Pondering Unlimiteds

Recently, I finished reading Wolfer, By Carter Neimeyer. Neimeyer’s direct, no-holds-barred writing related vivid stories of his 30 years as a government trapper. He spent many of those years involved with reintroducing wolves to the U.S. and capturing those that preyed on livestock, and his stories illuminate the inside mechanics of that project.

But Niemeyer’s focus is narrow. In 355 pages, he never once looks beyond the jaws of a trap to the broader context of unlimited wolves in our society.

Bison relocation — moving Yellowstone National Park bison to other areas of Montana — hit the news recently, too. A person has to wonder whether the wolf reintroduction proponents and the bison relocation proponents meet at an undisclosed office to frame their arguments because the bison relocation proponents have the same problem: They forget to look at the broad context for the reasons to resist unlimited populations of wildlife.

Proponents of unlimited populations of both wolves and bison demand livestock producers to bear the full brunt of the consequences of these wildlife, along with other species that live on productive private land.

Generally, I tend to live and let live. I enjoy spotting a wolf or grizzly in the mountains and I agree that diverse wildlife populations stabilize ecosystems. My husband, Steve, and I contribute our share of feed, clean water and cover to many wildlife species. The habitat we contribute to those species reduces the number of livestock we are able to raise on our land — not much, but some. That is okay with us; we like to do our part.

But livestock producers are limited much more by federal policies that create cheap food for all Americans. Those policies have created few commodity markets and severely limited opportunities for value-added markets. In the end, a livestock producer’s long-term profit margin is zero at best. In fact, only the best business managers will break even over the course of 20 years. That’s why conventional wisdom dictates that a person can not buy a ranch in this day and age.

Yet wolf and bison proponents demand that those species have a right to unlimited propagation and livestock producers should accept this unalienable right as a natural cost of doing business. They state these claims while eating a hamburger from McDonald’s Value Menu that sells for $1, including the meat, the meat’s additives, the bun and the ketchup and mustard, as well as the building, utilities and teenager who bags the burger and hands it through the window. If wolf and bison hosting livestock producers were allowed to make a minimum 7% profit margin like other industries expect, that Value Menu burger would be a bargain at $10.

But Americans demand cheap food and unlimited populations of wolves and bison. The obvious answer, in the official mind, is to criminalize livestock producers who do not provide these.

If a person who lives in Billings or Great Falls or Bozeman has her car stolen, she is the victim. If she yells at the perpetrator or even pulls a gun on him, she is justifiably protecting her property. But unless a producer catches a wolf in the act of killing livestock, she is a criminal for protecting her property. If a free-roaming bison wanders through fences scattering horses, cattle and sheep onto the road and other‘s land, a producer is a criminal for protecting her property.

When public officials institute plans for unlimited populations of particular species, livestock producers feel as if they just stepped into a wacky carnival House of Mirrors. They get pulled and twisted and distorted until they don’t know which way to turn. Instead of attacking America’s source of inexpensive, nutritious, safe food, wolf and bison proponents should either find a solution that they can fund and manage or make a choice: feed people or feed wildlife. Livestock producers should not be expected to feed both.

Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise natural, grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.

Lisa Schmidt