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Week of 8.18.06

Interview: A Rancher's View

Rancher Martin Davis A fourth generation rancher, Martin Davis runs cattle with his dad and brother on their ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana. In 1997 he was one of the first ranchers to encounter wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park. This is an edited transcript of Davis's conversation with David Brancaccio.

BRANCACCIO: What do you think of wolves?

DAVIS: Wolves and livestock don't mix. That's the reason they were eradicated back when. It's nice to say that maybe they will learn to coexist. And that can happen for a day or two, or a year, whatever. Wolves mean dead livestock. And that means out of our pocket when you have dead livestock.

BRANCACCIO: What do you do when you see that there's a pack of wolves getting too close to your property?

DAVIS: Human presence is what we've found out works real well ... Back before the wolves, we checked on the cows maybe once a week. Now we feel like we have to check on them at least every other day. And that's just to make sure nothing has been killed or that the wolves are bothering them, and pushing them through the fences. And it's a fairly long trip. It takes about a half a day to check on the cattle and come back down.

BRANCACCIO: How did you feel when you first saw wolves on your property?

DAVIS: It made me angry because this is our property ... We don't need to have a predator that's trying to kill our livestock, the way we make a living. And you can't do anything about that.

We had some college kids that came by to ask questions about wolves and ranching. And one of the questions I asked them was if any of them owned any kind of store. And the one girl says "Yes. My dad owns a hardware store." It was back on the East Coast somewhere. "Well, it would be just like your dad having to leave the backdoor open at night and saying, 'I hope the thieves don't steal too much tonight.'"

"We don't need to have a predator that's trying to kill our livestock, the way we make a living."
BRANCACCIO: Is it tempting to shoot them?

DAVIS: Well, it is. I know that other people say, "Well, if I would have seen them, I'd shot them." But that's not the answer either I don't think and especially when they are an endangered species. The repercussions of that could be very bad.

BRANCACCIO: The efforts to bring the wolf back seem to be working pretty well. Has that changed your view of the wolf?

DAVIS: Well, I don't know that my views have changed on the wolves in particular ... What it does mean is they [the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] aren't quite as strict on the rules now. There has been a rule change that if wolves are actually chasing your livestock, you are able to take [kill] a wolf now. And I think that's only right especially on private property. But even off of private property, if they're chasing your livestock, you should be able to stop them from doing that.

[Since 1995, ranchers are permitted to shoot wolves but only when they were caught attacking livestock. In 2005, under a new ruling, ranchers in Montana and Idaho are now able to shoot wolves they witness harassing their cattle before the wolves actually attack.]

BRANCACCIO: Are we getting to a place where you think there's a way that if the wolves just stay off your property that you could coexist?

DAVIS: I don't think just because they're off of my property doesn't mean that it's good because we've got neighbors. But I do feel that with the new rule of being able to take a wolf now and again is going to train the rest of the pack that this isn't a good place to be.

"You see that little old calf that's ripped from tail to his ears and the mama's standing over there bawling for him."
BRANCACCIO: Is it hard when you find that your livestock has been killed because of one of these wolves?

DAVIS: It definitely tests your patience for sure ...You see that little old calf that's ripped from tail to his ears and the mama's standing over there bawling for him. One of those calves that we spent cabin time bringing into this world and making sure it got inoculations on time, and taken care of.

BRANCACCIO: Now any good ranch business plan probably has some other ways of increasing the income. What have you tried here?

DAVIS: My brother and I started an outfitting service. We're 30 years into that job right now. And we take elk hunters in the fall. We have found out that that has changed drastically now the wolves are here. Our native herd of elk that we hunt are virtually non existent. Or, when they do come through, they come through fast. We used to book 15 to 20 hunters a year and now we have trouble booking anyone.

BRANCACCIO: It's my understanding there was a time when the environmental community did not have a whole lot of respect for ranchers. Do you think that has changed?

DAVIS: Yes, it really has. About ten years ago we were considered by a lot of the environmental community as the bad guy ... Now they've kind of switched around because what they're saying is, well, when the rancher is there, so is open space. When the rancher is forced to leave, that's when the subdivisions and the condos and that kind of stuff shows up. So I'm starting to hear, "Well now I like wolves, but I like ranchers too. Now how can we keep both together."