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Coexistence Country

Words: Jainee Dial

Photos: Camrin Dengel

Originally published in

Beside Magazine Issue 06

In the rugged southwestern corner of Montana, 2.2 million acres of otherworldly blue geysers, dramatic canyons, and rich archaeological sites are protected within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. Were it not for the popularity of the northern gates of this vast ecosystem, the Tom Miner Basin might be overlooked entirely. 

 

A lone dirt road bisects the valley; a bowl of grassland that, to a casual observer, might simply appear as a sweeping patchwork of cattle ranches. But these sage and aspen-covered hillsides are the setting for a decades-old conflict. Home to at least two packs of wolves and one of the densest populations of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 States, this is ground zero for a controversial convergence of predators and prey, humans and livestock. 

 

At the center of this ever-evolving struggle is Malou Anderson-Ramirez, a third-generation cattle rancher, mother, and outspoken leader in the movement for coexistence—the art of sharing the landscape with threatened meat eaters like bears and wolves. Hers is a multi-generational story of old customs and modern toolsets; of antiquated mindsets and the evolution of a new doctrine for existing in a shared ecosystem.

 

Anderson-Ramirez is carrying on the family tradition, but it’s certainly not business as usual in the basin. In this mostly conservative community, a Buddhist-influenced, scientifically-minded, progressive female leader deploying a lexicon with terms like regenerative agriculture, biomimicry, and holistic land consciousness is rare, to say the least. 

 

For some in the valley, a sterile landscape with zero predators is the aspiration, and “shoot to kill” the prevailing maxim. To Anderson-Ramirez, the legacy of conflict between ranchers, predators, and conservationists is divisive and polarizing, yet she’s hopeful that conversations and strategies will shift, as she insists they must. There’s a sense of urgency in her tone; coexistence is not simply a solution to conflict—it is a moral imperative. In her mind, predators deserve to exist here, as they have for time immemorial. Tom Miner Basin is just a fragment of the larger story of protecting what natural resources still exist on the planet. Like the basin itself, which sits above the caldera of a massive volcano, an existential threat brews just below the surface—a threat to the idea of wilderness itself.

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The Rise of Predator Tourism

 

Over the last decade, the remoteness that once deterred outsiders has brought new visitors to the basin in hopes of spotting a large predator in its home environment. It’s a balmy Saturday night and we’ve gathered in the front yard of Anderson-Ramirez’s cabin, the golden light beginning to fade beyond the south ridge. Suddenly, the enchanting quiet of the basin is disrupted by a caravan of vehicles kicking up dust. We hop in the pickup and drive a few miles to the B Bar Ranch, where nearly 50 people have gathered on the side of the road. On any given day around sunset at this time of year, tourists congregate with binoculars and expensive cameras in hand. It’s a flurry of car exhaust and desperation for the chance to see the much-maligned grizzly in the wild—from a safe distance, of course.

 

Anderson-Ramirez sits exasperated in the driver’s seat of her truck. “This is nothing. The summer was even more crowded,” she explains. Suddenly, a man yells, “There!” as he points to the hillside, evoking a wave of energy and a collective gasp among the onlookers. Two massive creatures appear on the ridgeline and come bumbling toward the fence, stopping occasionally to dig at the red-tinged caraway root that brought them to this pasture.

 

“If they had a mother, they’d know not to come this close,” says Anderson-Ramirez. Confused, I ask her to explain. “We have hunters packing pistols instead of bear spray, and that’s why we have twin cubs without a mother. They’ll probably get shot too.”

 

Camera shutters click in a cacophony of noise as they disappear into the sunset, oblivious to the unfolding story that will ultimately determine their fate.

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Keepers of a New West

 

Anderson-Ramirez’s grandfather came to Montana after World War II. As part of a Midwestern family who’d made their living in steel, he was captivated by the West’s rugged beauty, and eventually moved his growing family to the Tom Miner Basin in 1959. A well-educated outsider, he had to work to gain the approval of his neighbours and community. “We’ve always sort of been the rogue ones in this valley, but well respected. My grandfather had an open mind and had to make friends because he had to learn how to ranch. He learned to be a good neighbour.”

 

Though Anderson-Ramirez was raised on the 1,600-acre property where she’s now rearing two daughters with her husband, Dre, she didn’t always anticipate returning to her childhood home. Her parents highly valued their children’s education and insisted they leave their familiar surroundings to pursue academics. “They wanted us to get out of our little bubble. I think sometimes the most dangerous people are the people who never leave, generation after generation.” Her face lights up when she describes how she and Dre have evolved. “He was a surfer from Texas doing his thing and had never even been to Montana. It took a few trips for him to really start to love this place, but apparently the change was permanent because now he only wears Wranglers!”

 

Anderson-Ramirez and her husband are the only members of her family living full-time in the basin, and they care for the livestock year-round. As agriculture has become less financially stable, they’ve had to turn to tourism to pay the bills. Two tiny homes (built by Dre) and a beautifully restored stone schoolhouse welcome Airbnb guests to the property from spring until late fall. The shift in economics here is indicative of what most Western rural areas are experiencing—an evolution from the “Old West,” with an economy based on farming, ranching, and resource extraction, to the “New West,” which relies heavily on tourism, recreation, and technology.

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A New Ethic of Coexistence

 

Up until 10 years ago, the Anderson family followed conventional ranching techniques. Wanting to restore grassland and manage livestock differently, Anderson-Ramirez began a program through the Savory Institute called "Holistic Management". One technique called low-stress livestock handling encourages cattle to behave more like the bison that once grazed these lands and knew how to guard their young against predators. For Anderson-Ramirez, the program was a revelation. “This could change the entire ecosystem”, she thought.

 

The challenge was to find a way to implement these tactics and unite a community with vastly different perspectives. According to Anderson-Ramirez, it’s deeply complicated. “Here we are trying to coexist with animals in this landscape and we can’t even coexist with each other. That’s the other story of Tom Miner Basin.” 

 

Anderson-Ramirez knew that the starting point to any meaningful conversations around predation would have to be both compassionate and diplomatic. Together with sister-in-law Hilary, she co-founded the Tom Miner Basin Association, which works on a number of fronts to support thriving and diverse wildlife populations, sustain ranching businesses, and ensure a wild and healthy ecosystem.

 

She’s also deploying modern technology. Earlier this year she was recognized by the National Geographic Chasing Genius committee for a vision that she believes could potentially revolutionize the way ranchers and predators coexist. Her idea is to insert a tiny microchip into each of the animals in a herd to monitor their health and whereabouts. If one becomes injured or killed, the GPS technology would allow the rancher to find it and tend to its wounds, or record how it died. Since ranchers receive compensation from the government for losses due to predation, this system works in their favour, allowing them to quickly and easily document casualties. As Anderson-Ramirez explains, “We want to keep wilderness intact and cattle ranching alive.”

 

Anderson-Ramirez is no stranger, herself, to death and predation. Her family has had several dogs attacked and killed by wolves over the course of her life. “Wolves don’t run from dogs. They taunt them, almost like they’re playing, and then they attack to kill. It’s heartbreaking to lose an animal, whether it’s your family dog or your livestock.” She recounted the story of the old rancher up the road who drives around with a picture of a young calf hanging from the rearview mirror in his truck—it was eaten by a bear, and to him, the loss was personal. 

 

Though her program can’t stop ranchers from shooting predators on sight, she believes it may act as a deterrent by accelerating reimbursements for lost animals. It’s a modest start in a long journey toward changing the minds of those who may be all too ready to pull a trigger. 

 

One prevailing truth guides how Anderson-Ramirez approaches coexistence in the Tom Miner Basin: humans are the ultimate predator here, and they must relearn the reciprocity of the natural world. Her many strategies inspire a new ethic: to confront the errors in old ways, and to respect all of the inhabitants of this land, not only those that serve and feed us directly.

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Author’s Note: After our visit, the twin grizzly cubs were killed by Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, because they wandered down into the valley and got too close to humans, just as Anderson-Ramirez feared.

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