A lot of what you read here on Bear Tracks boils down to two complimentary points. Those are choice and responsibility. What choices must we make individually and as society to provide room for grizzly bears? What is the extent of our responsibility to the wellbeing of grizzly bears?
Readers paying any sort of attention at all will not be surprised to find out where we stand on those questions. It is the responsibility of everyone recreating in the backcountry to be prepared for a bear encounter in a way that minimizes risk for both humans and bears. Even those who choose to stay closer to civilization must take responsibility for their mark on the land and the subsequent effect that can have on bears and other wildlife. Ranchers and stock-raisers should make every effort to avoid causing problems with predators. When reporting on bear encounters, every member of the press owes their audience an accurate portrayal.
If you’re here, reading this now, there’s a solid chance it’s because you agree we have that responsibility. The good news is, there are people who live with bears every day who also believe that. It is their knowledge and experience that can advance the conversation about how best to coexist with bears.
Emma LaRocque of Cloudy Ridge Ranch in Southwest Alberta sat down with us to talk about responsible ranching and how she prevents and mitigates predator depredation while raising livestock in grizzly country.
Cloudy Ridge Ranch borders Waterton Lakes National Park, half an hour’s drive or so from the Chief Mountain border crossing, which is in far southwestern Alberta. It is approximately 3500 acres and has been in the Copp family since 1972. From the beginning the family adopted practices of responsible stewardship with the intent to preserve and maintain the natural ecosystem of the area while also running a viable cattle operation. Currently the Copps raise a small herd of their own in addition to leasing access for two other families who run operations oriented toward similar goals of stewardship and sustainability.
Emma and her sister Sophie Copp serve as ranch managers. Emma’s educational background is in wildlife habitat and ecosystem management while Sophie’s is environmental assessment and restoration. They are particularly well positioned to understand the role and importance of predators on the landscape, even while earning a livelihood, at least in part, by raising stock for market.
As it turns out, their ethic of sustainable stewardship is not at odds with the ability to raise cattle, though it is fair to say they face certain headwinds from within the status quo of ranching. While that sustainability encompases a great deal of factors unrelated to bears, the focus here is the prevention and mitigation of predator conflict. In so far as that’s concerned, Emma credits the bulk of their success to two choices: cattle breed and dogs.
Starting about 25 years ago, the Copps began breeding Longhorn cattle with the ubiquitous Herefords and also a hardy Scottish breed called Luing. This results in horned animals that share the Luing’s traits of thriving in harsh climates. Horns are particularly useful in defense against predators, though they do make the cattle a little more difficult to manage. Unfortunately cattle that aren’t Angus fetch a lower price at auction. While it might be difficult to counter an interminable marketing onslaught 42 years in the making, it is much easier to adopt the other most effective practice of Cloudy Ridge Ranch (as many other operations certainly have). That is: the use of guardian dogs.
The Copps have utilized cattle dogs for as long as Emma can remember, Blue Heelers and the like, “We have a lot of dogs. We almost always have five dogs running around. But we’ve had as many as 13.” Recently, coinciding with the introduction of a number of sheep on the ranch, they have added Great Pyranees to the mix. “I’m really excited about the prospect of using these big dogs. It’s a bit of an adjustment. They’re very different than our herding dogs. They bark all the time and they eat a lot. So I think you have to weigh the costs and benefits to having the livestock guardian breeds. But I do think that it’s made a difference.” This difference is borne out by research that shows livestock guardian dogs might be the single most effective tool for preventing predator conflicts on ranches. This is a choice that comes with a cost, but the benefit is incontrovertible.
Horned cattle and dogs are not a panacea. Emma emphasized the responsibility she holds for other practices as well, including vigilance about attractants on the ranch. She also mentioned that her experience over two decades indicates that the greatest degree of conflict comes shortly after a change in circumstances for bears in the area. Regarding “problem” bears, “[T]hey do need to be managed and relocating them sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I find that the most trouble is when something disrupts the predator population. If you have bears and wolves that are around but they’re not causing any trouble you can go on like that basically the lifetime of those predators. But if someone removes one of those predators then they’ve created a vacuum where another predator is going to come in and that predator might not behave the same way. When you have a quote “good bear” if you leave it, the chances of you having trouble are pretty minimal. If you remove that bear you have no idea. It’s a wildcard. The next bear that comes in, it could cause problems.”
The Copps make decisions for their ranch that sometimes run counter to what’s easy (or at least easier). Why?
“The thing that we as humans understand so little about ecosystems and how they work, when you start taking little pieces out without realizing the cumulative effects of what you’re doing that’s where we see a lot of trouble. I think that we have a fairly healthy functioning system and I think part of that reason is because we have bears. And wolves, and cougars…Like all of them. We don’t have an overpopulation.”
She then referenced Aldo Leopold’s timeless view on ecosystems, “If the land mechanism as a whole is good then every part is good, whether we understand it or not…To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Emma and her sister make choices for their ranch based on an ethic of responsibility and stewardship. They are not the only ones. Others in Alberta are making similar choices to prioritize coexistence. And it’s not just in Canada. Increasingly communities in the United States are seeing the value in being intelligent tinkerers as well.