Ranch Diaries: The risks of ranching on a wild landscape

How the threat of predators has fundamentally shaped my relationship with nature.

 

I’d stopped by to say hello to a friend’s beautiful baby boy, and was just leaving. Still buzzing with the awe of new life, I made my way through the yard, back to my car. As I headed for the gate, I nearly ran into a small black object. I jumped. It jumped, and ran to the corner of the yard.  

My eyes slowly focused. The dark shape grew edges. It was a tiny black calf with a very strange face.

Then I remembered my friend telling me about a dogie whom coyotes had attacked. This calf’s jaw was fixed partway open. I couldn’t tell in the dark, but from the photos she’d texted me, this little guy was lucky to be alive: his rear had been chewed up, and his jaw was broken and infected when they found him. After steroids, antibiotics, and pain medication, the calf perked up. But how to swallow with a malfunctioning mouth? Like so many animal survivors I’ve seen, his will to live was remarkably strong, and he soon figured out how to manage a bottle nipple.

  • A few summers ago, Sam doctored a calf that narrowly escaped a bear.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Black bear tracks.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Bulls, like these Triangle P fellows, aren't generally targeted by predators.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Coconut the elk, whom we haven't seen since last Thanksgiving, likely lost her 2015 calf to a predator.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Wolf tracks on a New Mexico ranch.

    Laura Jean Schneider

I had plenty of material to mull on during my two-hour drive home. The intersection between domestic and wild lives isn’t always harmonious. In the years that I’ve been ranching, I’ve seen depredations by wolves, bears and coyotes. Raising domestic livestock has given me a picture of what happens in the wild. I don’t want to see the picked-clean, nose-less skull of a calf still wedged in a cow’s birth canal, her vulva eaten away as she struggled to give birth. Yet I can image a cow elk or moose in the same situation. I haven’t had to shoot a domestic cow in this condition yet, but my husband has. I can only assume the end result for a wild animal mother is far less humane.

It’s easy to valorize nature as the efficient machine that only takes what she needs to survive. But nature is not merciful. In addition to killing for survival, nature kills without conscience or remorse. Nature tortures, maims, and leaves the wounded. When we choose to ranch on a wild landscape, that’s part of the risk we take. While we plan for a certain percentage of death loss to predators, it doesn’t make it easier to find the aftermath of an attack.

I respect that I share a landscape with predators who play an important role in the ecosystem. As a young teen I had a summer job for a wildlife film company. I raised and cared for timberwolves, Arctic fox kits, and coyote pups. I loved and cared for them loyally, just as I now care deeply about each and every Triangle P calf that comes into the world.    

But now I cannot be 100 percent neutral about depredation, because my job is to keep our cattle safe and make a viable living from raising them to maturity. As my responsibilities have changed, so, to some degree, has my relationship with nature. I love seeing wildlife, sunsets, and Pajarita Mountain peeking up through low hanging clouds, like it is this morning. It’s stunning here. Yet somewhere out beyond the sunny juniper covered hillsides is some smaller being struggling for its life.