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Steve Primm Wades Into The Sagebrush Sea

Madison Valley-based conservationist promotes better means of co-existing between ranchers, recreationists, wild carnivores and livestock.

Columnist Steve Primm
Steve Primm is not the kind of youthful professional conservationist you’re likely to find in Bozeman or Jackson Hole. Identifying with rural people and their lack of pretension, he lives in the country by choice to be closer to his line of work: collaborating with ranchers, mostly, to reduce conflicts that arise when domestic livestock shares landscapes with grizzly bears and wolves. 

In “Sagebrush & Cranesong,” his regular column, Primm will be sharing observations from Greater Yellowstone’s western tier that also happens to be an important biological corridor bridging the ecosystem with wildlands further to the north.

MOUNTAIN JOURNAL:  You live in the southern Madison Valley, nearly within stone-tossing distance of the namesake river that runs through it.  Share with us a few thoughts about why you like calling this corner of the Greater Yellowstone home?

STEVE PRIMM: The upper Madison is a place where superlatives blow away on the prevailing south wind.  I moved here in the mid-90s, just as recovering grizzlies and reintroduced wolves were starting to spill in here from Yellowstone over the mountains and up the river. The ecological importance of this place for reconnecting Greater Yellowstone with other wildlands is tremendous.  It's also a very dynamic human community, and I've come to know a lot of really top-notch people.

MOJO:  People and Carnivores, the non-profit conservation organization you help run, is all about promoting co-existence between humans and predators.  It's largely unheralded work but it pays huge dividends. What kinds of changing in thinking have you observed, for better or worse, over the decades that you've lived in the region?

PRIMM
: Twenty-five years ago, wolf reintroduction and recolonization of historic range by grizzlies seemed highly unlikely.  I was among many who thought large carnivores wouldn't thrive outside designated protected areas.  But they have, and many people are willing to take steps to prevent conflicts with them in what we call the working pastoral landscape. 

On the downside, explosive growth of recreational use in large carnivore habitat, as well as certain kinds of recreation, has the potential to lead to far more conflicts.  It's terrific that people want to connect with wild places, but we have to recognize that these places are more than just pretty settings for making Go Pro videos.

MOJO:  You've gotten involved in the rural community by being a volunteer firefighter and part of the teams responding to accidents and search and rescue operations. There are fewer people living in your dell than in the Gallatin Valley but the bonds of connection between people are strong.  Thoughts?

PRIMM: We're a small community populationwise, so we rely on each other to take on a lot of different responsibilities.  But Madison County geographically is bigger than Rhode Island. Our fire and ambulance services are all volunteer.  It's an honor to work alongside these people, and to serve others.

MOJO:  You are deeply concerned about the future for grizzly bears and yet you see lots of positive things happening out on the landscape.  When it comes to grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone, who do Americans need to know?

PRIMM: Collectively, Westerners are getting a lot of things figured out about how to have grizzlies as neighbors again.  What we need now is sustained, long-term funding to keep conflict prevention programs strong.  Truly wild, self-sustaining populations of large carnivores are national treasures, so I'm not shy about saying that the whole country ought to be chipping in to maintain and expand proven practices for preventing conflicts.

MOJO:  As a native Missourian, you've found a true calling in the mountains.  What does a good day—or night—look like for you in the northern Rockies? 

PRIMM: Any day that takes me to a high ridge, up in the whitebark pines, is a good day for me.  Especially if I get there with good horses and a good dog to share it all with.
A drone camera captures Steve Primm and a colleague raising a new bear pole used by outfitters and hunters to keep their food out of reach in grizzly country.  Photo courtesy Steve Primm of People and Carnivores
A drone camera captures Steve Primm and a colleague raising a new bear pole used by outfitters and hunters to keep their food out of reach in grizzly country. Photo courtesy Steve Primm of People and Carnivores

MOJO:  In terms of charting Greater Yellowstone's future, who are the people or entities that play the most pivotal roles?

PRIMM: A lot of the carnivore conflict prevention work we do -- and preventing conflicts is how we achieve reconnected grizzly populations -- depends on the choices people make, the practices they adopt that either prevent or cause conflicts.  If we want to keep large carnivores in this ecosystem, it's imperative that we find constructive ways to engage with people who are going to be directly encountering predators on the trail, on the ranch, or around their communities.  At the same time, there are some mega-trends that require bold leadership at the county, state, federal, and global level.  How do we grapple with climate change?  How do we handle the huge influx of new residents and visitors to the GYE? 
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