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for people who care about the West

She wins friends for lions, wolves and bears

 

Janelle Holden is in the business of changing minds — including her own. Holden, the coexistence director for the nonprofit Predator Conservation Alliance, grew up on a cattle ranch on the Great Plains, just east of the Rocky Mountain Front. When grizzly bears began moving into the area in the 1980s, her father was far from delighted.

Holden, the daughter of two Republican legislators, followed her parents’ political path. During college, she interned with Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, and later served as assistant communications director for Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, both Republicans and longtime opponents of predator recovery. After a year in Washington, D.C., Holden made her way back West, eventually moving to Colorado to work for two small-town newspapers.

Holden soon realized that the West was no longer the place she remembered or imagined. Oil and gas drilling and mining were changing the public lands, and while she still agreed with Republicans’ fiscal values, she began to question the party’s recent resistance to environmental laws and regulations.

In 2000, while she was working as the agriculture and public-lands reporter for the Cortez Journal and the Durango Herald, her political convictions received a serious jolt. Holden’s managing editor invited her to see then-presidential candidate Ralph Nader speak in Durango.

Holden found that several of Nader’s positions, such as legalizing the production of hemp for paper and clothing, made sense to her. "I’m a Republican, and I agree with this guy," she thought. "How can this be?" After the speech, she concluded, "I’m probably not in sync with Republicans on conservation anymore."

A few years later, Holden came upon an advertisement for a position with the nonprofit Predator Conservation Alliance in Montana. She thought it might be a way for her to work on the environmental issues she cared about. "I grew up on a ranch with grizzly bears," she thought. "Maybe they’ll hire me." She was right.

The alliance had noticed that, although conservationists were winning a lot of battles on behalf of predators in the courtroom, they weren’t gaining many new allies on the ground. The Range Riders Project, one of several that Holden manages, aims to do just that, working in partnership with the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group, an association of ranchers in southwest Montana.

The project has hired riders to patrol the sagebrush and stay near the livestock 24 hours a day, in hopes that the presence of humans and horses will deter wolves.

After only two field seasons, it’s too early to claim success, but no Madison Valley cows were killed by wolves this summer or the last. The project has been duplicated in the Boulder Valley south of Big Timber, Mont., with similarly encouraging results.

And Holden can take part of the credit for local ranchers’ enthusiasm. "She works for an environmental group with a big, scary name," says Todd Graham, ranch manager for the Sun Ranch in the Madison Valley, "but she plays her cards really well in front of a group of ranchers. Those are her ranch smarts coming into play."

"I wouldn’t say I’ve converted anyone into a wolf lover," Holden laughs. But a local rancher recently told her he would no longer shoot a wolf on sight. And Holden is even beginning to win her family over: Her father has joined the Predator Conservation Alliance. These days, he has two bumper stickers on his truck. One reads: Save the Front — Drill It. The other is PCA’s Lions and Wolves and Bears, Oh Yes!

The author is a freelance writer in Livingston, Montana.