of cattle
grazing on mostly public lands in rugged, remote southwest Montana -
an area in which conflicts have resulted in both cattle and wolves
Reducing the potential for conflicts through nonlethal means is the
idea behind the new range rider program, a partnership involving
government, ranching and conservation interests that's billed as a
pro-active way to deal with federally protected wolves that have
flourished in the nearly 10 years since they were first reintroduced
to the region.
But some ranchers and cattle industry leaders say they're skeptical.
They see the program more as a nice gesture and feel-good effort by
some, rather than as any lasting solution to living peaceably with
"The reality is, it probably will not, it definitely will not,
eliminate the threat of depredation," said Steve Pilcher,
executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
"You can't just have somebody baby-sitting each and every cow
24 hours a day."
Last spring, cattle losses in the Madison Valley prompted federal
wildlife officials to kill 11 wolves from two packs. Another eight
or so wolves, plus pups, are still in the general region, according
to Joe Fontaine of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Supporters of the program see it as a way to help ranchers deal with
wolves and curb more wolf deaths, at least while a final decision on
whether to remove federal protections for wolves is pending.
"If we have a human presence out there, hopefully that will
deter conflicts with wolves," said Lane Adamson, project
director at the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group, a partner in the
effort. Members of the group graze cattle on the range the Kuneshes
Ebbie Kunesh regularly scans for signals from radio-collared wolves
with special equipment she carries in saddlebags - not to hunt down
wolves but to track their whereabouts.
Gray wolves have made an incredible comeback since first being
reintroduced to the region - in and around Yellowstone National Park
- in 1995, and federal wildlife officials have deemed their recovery
An estimated 850 wolves roam Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and the
Fish and Wildlife Service is ready to take steps to hand management
responsibilities to the states once each has acceptable plans to
ensure the wolves' long-term sustainability.
Only Wyoming's plan was not approved, and the state is suing the
federal agency over its rejection.
Partners in the range rider program include Fish and Wildlife, the
ranchlands group, the Predator Conservation Alliance, the U.S.
Forest Service, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks
and the Turner Endangered Species Fund.
Keeping wolves and livestock separate is seen by many as the easiest
way to reduce conflicts, and wolf experts and some ranchers believe
a human presence near cattle and harassment of encroaching wolves
can be a powerful deterrent.
John Crumley, who like other ranchers didn't support wolf
reintroduction, supports the range rider program. He said he
understands that now that wolves are here, opposing interests must
work together to reduce conflicts that lead to both wolf deaths and
Currently, livestock owners may kill gray wolves in the region only
if they are caught attacking livestock. Federal wildlife officials
will also kill animals if they have been traced to livestock deaths.
That link often is made by comparing the movements of radio-collared
wolves to recent livestock killings.
The Predator Conservation Alliance's Janelle Holden said organizers
of the range rider program sought people familiar with cattle,
comfortable on horses and lacking an agenda. The effort is funded
with private grants. The ranchlands' group hired the Kuneshes, horse
trainers in Tucson who were raised on Montana ranches. They were
hired on through October.
Bob Kunesh, 57, a former pro rodeo cowboy, said he's gladly leaving
the politics of wolf recovery to others.
"To us it's a job, a job we like," said Kunesh, often with
a cigarette between his lips.
The riders' summer home is a tent "base" camp where a
vehicle battery provides electricity to charge the cell phone. The
bathroom is over a hill wherever there's a bit of privacy. Showers
and the laundry are a good 50 miles away - perhaps a once-a-week
luxury - in Ennis. And meals are prepared on a wood stove in one of
two large tents at the camp that also serves as a dining area and
It is a difficult job, calling for the couple, whose 12- and
13-year-old children were joining them, to keep odd hours to be near
cattle, especially at times when experts say wolf attacks are more
apt to occur, like around dawn.
Ebbie Kunesh, 39, took to spending the night alone - a long ride
from base camp, even at a trot - in a tent tucked between aspens
and evergreens. Her horse stayed saddled, tied to a tree for
convenience and in case of sounds of emergency - a wolf's howl or
cow bawling. One recent day, she was up by 4 a.m., before the sun
broke over the mountains, lighting a propane heater to make coffee
before setting out to ride.
The cattle a ways off were quiet - which, she said, probably meant
all was well. But she took nothing for granted.
"You know how nice it was yesterday afternoon? A piece of
cake," she said on the chill morning, referring to a ride she
took visitors on, through lush meadows splashed with blue, yellow
and white wildflowers.
"This is where it gets kind of annoying, being up early in the
morning, shivering and stuff," she said, her hushed voice one
of muted sounds as nature began stirring to life. "This is the
part you earn the money for, the work part."
Work involves riding the range often for hours a day, in all
weather, to get a feel for it and any wildlife that may be out there
and to track.
Those involved with the program say notes the riders take and data
they collect will be important, but they say there's no defined
outcome that would render it a success or failure.