Albert Sommers is a rancher who thought he’d seen it all. When he found a mysteriously dead calf, he started wondering: how wild should our wild places be?

 

 

[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

Years back, when he was a younger cowboy than he is now, Albert Sommers came face-to-face with something he’d never seen before. And that’s saying something because he was born and raised on a ranch in one of the harshest landscapes in the world.

“It’s the coldest place on earth I think, or one of them,” Albert says. “I mean, I remember in 1978 that New Year’s Day, it was 60 below zero.”

Cows frozen to death like popsicles. Albert had seen stuff like that. He’d seen them die in lots of strange ways.

But not like this.

He was moving cattle with a bunch of other cowboys high in the mountains.

“We were pushing cattle–well, you can see Pinyon Ridge,” he says, and points out the dusty windshield of his Jeep at the green-fringed mountain ahead. “We were pushing cattle and somebody found an injured calf. And so, on the way out, we all stopped, and the calf had died, and its injury was right on its withers. And so, none of us knew what it was.”

So there’s Albert, sitting up on a horse looking down at a mysteriously dead calf, feeling totally confused, just wondering, what in the living hell? Well, that confusion about what killed that calf has a lot to do with decisions totally outside Albert’s control. Decisions made far, far away by people who’d probably never laid eyes on a dead calf in their life. Decisions that got the whole country asking itself, just how wild do we want our wild places to be exactly?

 

The Great Equalizer Winter

 

Albert’s family had been raising cattle in this extreme place-the Upper Green River Basin in western Wyoming– for…well, like, forever. His grandfather was a teacher who came from Kansas with a dream to raise cattle in this gorgeous valley surrounded by wild mountains. But right off the bat, it was clear it wasn’t going to be easy to keep cattle alive up here. Only a few years before, ranchers endured something called the Great Equalizer Winter.

“The reason it was called the Great Equalizer Winter is because it didn’t matter whether you were a small rancher or a large rancher, it killed all of your stock.”

 

Albert says events like those in this painting by Charles Russell actually happened in the Upper Green River Basin during the Great Equalizer Winter of 1889.

Albert says events like those in this painting by Charles Russell actually happened in the Upper Green River Basin during the Great Equalizer Winter of 1889.

 

Albert says that winter was a lot like the famous Charlie Russell painting. A cow–skin and bones–hunched up in a winter storm with wolves circling. It’s kind of torture to look at. It’s called “Last of 5000,” meaning the last cow left in the whole herd.

“Well, literally that happened,” says Albert. “And then it happened here in 1889. And it killed 90-some percent, it was estimated, of the cattle that existed in the county.”

A single winter wipes out 90 percent of your cattle. I mean, the trauma of that. You can’t feed your family because all your money was sunk into that herd. My husband and I own a bookstore. If 90 percent of our books were lost in a fire, we’d be out of business. I’d do whatever I had to make sure that never happened again. And that’s what Albert’s grandfather and the other ranchers did.

They adapted.

After that terrible winter, instead of just relying on Mother Nature to feed the cattle, the ranchers did something completely creative. They grew hay for them to eat in the winter, and in the summer, they drove them up into the mountains to graze there. The Green River Drift, it’s called. It’s this amazing historic cattle drive.

Back last fall before the pandemic, Albert actually took me on a drive along its route in his Jeep. It’s right along this back road where a bunch of ranches every year move all their cattle up into the high country so they can feast all summer on the tender green grasses up there. Like, the best grasses anywhere. All that deep cold and altitude makes it extra tasty, extra nutritious. Up ahead I see the Wind River Range, some of the most formidable country in the lower 48. But then just before the howling winters arrive all those cattle just drift on home. All by themselves. Fifty-eight miles they drift.

After that, cattle started living through the brutal winters. The ranchers realized they needed each other, a community of survivors. They even gave themselves a name: the Green River Cattle Association.

But the problem was, when the winter didn’t kill their cows, other things did.

 

Predators In The Night

 

“I’m the son of an old man that was a son of an old man,” Albert tells me. “My dad was born in 1915. He never really talked a lot about grizzly bears. But wolves he did talk about. And he talked about an incident that his father and the neighbor had told him about. I’m going to guess this was in the early 1900s. Wolves killed 100 head of weaned calves in a pen one night. A large, large pack. And probably some of that was stampeded, suffocation, you know, from a stampede of the calves.”

After predator attacks like that, the ranchers went after them with a vengeance.

“The Association back in the day, they carried bear traps to the mountains. You know those big old huge things you see hanging on walls? The Association had bear traps and if they had problems they trapped bears.”

Albert's ancestors controlled wolf populations with traps and other lethal methods.

Albert’s ancestors controlled wolf populations with traps and other lethal methods.

Teamwork. Just like ranchers started the Drift to stop the death of cattle in winters so when predators attacked in the night, the ranchers killed them off. They trapped. They poisoned. They shot.

And it worked. Albert’s dad remembers getting out of bed in the night to hear the last wolves howl in the valley. And then, for almost two generations, the trauma of dying cows slowed way down. It felt like the brutality of nature had nearly been tamed.

Until–well, here’s Albert on his horse, looking down at a dead calf with some weird-looking injuries.

“And the oldest guy riding that day, Sprout Wordell, he looked at it, he said, ‘A bear killed that calf.’ He was fairly old then. As a young man, he would have seen that at some time. And so that was the first grizzly kill that we know that we had,” says Albert.

“That you had seen personally?” I ask.

“That I had seen in my lifetime.”

A grizzly, not a wolf.

It took me a sec to digest this. I guess I just assumed wolves are the mortal enemy of ranchers. Sure, it’s true, nowadays we all carry bear spray to fend off bears. But in our subconscious for some reason, we don’t think of bears as vicious killers. Goldilocks snuggled into Papa Bear’s bed, for God’s sake. And in the fairy tale “Snow White and Rose Red,” one of my favorites as a kid, the bear is a protective pet that turns into a prince. Bears are powerful, but somehow we prefer to think of them as kind of cute and cuddly.

Pioneers learned it isn’t easy raising cattle in the West. It wasn’t long before large carnivores were hunted and trapped to the verge of extinction. (Photo courtesy of The University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.)

Albert wasn’t sure his father even knew the difference between a grizzly and a black bear. But Albert learned the difference real quick. Grizzlies were usually a lot bigger and a lot more territorial.

“And so that was in 1993. By 1997, we had lost a number of calves and our calf loss percentage was increasing by 2011. Our calf loss on this allotment had went from 2% in the 90s to somewhere around 11% in 2011`,” remembers Albert. “It got to an all-time high in 2015 of almost 14 percent calf loss.

“I added it up the other day,” he says. “Just in confirmed kills–I don’t mean what we’re missing, I don’t mean what we think but I mean what was has been confirmed by a professional–we have lost almost a thousand head of cattle on this allotment in 25 years. Confirmed kills, to grizzly bears and wolves– with the vast majority of it being grizzly bears.”

Ranchers had used those giant traps to wipe out the bears from this country, but now they were back. From the ranchers’ point of view, generations of hard work down the drain. The bears had been here in small numbers all along, but such small numbers that tourists visiting Yellowstone hardly ever spotted one. Less than a thousand of them left in the lower 48.

Those tourists paid big bucks to experience real wilderness. What they paid for was something truly “red in tooth and claw,” as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson put it. It even happened to me when I was a kid. We took a trip to Yellowstone and left disappointed not to see a big carnivore. Maybe this place isn’t so wild as it’s cracked up to be, our family sort of left thinking.

So, in the mid 70’s, the U.S. government put the grizzly bear on the endangered species list as threatened.

“They were listed, and they created a recovery plan, a recovery plan that has been violated time and time again by the federal government,” says Albert. “We reached the thresholds in the original grizzly bear recovery plan decades ago, and so as soon as we reach a threshold, then a new threshold is created. We reach that threshold and another threshold was created. And until, you know, the grizzly bears were delisted, and then they were relisted.”

And this time when predators killed calves, trapping or hunting them was illegal. It felt like the feds had just left the ranchers to the wolves…and the grizzlies.

Pioneers learned it isn't easy raising cattle in the West. It wasn't long before large carnivores were hunted and trapped to the verge of extinction.

(Photo courtesy of The University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.)

For me, one of those disappointed Yellowstone tourists, keeping grizzlies listed is a good thing, right? The bear has only recovered on a tiny percentage of its former range! my shrill inner voice cries. They’re stuck on this little Yellowstone island! They need to migrate out! Breed with grizzlies in other areas!

But Albert’s inner voice says something else.

“I don’t have anything against grizzly bears or wolves, but you have to manage them and if they don’t manage them, we can’t be here. And people say well, so what does it matter? What does it matter whether you’re here or not here? The ranches in this valley and other valleys and across the state, they preserve a lot of wildlife habitat, they preserve the open space we like. They preserve a lot of the qualities and characteristics of this state, in the West, that we really love.” We had stopped at a bridge over the Green River. He’s quiet for a moment then he says, “I frankly get kind of emotional about this. And I don’t know, I think I love the landscape more than probably anybody out there.”

Sitting in Albert’s Jeep, I hear what he’s saying to me. How much he loves this land, how protective he feels for it. But there’s that niggling voice in my head, muttering, hm, are ranchers the best protectors of all this wildlife habitat?

I mean the thing is, some ranchers-maybe not Albert, but some-do let their cattle way overgraze the land, and over the decades, that’s led to all kinds of problems. I’ve reported a million stories on the bad effects of too many cows on the land: invasive plants spreading everywhere., soil erosion. Cows eat down sagebrush that hundreds of species rely on, some of them really endangered like the sage grouse. Water pollution when they graze along streams and lakes. Some part of my mind was thinking, maybe it would be better if this whole valley was managed by the government. Without cows, grizzlies would keep elk populations in control, aspen groves would flourish.

 

Albert says his grandfather probably didn’t know the difference between grizzly and black bears. (Photo courtesy of The University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.)

 

Yeah, okay, I’m one of those who always wants more wildness. But the ranchers they want–even need–to manage the wild urges of nature, so they can make a wage and keep living this life. I visit nature. But Albert, he gets the full immersive experience. I’m jealous of that. So yeah, his emotional feelings for this land-they moved me because they reminded me of my own.

But I didn’t say any of this, just puzzled over it. And anyway, Albert had moved onto the next part of his story. About how even more grizzlies were moving in, and that meant cowboying had become downright dangerous.

 

The Cowboy And The Bear

 

One time, Albert was out with another rancher and a wildlife manager and they came across some dead calves killed by a bear in the bushes along the river.

“We saw some ravens and some magpies over on another little oxbow of the river and I pushed into this really thick patch of willows. And there was a grizzly bear, now I’m going to guess 20 yards out. But there was a guy a foot behind me, so I yelled, ‘grizzly bear!’ And when I yelled bear, that bear stood up and he charged me and my horse. And my horse, I didn’t have to turn my horse. My horse didn’t like the looks of that.”

Albert raced his horse back the direction he’d come, back past the other rancher who was also yelling at this point. Albert pulled his horse up and turned to look back. The bear had stopped at the edge of the willows.

“And the Game and Fish guy had dropped a shotgun and was going for his pepper spray. And that rancher said that bear was about 15 feet behind my horse when I came out.” Albert shakes his head, remembering the fear he felt in that moment. “And I have bumped a lot of grizzly bears ahorseback over the years now and they usually all run 100 miles an hour away from you. But that’s why they’re dangerous. One in 100, or one in 20 times, they’re just going to be pissed and go right at you. And that’s why people get hurt. It was probably a dead calf in there. We didn’t go back in there!” he says, chuckling. “But they are a burly aggressive animal.”

And so now Albert was getting pissed off. Not only was he losing money from all the dead calves, he was afraid of losing his own life. The state of Wyoming started a reimbursement program to pay ranchers for lost livestock, almost as if they gave up on ranchers ever adjusting to life with predators.

Some ranchers questioned the program, like Malou Anderson. She’s not your typical rancher. She thinks ranchers can live with predators, and without the handouts.

“I’m not totally sure if we should be compensated for something that for some of these practices that we should be doing anyway, these preventative practices,” Malou says. “I definitely support the compensation program and I admire it and I’m glad it’s here, but I do have thoughts about, you know, we should be doing our best to move forward with preventative measures and to be thinking outside the box and not only rely on the compensation program.”

But most ranchers completely disagree with this take. Albert says he could only continue being a rancher with a compensation program. But still he says it wasn’t nearly enough. Only the market value of any cows they could prove were killed by a wolf or bear.

“Well, it was extremely frustrating to begin with,” he says. “You’re powerless. So, you can’t do anything on your own because you’re relying on agencies and rules and regulations to do anything for you. And so, at first, it was really difficult on us. We were mad, we were angry.”

Then that bad year hit: 1997. Albert lost 14 percent of his herd to grizzlies. He was at wit’s end. He was in ranching to feed people, not bears.

“I decided that, you know, what else can we do? What other things are going on? And so, that was in my head at the same time that Chris Collagen came around knocking on the door.”

 

“What Else Can We Do?”

 

Chris Colligan was a bear hugger with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Not Albert’s favorite type of person to find knocking on his door at the end of a long day. Chris stood on the doorstep with a friend of Albert’s, Phil. They wanted to know if they could come in.

“I said, sure, and sat down at the table and Chris introduced himself. Hi, I’m with Greater Yellowstone Coalition. I go, ‘Well, the last time I saw you, you had appealed one of our grazing plans.'”

A grazing plan is when ranchers get permission to let their cattle graze on public lands. You’ve probably been out on a hike in the National Forest and seen a bunch of cows roaming around. That’s because a rancher has a permit from the feds to let them. I used to work on a wilderness trail crew, cutting out big fallen down trees off the trail with one of those unwieldy eight-foot long crosscut saws. We couldn’t use a chainsaw because they’re not allowed in the wilderness. So, it always struck me as odd that hundreds of cows could stomp around up there.

 

The cabin where Albert's father was born has been designated a historic place.

The cabin where Albert’s father was born has been designated a historic place.

 

Well, apparently, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition had the same concerns about Albert’s cattle. They disputed one of his plans, and that rubbed Albert the wrong way. But Chris remembers that Albert didn’t slam the door in their face. “Albert graciously invited us into his home. He visited with me as a bit of a naïve conservationist coming into the conversation with him, bringing up ideas of how to reduce conflicts and how we might make big leaps and strides in the Upper Green. And he listened to me.”

Chris laughs but says that first awkward encounter was necessary because part of the work that night was just airing those old grievances.

“Towards the end of the meeting, as we were departing, [Albert] said, ‘just a reminder that your organization had appealed their grazing permit.’ And he has a very long memory! So it took it took a while to get, you know, through that and continued contact and conversations to begin building that trust that you can have.”

“I knew what a good guy Phil was that was on their board,” says Albert. “So I figured things had changed. And so when I talked and I told Chris that, he goes, ‘Well, that was us then, that’s not us now. We are, you know, we want to be on the ground finding solutions.’ And I really respected that. You know, rather than trying to be part of the problem, try to be part of the solution.”

It was a significant moment for Albert, not so different from the one his grandfather experienced after the Great Equalizer winter. A moment when you say to yourself, damn it, the way I’m doing things isn’t cutting it anymore. Albert saw it wasn’t just the ranchers that were trying to adapt; the conservationists were scrambling too. Yeah, disputing grazing permits is really important work. Public lands belong to us all and someone needs to defend that. But on the other hand, Chris realized that getting on the same page as ranchers-collaborating, negotiating with them– was even more important. That can’t have been an easy decision for Chris. But it didn’t take long before they started hammering out some concrete plans.

“We had this idea about putting on a seminar, bring in some people, talk about are there other non-lethal measures that can be utilized to help you. And I figured, well, we’ve been doing the standard thing forever, is there anything else we can try?” Albert says. “So we had this seminar and we brought in people like Cat Urbigkit, who’s a guard dog person. We brought in a gal that had Karelian bear dogs and gave us a presentation.”

Dogs? Well, Albert hasn’t tried using those to chase off bears yet. But he has tried lots of other stuff he learned at that seminar in the years since then. Chris at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition helped him get some giant bear boxes.

“You know those shipping containers that are all metal? There was a place that would cut them in half, put doors on the front, and then you had this bear-proof container.”

That way his range riders-his cowboys who live up in the mountains with the cattle-they can keep their dog food and garbage in a nice safe place where bears can get in.

Albert’s family has always hired range riders. But nowadays, these guys have a very different job description. Now one of their main duties is finding dead cows and getting them off the landscape as fast as possible. Dead cows are stinky and bears have great noses. And well-trained riders are more likely to find dead cows.

That’s the other big thing that Albert had to learn to embrace. The government as a true partner. He even gets the state wildlife guys to train his riders how to keep their camp clean and how to approach dead calves.

“Our whole relationship with Game and Fish and the Forest Service has evolved into one where we trust each other,” Albert says. “But it’s really about building relationships, forming trust, finding the solutions that you can. And even when you can’t find the silver bullet, at least the relationships and the trust allow you to move through.”

Just like his grandfather learned, it takes a village to keep cattle alive in this place. But this time, the village isn’t just made up of ranchers-they’ve got allies in environmentalists and government agencies too. The accumulation of all these new techniques are starting to work, Chris with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says.

“What we’re seeing today is evidence of that success: there are viable populations of the species in places they were eradicated. And now, I’d say we’ve shifted more towards figuring out how to live with the species that do create conflicts, especially in areas where you have willing partners. There’s some great examples of success where in the Northern Rockies, conflicts have been reduced by working with producers. The best example of that is up in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley where they showed a decrease in conflicts with grizzly bears over 96% in the last 15 years by doing some of these techniques, and working together.”

Remember Malou Anderson, the rancher who had doubts about the compensation program? She’s optimistic too.

“This is an adapting and changing landscape and the predators are always changing, and so we must also.”

Malou is a rancher in Tom Miner Basin in Montana and, like Albert, Malou grew up on the ranch doing things the traditional way. But then she and her brother and his wife decided to try a wacky new philosophy.

“It’s looking to nature and what it does in these types of situations. How do other herding animals react? What are the good moms? Who are the good moms in those herds, you know, elk or bison or elk versus bison? And then start adapting some of the things that nature does to protect itself.”

Albert said it was necessary to manage nature so people could keep living with it. Malou was telling me, ranchers could still manage it but by learning from nature, in collaboration with nature. This idea is spreading among ranchers. These days, Malou and her family teach this philosophy to people adapting to wild animals all over the world.

Malou says, cattle have good instincts, like elk, like bison. And she’s seen how this protects them with her own eyes.

“I saw a bear walking across my uncle’s lower hay pasture, lower calving pasture last winter, and he had just gotten a new bunch of some heifers and Hereford heifers and so those who are heifers had really never been around predators that I’m aware because they came from a lower area. And they bunched together, and they started to run towards the bear. But not in an aggressive way, it was more of a curiosity, young way and that startled the bear, that energy. [The bear] didn’t know what to do with that energy and so he ran off and then they kept running after him. And so that curiosity ended up working really well. I’ve seen that a lot.”

Curiosity might kill the cat, but it saves the heifers.

But bunching isn’t all Malou’s family does. They also have a robust range rider program they share with their neighbors. And they breed special dogs that scare off wolves and bears.

She says, in her mind, it’s actually her job to keep trying these things.

“I believe that we have a responsibility to be better than what we’ve been in the past and to learn out-of-the-box approaches and to continue experimenting, exploring.”

 

Gardening The Wild

 

Albert is now a state lawmaker and people listen to him. At a meeting in the Ruby Valley in Montana.

Albert is now a state lawmaker and people listen to him. At a meeting in the Ruby Valley in Montana.

Albert is one of those ranchers doing that experimenting. He says he can do that thanks to Wyoming’s compensation program. These days, it’s more generous than it was before. Now when a rancher can prove he lost a calf or a sheep to a grizzly, the state of Wyoming pays him three and a half times the market value. It’s one of the most generous compensation programs in the country.

Albert had something to do with that change. These days, he’s a state lawmaker and people listen to him. That’s probably one reason he’s now getting invited to teach other ranchers what he’s learned about coexisting with predators.

Today, he’s in a fire station in the Ruby Valley in southern Montana. The parking lot is jam-packed with pickup trucks. The lunch line stretches out the door. People pile up bowls of beef stew and cornbread. Albert stands at the front of the room with two unlikely friends of his: Gary Hayward from the forest service and Zach Turnbull with Wyoming Game and Fish. To these Montanans, it’s a weird trio.

After lunch, Albert and his Wyoming pals sit down, and the Montana wildlife agency folks get on stage. This time, there’s no rancher with them, no vibe of collaboration. In fact, a chill kinda settles over the room. One rancher in a ten-gallon hat stands up.

“Hillary, a couple years ago you made the statement, bears outside the core recovery area would be managed more aggressively. Are we there? Are you working on it? Where are we at with that situation?”

Ranchers line up for lunch at a meeting in Montana's Ruby Valley.

Ranchers line up for lunch at a meeting in Montana’s Ruby Valley.

Hilary sighs and says, “Dave, I said…” The audience chuckles. “Didn’t we have a conversation earlier?” She then goes on to try to explain her agency’s decision making.

This must have felt awful familiar to Albert. His Wyoming forebears had the same relationship with the government. You know, like, ‘Yo, what have you done for me lately?’ Albert tells everybody he doesn’t feel like that so much anymore. And that’s the message he leaves folks with.

“It’s really important to build relationships and build trust,” Albert reminds the audience. “And that’s a two-way street. The agencies have to do it and we have to do it.”

And I might need to meet ranchers halfway and extend some trust too. My family, we try to be locavores. We buy steaks from the likes of Albert. My kids know the name of the rancher who grows the juicy hamburgers they love. But maybe a part of me is holding back in that relationship, giving lip service, but not extending a real working hand. Maybe to do that I need to recognize that a wilderness in this modern age is more like my garden: messy, overgrown, but fertile. But still, it needs a certain amount of tending, watering, weeding. That’s a hard thing for me to say. That a wilderness has trouble tending itself anymore. But by refusing to say it, I leave the gardening to people who might prefer to put in a parking lot.

 

Cohabitation With The Wildest Of The Wild

 

Every evening, as the shadows are getting long, Albert puts on a pair of rubber boots and walks out past the old log house where his father was born and gets in his tractor. At the fence, the calves assemble, watching his every move. In their eyes, a look of trust that he’ll take care of them.

“So are you going to be the gate opener?” he asks me over the whine of the tractor.

“I can be,” I say.

Rancher Albert with cows

Every evening, Albert feeds his cattle on the ranch he grew up on in the Upper Green River Basin in Wyoming.

 

While we feed them, we have to get in and out a million times to open and close the gate. That’s because an open gate means they’ll just wander out and start drifting up into those wild mountains. Just like wolves and bears, we have goofy ideas about cows too. How dumb they are, just a hamburger on hooves. In fairy tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk”, the cow is traded away for three magic beans. In the book of Psalms, we’re told God owns the beasts of the forest and cattle on a thousand hills. And because God owns them, we own them.

There’s little personification of cows in Western culture. They’re stockpiled, bartered, a sign of wealth. Any intelligence has been bred out of them. That’s probably been my own bias. But Albert and Malou would both argue that’s not accurate. That the instincts of cattle are still strong. Instinct to drift to greener pastures, then to drift home, to bunch together against an enemy. Part of what Albert’s learned from the arrival of the carnivores is to trust the wild instincts of cattle.

“Things have changed and things are going to continue to change,” Albert tells me. “And we just have to try to do the best job we can to interface with those changes and deal with them and face them. I, and [most] ranchers, we hate change. Ask my wife. I hate change. But it’s inevitable. And the sooner you learn that, the sooner you’ll learn how to deal with it.”

Albert gets it, that admiration for the wild set free. There’s one memory he cherishes.

“I run onto a grizzly bear and she had three yearling cubs with her,” he says. “And it was late in the year and they were fat, you know, and as they were moving their humps were rolling, you know, and they’re beautiful animals. You know, they really are beautiful animals. If it’s killing my cattle, I may not want it there,” he says with a cowboy’s hearty laugh. “I mean, I think our Association recognizes that bears are here to stay and wolves are here to stay. But we want to stay. And how do we do that?”

That’s the question, for me, the one that really gets at the heart of things. Just how we can create a world in which humanity and the wildest of the wild can cohabitate? Well, there’s one thing I’m pretty sure about. Albert will be spending the rest of his days trying to figure that out.

Reporting for this episode was possible in part thanks to the Pattie Layer Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing and Journalism Fellowship through the Wyoming Arts Council.

Music
Blue Dot Sessions