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Tucsonans strive to keep peace between cattle, wolves
By Becky Bohrer
Standing 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 being killed.
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 predators.
"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 are patrolling.
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 a success.
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 livestock losses.
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 bedroom.
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.
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