Range Riders-a false solution for predator-livestock conflicts

Tom Sawyer would be proud of the “progressive” livestock producers who “love” predators.  These ranchers are continuously held up as a “win-win demonstrations” by collaborating so-called conservation groups who promote these operations as examples of how wildlife and ranching can co-exist.

You know the names, in part, because there are so few of them around the West that the same operations are continuously written up in the media and promoted by conservation groups-Malpai Borderlands group in Arizona and New Mexico, Lava Lake Land and Livestock Company in Idaho, JBarL in Montana’s Centennial Valley, and the Tom Miner Association adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.

The problem is that all these feel-good examples have two problems.

One they are the exceptions, not the rule. In all cases, they are livestock operations owned by wealthy individuals or those who have some connection to wealth. As a result, they can implement management practices that cannot be scaled up across the landscape. The Malpai had the support of the late Drum Hadley, Anheuser-Busch beer heir. Lava Lakes is owned by Brian and Kathleen Bean, who live in San Francisco where Brian is an investment banker. The B Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin is owned by Mary Ann Mott of Mott Applesauce fame. And the JBarL is owned by Peggy Dulany, heir to the Rockefeller fortune.

The sad thing about all these ranching operations is that the owners are wealthy enough that they don’t need to run livestock at all—likely it is a tax write off.  Indeed, if they were truly interested in helping wildlife instead of promoting the cowboy myth, they would volunteer to retire their public lands grazing allotments and contribute their vast fortunes towards retiring other grazing allotments.

Some of their holdings are substantial—the Bean’s Lava Lakes ranching operation includes 24,000 acres of private lands and controls over 900,000 acres of public lands allotments. Imagine if they retired their grazing allotments instead of running vast herds of sheep on them.

Instead, these “progressive” ranching operations are fawned upon by conservation organizations and receive numerous accolades and promotions of their livestock products (higher priced “grass fed beef and/or lamb). This includes groups like NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife (DOW), Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Montana Audubon, and the Nature Conservancy, among others.

All the while these conservation groups conveniently ignore and fail to inform their membership and media of the multiple ways that livestock production harms wildlife, and ecosystems, no doubt while receiving big donations for their silence. They are, thus, directly culpable for helping to continue the livestock hegemony and destruction of our public lands.

It would analogous to the American Cancer Society promoting filtered cigarettes arguing that they were slightly healthier than unfiltered smokes, and failing to acknowledge that cigarette smoking was a major cause of cancer.

To give an example of this collusion between ranchers and so-called conservation groups, I recently received an email about a “Range Rider” program at the Anderson Ranch in Tom Miner Basin (link here https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?ui=2&ik=e8f5b5d8e3&view=att&th=15b71e2eda289a5f&attid=0.1&disp=safe&realattid=f_j1jblcbx0&zw).

For a mere $600 you can ride a horse around in the mountains, and for dinner eat grass fed beef of animals you helped to keep out of the mouth of a wolf or grizzly.

You will learn how to harass predators like grizzlies and wolves so the ranchers can continue to run livestock on our public lands with a minimum of losses from predators.

In addition, there is the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get knowing that, according to the ranch website, range riders help the ranch document predator losses so they can obtain more money from the state predator reimbursement program (again why do wealthy people need our tax dollars to maintain their ranching operations).

The people who fall for this gimmick no doubt believe they are saving predators. That is the message that supporting national organizations like NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife try to put forth.  Want to save wolves—come help harass public wildlife so that ranchers won’t kill them.

Unfortunately, the Anderson Ranch and supporting so called wildlife groups are perpetuating wildlife conflicts, not ultimately eliminating them.

Keep in mind that cattle and/or sheep grazing on public lands are consuming forage that would feed elk and other native wildlife which is the food base for native predators. Funny how TNC, GYC, DOW and NRDC and other groups never mention this as a cost of public lands livestock operations.

The mere presence of livestock socially displaces native wildlife like elk which avoid areas actively being grazed by domestic animals. And therefore, are pushed into less suitable habitat. Again, this harms the natural prey of predators like wolves and grizzlies. Again, no mention of this by the collaborating groups.

Nor do these so-called wildlife groups point out that you as a range rider are there to harass predators so someone’s private livestock (like the Anderson Ranch) can profit from public lands, while native predators like wolves and grizzlies are displaced from their natural habitat.

These groups also don’t mention the collateral damage from livestock. The spread of weeds. The soil compaction. The pollution of waterways from manure. The destruction of biocrusts. The spread of disease from domestic animals to wildlife. The trampling of riparian areas. The fences that block wildlife migration. The hay fields that require irrigation which drains our rivers and destroys aquatic ecosystems.

And I have yet to see any of these groups drawing the connection between livestock methane production and global warming.

Indeed, I would venture to bet that these so-called “wildlife friendly” ranch operations have these impacts—which overall are far worse for the ecological health of our public lands than the loss of an occasional wolf or bear—regrettable as that may be.

And don’t expect these organizations to get into the harm that promoting red meat consumption has for human health.

None of these impacts is mentioned because that would likely make any thinking person question why they are riding around on horses trying to scare predators off the public lands to protect the profit of private ranching operations.

Now I will admit that these ranch owners, and the conservation groups that support them likely believe (read have deluded themselves) that they are demonstrating a way for ranching and wildlife to co-exist, starting with the premise that livestock operations are here to stay, so might as well make it less damaging to the land and wildlife. But they can only do so by ignoring a lot of the collateral damage from their operations.

The fact that our predators are second-rate citizens on the public lands, while private ranchers and their livestock are given priority should outrage any thinking person.

The opposite premise dominates in our national parks. If you were to leave a picnic basket out where a bear or coyote or wolf could find the food, you would receive a fine or at least a stern lecture about the individual responsibility to avoid conflicts by keeping your food away from predators.

Similarly, you are required to avoid hiking or disturbing predators in areas of high use with periodic closures or other tactics designed to minimize altering predator natural use patterns.

Not so for ranchers using our public lands as a feed lot. Instead of giving priority to public wildlife, we allow what are essentially four-legged picnic baskets to roam the land unfettered. If a predator happens to find these moving picnic baskets and consumes one, we kill or move the predator instead of moving the cattle or sheep.

Instead of being incensed by this starting premise and seeking to challenge such assumptions, groups like NRDC in Montana and Defenders in Idaho have, of course, made millions of dollars in donations while they claim to “save” predators like wolves by organizing range rider and wolf harassment programs. But by not questioning grazing privileges on public lands, they reinforce the idea that livestock should have priority on our public lands.

Undoubtedly the ranchers who are inclined to implement livestock management techniques that reduce predator opportunity and the conservation groups that support them will respond that saving a few wolves and grizzlies is better than none. However, in the end, this is a finger in the dike.

These management techniques cannot be replicated across the landscape for a host of reasons, including that most ranchers cannot afford such practices, and furthermore, are not inclined to do anything to promote predators. So, in a sense, when conservation groups promote these ranching operations as a “solution” for ending conflicts and a “win-win” for wildlife, they are selling Kool-Aid.

One wishes that DOW and NRDC instead of harassing public wildlife were using range riders to chase domestic livestock from public lands, not harassing wolves. They could use their big budgets to bail out defenders of wolves.

Of course, the real irony is that if one harassed livestock and chased them off public lands, one would be arrested, but range riders, ranchers, and even wolf supporters can legally harass public wildlife in the name of livestock protection. There is something very wrong with this picture.

No doubt NRDC and DOW will claim that saving a few wolves is better than none—but what they don’t admit is that they are ultimately helping to perpetuate continued conflicts on public lands by legitimizing the assumption that privately owned domestic livestock have priority over public wildlife.

It is no different than the groups who opposed abolition organizations and refused to question the legitimacy of slavery and opted to work with slave owners for better housing and work conditions for slaves.

If these groups were truly interested in protecting predators, not enhancing their fund-raising coffers, they would be working to end public lands ranching, not doing everything they can to sustain it. They would be arguing that if there were some conflict between a public lands ranching operation and predators, the cows/sheep should be moved, not the predators. They would be arguing that harassing public wildlife to promote private livestock operations is unethical.

And if they really wanted to end conflicts, they’d use the millions they have raised on the backs of wolves and grizzlies to buy out public lands grazing allotments and end livestock grazing permanently.

There would be no need for range riders—but I guess that is not as romantic as riding a horse around in the mountains to protect someone’s cows. And if you are cynical, you might even think these organizations do not want the conflicts to end, because how would they raise funding if wolves and bears were automatically granted priority on our public lands?

Tom Sawyer would be proud of the ranchers who are able to get others to mind their livestock for them and actually pay for the opportunity.






  1. Twowolves Avatar

    Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological diversity … couldnt even be bothered to respond to Protect The Wolves emails starting March 8th when they began asking for LARGE NPO input

  2. Lynn Jacobs Avatar
    Lynn Jacobs

    I couldn’t agree more with George Wuerthner’s article. Special treatment for stockmen has been institutionalized for more than a century. Still, ranching on public lands is “here to stay” only because the public has been duped into believing there’s no other alternative. There is: terminate public grazing leases and permits and restore our land.

  3. Phil Maker Avatar
    Phil Maker

    I agree with most of the points made. However, I don’t see much of a solution being offered up except to take the conservation organization’s donations and use them to buy out allotments. Do you think that any of the groups has enough to interest the referenced mega-millionaires to sell out, if the only reason these super-rich are ranching is to get a tax write-off? That seems unlikely. But NRDC, DoW, etc. could entice lots of the Mom & Pop livestock producers to leave the public lands to the public’s wildlife.

    1. Twowolves Avatar

      Protect The Wolves™ is working towards bring Attorney Groups together that actually care about making a difference. Protect The Wolves™ is getting some Organizing assistance from Jonathan Ratner with Western Watersheds Project
      Protect The Wolves™ calls on our followers
      to support us to put “The Indian Trust” To Work.
      Protect The Wolves Calls all Large NPOS
      to Join them in speaking out for Wolves, Grizzlies, Bison, Wild Horses
      As Well as PUBLIC LANDS
      using The Indian Trust, Public Trust, Natures Trust Aspects.

    2. Nancy Avatar

      “But NRDC, DoW, etc. could entice lots of the Mom & Pop livestock producers to leave the public lands to the public’s wildlife”

      Hate to burst your bubble Phil but the “Mom & Pop” livestock producers in my neck of the woods, are growing (as in livestock numbers) by leaps and bounds (I see it first hand) And they have their reasons:

      “Any time you can sell your product to consumers who most value it, the higher the collective sales value of beef products (and the cattle they originate from) will be,” Tonsor said”


      The real effect needs to be concentrated on exposing the damage livestock do to public lands & wildlife. That’s where Western Watersheds Project comes in:

      .”All of WWP’s efforts to influence the restoration of western public lands are based on a vision that western North America may be one of the few places on earth where enough of the native landscape and wildlife still exists as public land to make possible the restoration of a wild natural world”


  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “The sad thing about all these ranching operations is that the owners are wealthy enough that they don’t need to run livestock at all—likely it is a tax write off.”

    I hadn’t thought of it from this perspective; you’re right, I’d have more sympathy for the mom-and-pop outfits than the wealthy hobby ranchers who don’t need to be doing this at all. 🙁

    1. mm Avatar

      Boss of Oregon Cattlemen’s Association in Wallowa County Oregon is a typicla example of these “mom & pop” fictions. He’s from Davis CA, part of a semi-urban complex of ag and cement.
      The history of ranching is entirely one of privileged wealth taking advantage of free grazing in North America:
      Following destruction of the bison & consequent removal of indigenous tribes, some largely British nobility came in as Ireland, theri previous beef colony was very disruptive. They could never have made a go were it not for railroads tracking their cattle to St Paul, Chicago, St Louis and other slaughter centers.
      The Southern California to Texas cattle & sheep ranchers were also wealthy elite, or Mission religion elite, who enslaved los indios, and fed urban growth.
      ALL ranchers are entirely urban-dependent.
      The US during the two administrations I’ve been watching desires to export cattle, and have pushed this problematic continuation of Prairie-to-Beefeater (England did not become a nation of beefeaters until that 1870s occupation of the prairies, steam and rail transport, icebox refrigeration.).
      Canada vies for markets as does Argentina and especially Brazil.
      Africa has only a bit over 100 years of forcing beef, and the loss of the desperately needed tsetse fly, who protected wildlife on that continent was a or perhaps THE primary factor in the accelerating extinction going on there.

      I can no longer easily find the statistics I encountered showing that the mountain west only produces less than 5% of US beef, but I’m sure the invested can research it.
      This means that if the entirety of public lands ranching were completely shut down, little economic effect would occur.

      Japan et al. get their beef from cheaper sources than US prices – the industry is heavily subsidized, and everything from world climate to water, forest, and every individual of persecuted native species dies due to these mix of hobby ranchers and rapacious urban expats.

      Yet, somehow, those Theocratic mormons who moved west and exploded population due to polygamy and evangelism, whose SOLE intent was to secede or somehow to evade US oversight continue to infest the west with their beehive stinging of all that stood in the way of inordinate wealth, along with the rest mentioned, inject violent discord in a land that cannot handle their numbers, but once was filled with large mammal species and coherent ecosystems, resilient for countless centuries until the advent of the gun and other machines.

      I remember my years of visiting certain places which humans largely inhabited at all, solely due to aircraft moving their products to urban areas. The basic problem is human overpopulation.

      In spite of ranchers largely being high-school and inheritors of past TRUE land grabs – misuse of Homestead Act and the mistaken checkerboard gift from the feds to railroads, the land-grant barons, sold off or otherwise corruptly created by European culture imposed on continents where wildlife and healthy land and water existed.

      The presumption that people, who rot, being supposed lords over land which regenerates, ever enriching, ever-more fecund, is the basic misapprehension.

      Once, when working for a Russian friend’s PhD I encountered some tribes who made me understand that digging into the earth was in their understanding, a deep wrong, i realized that all the presumptions of this culture in which you are immersed, refusing to come up for air, were a brutality to all other life.

      Even the recent indigenous riseup in North America is at core, one of intrahuman strife over WHO gets to exploit, not a withdrawal in any way from overexploitation itself.

      Because of the futility of stemming the human tide, one can only remember Dave Foreman and the Conservation Biologists: Do whatever you can to protect the wild lives that remain, until such time they can reinhabit the land of their forming and birth.

      Such nonlethal conflict prevention tactics that prolong the lives of native predators must for now be a part of the Rewilding movement.

      I certainly would not myself give substantially to those who would promote the persistence of those 2% or so of ranchers who are sequestering for their private gain and fictional narcissism, the west’s mountain valleys – winter habitat for ALL the remaining wildlife except the sleeping bears and pikas and marmots, and migrating birds.
      Yet, every action that saves an adaptive allele in a Mexican Wolf, or a dispersing irremotus or occidentalis, every method of saving one vulnerable life, has some worth.

      DOW and NRDC are DC orgs, lobbying in a place that has almost no humans concerned in the least with environment – the big fight, as you see, is between those who want to immigrate more humans and those who want to rawly pollute and scrape empty of life this continent.
      Obama did not promote conservation until his final months. He and Bush created Executive Orders using Antiquities Act to save a large subtropical Pacific reef. We are told that it will take more time than Trump will be in office to drill and leak oil into the coastal Pacific and Arctic seas.

      I remember the strong-minded Wolf with whom I walked in moondark nights in wild nature: unable to see how to place my feet, I would fall often on my face. Only by watching the vague grey movement, sinuous at the edge of my senses, did I find the way he unerringly followed.

      (Yes, every day and every night I felt the tragedy of his being born captive. That being of an integrity far vaster than any human mind or capacity escaped with injury every human restraint and constraint, finally choosing to place one of them between himself and the rest.
      I hope only to have seemed sufficient to him with my own life. This comment is part of his legacy, and the distaste I feel toward the roads, the fences, the noisy kazoos of human voices, although emergent in my own as a child, was his – a product of the injuries and abuse they had heaped upon him.
      Even the halls of formal learning are twisted toward the imagined supremacy of humans, attempting to warp the future toward their ends.
      I do not know which way the “Abandon All Hope” sign faces, even as I do know that all your images of your species “progress” lead only to conflagration. The only beef I ever ate as an adult was a sporadic sharing of what was and is rightfully his. What I voice to those who have made themselves his enemy, his haters, is only said to slip his, and my, relatives, past them.)

      1. Nancy Avatar

        + 1 🙂

        1. Louise Kane Avatar
          Louise Kane

          Imagined supremacy of humans is an apt description of the basis for many wrongs that and As you wrote over population by humans

  5. Ilovewolves Avatar

    This is a really thought provoking piece. I do think those that have ranches in grizzly/wolf habitat have to step up to the plate by showing that you can ranch alongside carnivores. But they should pay for it themselves and not take NGO money. There are good examples of ranches not owned by wealthy people that do exactly the same good stuff. They have ranger riders but they don’t call them as such necessarily. They call them cowboys doing what they are suppposed to do – making sure that the cows are all bunched up together. They call it good husbandry practice. They have electric fences and they make sure that dead cows (which attract bears and wolves) are disposed of quickly, instead of using the carcass for a camera trap photo opportunity https://andersonranchenterprises.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/dsc1112-copy.jpg thus promoting habituation to the taste of livestock. Also I would expect from those conservation minded ranches neighboring Yellowstone a bit more support for bison and their ability to roam outside of the park. But that does not seem to be the case.

  6. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    If you are among the vast majority of people who like to eat beef, you have a few options; purchase from a store which probably has been grain and hay fed, raised in cattle lots and pumped with antibiotics, hormones and other unhealthy substances or you can purchase “grass fed” beef without all of the above garbage. I will let you decide which you choose.

    I commend the NGOs that support the ranches that the author cited. The federal land management agencies (BLM and Forest Service) were created with the mandate to allow “appropriate” livestock grazing. In order to remove all livestock from public lands, the Congress would need to amend the laws which govern the agencies and you know that is not happening. The problem lies when the agencies fall down in the enforcement of “appropriate” grazing practices. That is where the public steps in and provides specific information to the local agency office where they believe unacceptable impacts are occurring. Trust me, when the public pushes the local office to take action and nothing happens, and it goes up to the next level, something will get done. As a member of the public you have the right to access any public land grazing allotment; take pictures, collect information and report any possible violation(s).

    These ranches are employing numerous individuals which not only provides income to them but the local economy and considering rural economies these days, that’s very important. These ranches also use management techniques that protect water sources, implement timely grazing so areas are not over-grazed and other environmental protection standards not used by the typical rancher.

    As for methane and it’s impacts, these cattle are going to be raised somewhere so they may as well be raised on ranches which promote more holistic practices than feedlots. Regarding beefs unhealthy attributes; when consumed in moderation, grass fed beef contains healthy amounts of saturated fat, zinc, iron and other minerals and vitamins.

    In areas where there are persistent long term conflicts between native wildlife and livestock such as the Green River Drainage in Wyoming, grazing allotments should be targeted for purchase and NGO’s such as the National Wildlife Federation are doing just that. The NGO’s that the author insinuates are using wolves and other wildlife as surrogates for donations are working hard to protect species and their habitats and should be applauded!

    1. Immer Treue Avatar
      Immer Treue

      I feel this is a well thought response.

  7. Bonnie Andrews Avatar
    Bonnie Andrews

    Western public lands ranchers produce less than 3% of the total U.S. beef production. Is this insignificant ‘contribution’ worth the damage to the land itself and the killing off of native wildlife on our public lands. The movie Cowspiracy also highlighted the large environmental organizations lack of action to protect our public lands and wildlife from the livestock industry. I’m glad to see George Wuerthner calling out the hypocrisy.

  8. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Having read “Welfare Ranching” with much input from Mr. Wuerthner – and have been educated in how much damage & destruction is done by cattle & sheep to rangeland – I do not believe pushing predators away from livestock “saves” any predators! There are many non-lethal ways to manage any destruction from predators – but sadly, far more profit and donations to be made from this range rider program. Plus it probably gives people the impression that they are living the “cowboy way”! And yeah, the movie Cowspiracy could possibly educate many people if they only paid attention.

  9. Anja Heister Avatar
    Anja Heister

    Great points by George as usual. My concern is that the discussion about public lands welfare ranching can easily lead to more factory “farms” when in fact, the best solution is to adopt a plant-based diet. If one is pro-wildlife, one should also have empathy for pigs, cows, chicken, lambs etc.and stop eating their body parts.

    1. Louise Kane Avatar
      Louise Kane

      Plus one anjia


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner