Our coexistence work with carnivores in the Northern Rockies continues to flourish, thanks in part to our collaborative process; working alongside wildlife management agencies, other NGO’s, and countless landowners in our region to implement on-the-ground conflict reduction projects. Every now and then a project comes along that truly exemplifies this process and the success that comes from a shared interest in addressing a conflict situation. One such project was in 2018, when we had an opportunity to work with a sheep producer on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front to build two electrified sheep bedding grounds.
Nestled in the foothill zone where the mountains meet the plains, the AMS Ranch is adjacent to Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area, public land rich in biodiversity and a very high density of large carnivores. In particular, it is exceptional habitat for many grizzly bears. In 2017, producer Steve Skelton moved a modest farm herd of sheep on to this property, numbering around 250 ewes, along with several livestock guardian dogs. These guard dogs included four breeds, the Turkish Boz, Turkish Kangal, Turkish Akbash, and Hungarian Komondor. Together, they did an excellent job and managed to prevent any confirmed depredations from bears or wolves in that first year.
The following year, 2018, the size of the sheep herd increased to a full band of 1200 ewes. Along with that five-fold increase in the herd size came an ever-increasing workload for the guard dogs. Livestock guardian dogs are an incredible tool for reducing conflicts, but with so many sheep now spread across a far greater expanse of the ranch, it simply stretched the dogs too thin and became impossible to effectively protect. Sheep losses to bears and other carnivores began to start piling up as bears learned to opportunistically prey on the sheep. In the spring and summer of 2018, there were 17 depredation events on the ranch, resulting in the loss of 19 ewes. Those losses accounted for more than a third of the total conflicts along the Rocky Mountain Front that year.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) bear management biologists and Wildlife Services — Montana field agents responded to these repeated depredations and ended up trapping three grizzly bears on the ranch (one adult female, one subadult male, and one adult female with two yearlings) suspected of being involved in these conflicts. Two of these bears were relocated to other parts of the state, while the female with yearlings was released on site in hopes that she would reunite with her offspring.
As the size and frequency of these conflicts continued to grow, along with the losses to the producer and the workload for state wildlife managers responding to these conflicts, it became clear that additional conflict prevention tools were needed. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks bear management specialist, Mike Madel, out of the Rocky Mountain Front Field Office, recognized that the most practical solution to these conflicts was to build an electrified sheep bedding ground. Bedding grounds provide a secure space to confine the sheep at night that protects them from bears and other carnivores.
“You know, livestock guard dogs can be really effective. We do know with grizzly bears being a pretty large carnivore that it’s a lot better system to have a combination of livestock guard dogs and electric fences.” — Madel (From the Great Falls Tribune)
When Madel first proposed the idea to the producer, Skelton was admittedly resistant. Some of his past experience with electric fence had not left a favorable impression and it took some persuasion from Madel, based on 30+ years of successfully using electric fencing, to convince Skelton to give it a try. And much to Skelton’s credit, he was willing to try something a little outside of the box.
“We live in a changing times, where there are a lot of things are out of our hands. And some things that ranchers dub as problems, like the grizzly bear. And I think we have to be able to evolve with the times to be successful. Like a lot of things, you can’t just do it the way granddad always use to and expect to be successful. Sometimes you have to change how you’re doing things if you want to be successful.” — Skelton
After an agreement was struck, Madel reached out to us at Defenders to see if we would be willing to cost share on the project and assist with the installation. This type of project fits perfectly within our longstanding electric fence incentive program and overarching coexistence framework at Defenders, so we were thrilled to partner on this project. As the project developed and grew, it would eventually incorporate two fully electrified bedding grounds, funded by Defenders, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the producer. The installation brought even more partners to the table with members of MTFWP, Defenders, Wildlife Services — Montana, and Natural Resources Defense Council all pitching in on the effort.
The end result of this collaborative effort is two fully operational, three-acre electrified sheep bedding grounds in the heart of grizzly bear country that are keeping sheep safe and bears out of conflicts.
“By doing this, we can coexist or otherwise the bears would be trapped and euthanized and whatnot, too,” said Skelton. (From the Great Falls Tribune)
Defenders continues to be a leading voice in the conservation community and the coexistence field by maintaining our longstanding tradition of on-the-ground conflict mitigation. And while we’ve been front and center of that movement for decades, we continue to double down on our commitment toward coexistence. In these dire times, species recovery has never been more urgent. As such, we see tremendous value in the increased capacity that accompanies our flourishing partnerships with landowners, wildlife management agencies, and other NGO’s in the Northern Rockies. Teamwork makes the dream work😉