It’s summertime in the Blackfoot, and that means our team of range riders are back in the saddle.
Every summer when cows are put out to graze their summer pastures further away from the ranch headquarters, the Blackfoot Challenge’s range riders go with them. By actively monitoring wolf and grizzly bear activity in proximity to grazing livestock, range riders hope to decrease the potential for conflict and livestock loss.
This year marks the 12th season of the Blackfoot Challenge’s range riding program. As our Executive Director wrote in a paper back in 2017, this type of herd supervision has been practiced for centuries around the world as a method to reduce livestock losses to carnivores. While the increase in human presence near livestock deters wolves and bears from approaching, our Wildlife Coordinator Eric Graham says that one of the biggest unforeseen benefits of the program has been the increased communication and trust that has resulted.
Eric started as a range rider with the Challenge back in 2013. Having since become the full-time coordinator for all of the Challenge’s wildlife conflict reduction programs, Eric now assembles and advises the range rider team every year.
“Each season brings new challenges for trying to keep an eye on where we could possibly be having conflicts with predators and livestock,” said Eric. “We just never know what might happen.”
“What we do know is that it is beneficial to have experienced local folks returning to the range rider program each season. These range riders have gained the trust of all parties involved including the participating ranchers, the Blackfoot Challenge and MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The range riders are the glue that holds this program together and it does not work without communication.”
At the annual pre-season range rider training, Tyler Parks, the Wolf Biologist for Fish, Wildlife & Parks, spoke to the benefits of working with a team of range riders who have been in the position for multiple years. “You guys know the country and the people; you’re teaching us how to do this now,” he said.
We wanted to take a moment to introduce you to the folks that make this happen — the Blackfoot Challenge’s range riders. Whether it’s by horseback, truck, or dirt bike, these three dedicated and passionate individuals return every summer to range ride as part of a multi-pronged approach to foster human and wildlife coexistence in the Blackfoot watershed.
Ovando resident Vicki Pocha has been range riding with the Challenge for three years now, and is spending the summer monitoring herds in the Ovando and Greenough areas, including on the Blackfoot Community Conservation Area.
“I always love getting back to range riding,” says Vicki. “I pray I’m never put in a predicament that I get cornered by a grizzly, but I do enjoy seeing them!”
“I enjoy the work and the people I work with. I try to do my best work and communicate with the ranchers when there are problems, which usually there aren’t many.”
Jordan Mannix is now in his fifth year of range riding for the Blackfoot Challenge. He covers his family ranch in Helmville, as well as areas that span from north of Ovando to the river bottom just west of Lincoln.
“After college I came back to work on my family ranch in Helmville, but also wanted to work in a field related to my degree in Environmental Science. Range riding became that opportunity, and since then I have really enjoyed the work, the people I work with, and this place that we live and work in,” says Jordan.
“Every year I gain a little more confidence. I’ve certainly improved when it comes to identifying tracks, for instance. Every year I gain a little more knowledge of the land: game trails, water holes, etc. I’ve enjoyed my time as a range rider and believe that it can be a useful tool for ranchers if they so choose. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do it again!”
Jordan is also the team’s video editing whiz. If you missed his range riding game camera footage compilation video from the 2019 season, take a look at it here.
The veteran of the group with six years of range riding under her belt, Sigrid Olson rotates between seven different areas around Potomac.
While experience is on her side, Sigrid says she still feels a mix of both nervousness and excitement heading into the season. “I could never ride and check all the country where the cows are at once. I am always nervous about having any losses, as I am sure the producers are, too. Of course I want to prevent anything from happening, I feel kind of responsible if anything happens to any livestock when I am in the woods.”
“I love the flowers and the birds and the air, just being able to ride up and down creek beds, meadows and draws smelling, listening, tracking and looking, that is what I am excited for. Aside, I look forward to sharing my finds and giving regular reports; I want to make a difference and be the ‘eyes and ears’ for those who cannot get out into the high draws, meadows and tucked away places where the Potomac cows go.”
When asked if she carries any lessons learned from previous seasons with her into the next season, Sigrid responded:
“I remember to use the crockpot more at home when I am gone, and to make sure I leave a map of exactly where I will be that day on the kitchen table. It is hard to not take it personally when I hear of a producer losing stock or not having them all come home. I feel like if I was there, or if I saw this sign, or rode over here instead, that I could have prevented it, so I try to balance my compassion. I also wear my survival things in the event my horse or mule gets away from me. And remember to measure bear tracks by width of front print, not length!”