Steve Clevidence (rhymes with evidence), also known as “Wulf, ” belongs to a family that has ranched in the Bitterroot Valley of Western Montana since the 1870’s. He was raised with an attitude rare among ranchers. In his words, “We are here as caretakers of the land.” And Steve means not only the land but also the species that inhabit it, including predators. Hunting in his family is done only to put food on the table, unjustified killing is unacceptable. Steve’s elders taught this from the onset, and he absorbed this lesson and is determined to do his part to reduce the unnecessary destruction of that iconic predator, the gray wolf.
I’ve known of Steve for some time. He is on the Advisory Board as a ranching and livestock consultant for Living With Wolves, a non-profit founded by the wildlife film-making Dutcher family. On a recent Facebook post Steve displayed his support for Predator Friendly Certification, a coalition of farmers and ranchers who advocate the stewardship of wild animals along with the production of their livestock and other products. This type of certification is an interest of mine so I called Steve up and asked him some questions about it. Of course, when wolf supporters talk there’s a lot of ground to cover, so occasionally, we wandered off topic into other facets of wolfdom.
Steve told me that the Predator Friendly certification program is showing positive results in encouraging human coexistence with wolves and other predators. However, in order to do this, livestock producers “gotta quit being lazy.” Steve went on to explain that simple changes in management practices can make a lot of difference, such as feeding cattle in the evening rather than in the morning as this tends to cause them to bunch up, making them a more solid force against predators in the dark hours, when most predation occurs. Getting cattle to act more like buffalo generally keeps them safer from natural predators. He also shared that donkeys kept alongside cattle will bray a loud warning, one that alerts ranchers as well as scares off predators who hasten to put miles between themselves and the strange, obnoxious noise. Large-breed dogs, such as the Great Pyrenees, are effective predator deterrents when kept among sheep. At least two or three of these impressive dogs are needed to serve as a significant show of force.
Steve spoke of the progress made with an Alberta rancher’s cooperative in reducing wolf and livestock conflicts. This innovative group of ranchers, with the assistance of Timmothy Kaminsky (also with Living With Wolves) and the Mountain Livestock cooperative, as well as Steve, has successfully implemented non-lethal methods to prevent depredation from wolves. Last year no cattle at all were lost to this group of 40 ranchers, despite the large number of wolves in the area. Similarly successful work is being done on Blackfoot land in Western Montana. I discovered a wonderful place online called The Grazerie in High Prairie, Alberta that boasts of being the first Predator Friendly certified ranch in Canada.
With a more enlightened public, many of whom do not want to see natural predators eliminated; Predator Friendly certification offers a whole new market. Steve says that the change will be slow, and that we need to get one or two ranchers in a new area to go along, then others will follow. But in his words, “One day this will be the norm.”
Steve’s optimism was music to my ears. In a world where advocates lose battle after battle in the effort to protect wolves, it’s wonderful to hear Steve say that change is occurring, even in a place like Montana. But he knows “that ranchers have to want to change” and many of them don’t. The compensation program has opened a can of worms in his estimation and it is one many ranchers take advantage of. This money could have been used for education and Predator Friendly measures, rather than handed out to a handful of ranchers who are unwilling to change. Steve is a big proponent of educating youth, believing kids need to learn the facts early on. He cites the upcoming children’s book about the return of the wolf to Yellowstone called “Running For Home,” as an example of the type of text we need to dispel the erroneous mythology that perpetuates a fear and hatred of wolves.
Coming from a long line of ranchers, Steve has an in. He can walk onto a rancher’s land and speak with them from experience and empathy. His attitude is to use common sense to approach predator issues. Steve sees all sides of the conflict yet he firmly believes there are solutions that can benefit both the human and wildlife element. But he admits it takes a lot of courage to speak up against the anti-wolf mentality. He spoke of when he began to confront these forces in Montana. Because he had the guts to do this, and without showing fear, others who advocate for wolves became more inclined to stand up too. Seems it takes the courage and conviction of a few to propel a movement fraught with as much emotion and controversy as this conflict.
Along with a positive outlook, Steve has a charming sense of humor. Over the phone I heard him chuckle over the irrational fears some folks have of wolves, and how steadfast some ranchers are against change. Steve has traveled widely and witnessed relationships between humans and predators all over the world. In Africa he studied the Masai people and how they protect their cattle from lions. Steve has seen first hand how people can reconfigure their lives to live side by side with predators, and with his eternal optimism he firmly believes our region will someday do the same. In his words, “If a third world country can do it, we can too.”