How one southern Alberta rancher has come to coexist with the largest predator in the province
When Twin Butte area rancher Tony Bruder noticed he was going through more feed for his cattle than usual, he knew something strange was going on.
“Them bulls were eating a lot of creep feed, I just couldn’t understand,” Bruder says. “I went down there one morning about daylight, and I just happened to be at the right time and place, and here’s a bear in the creep feeder. I thought, ‘Now that’s strange.’ So I got looking at him and I thought, ‘Now that’s a grizzly bear.’”
That was in August 1997. Fast forward 18 years, and a sight like this wouldn’t even cause Bruder to look twice. Since that first grizzly bear encounter, the big bruins have become a common sight on his land.
“The year after, I went down one day to the creep feeder and there were four bears in the feeder!”
It only escalated from there. Bruder says he began losing at least a cow and calf every year due to grizzlies. The pens that the grizzlies were coming into to kill cattle were mere feet from the house, right in the yard.
It was at this point Bruder realized this was more than just an issue of losing cattle.
“[If] a nine-year old-kid goes rushing down there, they’re not thinking about, ‘Is there a bear around the corner?’ They’re just thinking, ‘I’ve got to get my chores done and get ready for school,’” says Bruder. He’s referring to his two children, and is troubled that something could have happened to them when they were younger.
“If they go running around that barn corner, and all of a sudden there’s a bear standing there because it was going to the grain bin, what’s going to happen?”
Bruder knew something had to be done. In 2008, he sat down with some members of a group he helped spearhead called the Drywood Yarrow Conservation Partnership, to discuss how to eliminate these issues. The group went to Montana, where they looked at some of the projects being implemented by ranchers dealing with similar issues there. They brought these ideas back to Alberta.
“The deadstock pickup was the first thing we did, and then also some mitigation issues with electric fencing and developing the bear-proof door, that kind of stuff,” says Bruder. The work done by the DYCP has since been taken over by the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association, where Bruder serves as the Pincher Creek area coordinator for the Carnivores and Communities program.
Bruder has an important role with the WBRA. “When somebody wants to do a project, they contact us and I’ll go and try to help them get started,” he explains. “[I] help them fill out the paperwork, just go and walk around and say, ‘Okay, this is what I think we can do, what are your ideas, what do you want to do, now what can we make work?’”
Although most of these projects have been put in place successfully, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. There have been struggles getting everyone on the same page, including other ranchers. “There’s still a mentality of, ‘My grandpa did it this way, my dad did it this way, why do I have to change?’ Is that a wrong way to think? I can see their point,” says Bruder.
Bruder also has concerns over the way grizzly bear conservation on agricultural land is being dealt with by conservationists.
“I remember phoning Fish and Wildlife about it and he laughed, this is the first time he heard this, and he laughed,” Bruder says, visibly annoyed.
“It’s the same thing whether it’s Yellowstone to Yukon, or Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, or Alberta Wilderness Association,” says Bruder, explaining that these groups feel the need to save habitat that is being ruined by ranchers and farmers. He disagrees with this. “We’re saving the habitat,” he says.
He stresses that special interest groups are often not fully informed of the situation, and people shouldn’t take everything they say as the truth.
“My biggest thing would just be, know the facts before you base a judgement,” Bruder says. “You have a pretty good understanding what’s happening in your own little square, but most people don’t understand what happens outside of that. And the first story they read they take as gospel, instead of really thinking about and looking into what it really is.”
Bruder wants to make it clear that ranchers just want acceptance and understanding. He feels that the media often portrays the issues in a different way than they’re really happening in his own backyard.
“They’re painting the rancher with a bad brush,” says Bruder when talking about how the media has in the past taken one example of a rancher killing a bear and suggested that all ranchers are bear killers. “You know, instead of showing the facts of what’s really going on, on the ground, about how ranchers are working.”
“I don’t know a rancher around that doesn’t want to see wildlife on their place. Or doesn’t want to see a bear walk across their place. The hair still stands up on my arm when I see a grizzly bear walk across the hill. It’s pretty damn cool.”
The editor responsible for this article is Tara Rathgeber and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thumbnail courtesy of Andrew Gutsche.