Ranching with Grizzlies

by Ted Kerasote
Spring 2009

One of the models for eco-friendly ranching has been put into practice by Karl Rappold, whose 13,000-acre ranch I visit after a late November storm turns the Rockies white. Founded in 1882, the ranch is located on the Montana Front, a sparsely populated, magical belt of country where the Great Plains meet theupthrust of the Rockies. In fact, the western boundary of the Rappold spread touches the cliffs of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

A man of classic Western features – blue eyes, strong chin, auburn mustache, turquoise bandana and black cowboy hat – he drives his pickup toward the mountains and tells me that he understocks his ranch by current standards, running only 300 cow-calf pairs and 100 replacement heifers. This has allowed him to achieve a rare detente with the grizzly bears and wolves that live on his ranch and in the mountains above it.

The origins of his ranching practices, he explains, go back to the days of the Depression, when his father routinely killed grizzlies that preyed on cattle. In those lean times, there was nothing else to be done; one cow might enable a family to get through the winter.

“But before my father passed away in 1986,” Rappold continued, “he told me the only regret he had was that he’d killed so many grizzly bears and that they’d almost become extinct. He made me promise that when I took over the ranch, these big bears would always have a home. So I worked most of my life to make sure that happened.”

His methods are simple though unconventional. He avoids conflicts with grizzlies by breeding his herd earlier in the year than is traditional. The calves are born earlier so that when they reach summer pasture they are bigger and heavier and not such easy prey for grizzly bears or wolves. He’s also worked with the local fish and game department to distribute cattle carcasses along the high perimeter of his ranch. When hungry grizzlies come out of their dens, they can fill up on the meat of dead cattle rather than moving to the lower ranch to seek live ones. By the time the grizzlies are done with the carcasses, the grass is green, they’re feeding on vegetation (grizzlies are omnivores) and they leave his cattle alone. In fact, the ranch has not lost a cow to a bear since 1959.

This sort of range management has also been profitable. Because Rappold’s cattle have ample grass, they go to market at a greater weight than those of ranchers who run more cattle on similar acreage. As he likes to say, “I’m raising the same amount of beef off of 300 head that a lot of guys raise from 600. It’s the pounds you put on the truck not the number of animals that counts.”

Rappold is also outspoken about other ranchers’ poor management practices. They stock too many cattle on their range, he tells me, destroying the grass for wildlife and making the cattle themselves weak and undernourished and easy pickings for bears. Ranchers also move cattle to the high country too early, and they don’t look for them carefully enough in the fall – he has found his neighbors’ cattle grazing happily in the mountains when the neighbors have claimed that their lost stock has been killed by bears.

Stopping alongside some huge grizzly tracks in the snow, which wander directly among the tracks of his cattle, he says, “The bear is somebody easy to blame. But there’s been tons of occasions when I’ll come up here and see fifty cows grazing on the hillside and there’ll be an old bear amongst them, digging anthills up, neither of them paying any attention to the other.”

What if he loses a cow to a bear someday? What will he do then? He answers without hesitation. “If a bear should kill one of my cows, it would be an act of Mother Nature, like an electrical storm. I don’t feel the bear has to live with us. We have to learn to live with the bear. He was part of the country long before we settled it. And should remain part of this country. If you don’t like living with bears then maybe you ought to be ranching somewhere else.”

I think about his words as I drive down the length of the Rockies from near the Canadian border back home to Jackson Hole: peak and valley, river and forest, town and city.

Twenty years ago, I came from Colorado, which was growing ever more crowded, looking for more space, more snow and more animals. I never looked back. But now, even the empty spaces I’ve known in Wyoming are filling up. And therein lies the greatest challenge to the Freedom to Roam initiative: how to provide refuge for wildlife while creating homes for the human emigrants who want to inhabit the same landscape. It’s a work in progress, and history will judge how well we do.

Excerpted from “Refuge” by Ted Kerasote in Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam (Seattle: The Mountaineer Books, 2005).

About the Author

Ted Kerasote’s essays about nature and outdoor recreation have appeared in dozens of periodicals. His last book, Out There, won the National Outdoor Book Award. His most recent book, Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, became a national bestseller and has been translated into many foreign languages.