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A Showdown Over Elk In Paradise?

New report illuminates clash between ranchers and disease-carrying elk that has huge implications for a famous Montana valley, migrating wildlife and a scenic corridor to Yellowstone

The mantra among some Westerners is the more elk the better. But ranchers in Paradise Valley, dealing with brucellosis-carrying wapiti,  say proliferating numbers of the animals congregating in their pastures threatens their survival.  Photo courtesy Flickr user Ian Sane CC-BY-2.0
The mantra among some Westerners is the more elk the better. But ranchers in Paradise Valley, dealing with brucellosis-carrying wapiti, say proliferating numbers of the animals congregating in their pastures threatens their survival. Photo courtesy Flickr user Ian Sane CC-BY-2.0
By Todd Wilkinson

Paradise Valley, Montana still lives up to its appellation, unlike so many New West dells where the creep of expanding suburbia is already writ large on the land and street names serve as painful reminders of what used to be. In those sightlines of never-ending sprawl, little green wayfinding signs carry monikers such as “Elk Run,” “Bear Lane,” “Cougar Drive,” “Sheepeater Boulevard” and “Rancher’s Way.” 

But this Paradise, a north to-south dale girded by chiseled peaks of the Absaroka Range on the east, and wild Gallatins to the west, cradles the winding path of the Yellowstone River from where it surges beyond Yankee Jim Canyon just outside Yellowstone National Park and courses right through the town of Livingston. 

Whitney Tilt admits that Paradise Valley is not the first place that springs to mind when pondering one of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's most distinctive natural wonders—its epic wildlife migrations. “What most people visualize, when they think of migrations in our region, is the movement of pronghorn between Grand Teton National Park and the Upper Green River Valley in the southern part of the ecosystem,” he says.  “Or maybe elk moving between Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, or between Yellowstone and the Madison Valley.”

Paradise Valley is, in fact, a vital mixing zone, he notes—not only for thousands of migratory and resident wapiti, but human cultures, rapidly advancing change in the form of shifting land ownership patterns and an elevated risk of zoonotic disease menacing those who raise livestock. To some, Tilt says, the potential arrival of brucellosis infection in their herds represents the metaphorical last straw on the camel’s back.

For all that Paradise Valley represents as a fountainhead of visual awe, the living is not easy for those who steward it’s most coveted, valuable and threatened asset—its open space, he asserts. Tilt is author of a new report, “Elk in Paradise: Conserving Migratory Wildlife and Working Lands in Montana’s Paradise Valley” published by the Bozeman-based organization Property and Environment Research Center ( PERC). Policymakers and even those who blithely pass through the valley believing it is adequately safeguarded may be in for an abrupt wake-up call.


Over the years, PERC, which turned 40 in 2020, has been a pioneer in what is called “free-market environmentalism,” espousing the conviction that economic incentives are a more potent force in achieving better environmental outcomes than government regulation. 

Some of PERC’s ideas have been controversial and treated with derision by environmental groups focused on public lands. Those same groups are regarded with distrust by many of the conservative agrarians in Paradise Valley and most rural valleys, for that matter, in Greater Yellowstone. Even if one ideologically has reservations about PERC, the challenge then is to identify better more effective solutions to safeguard ecological integrity that flows across both public and private land, and respect those with skin in the game.

The Western Landowners Alliance, bringing together likeminded property owners, presents the challenges this way: "Working lands have the richest biodiversity, per acre, found across the Western landscape, and are typically where the majority of fresh water is found. Working lands are also equally critical for sustaining prosperous rural businesses and long-term economic vitality. The stewardship of these landscapes is both a privilege and a tremendous responsibility."

Brian Yablonski refers to Paradise Valley as “ground zero” for trying to reconcile an array of seismic conflicts that have huge consequences.

Yablonski became PERC’s CEO a few years ago after working in the energy industry in Florida, also serving as a White House aide to the late President George H.W. Bush, an advisor to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and then being named chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He is an avid angler, hunter, hiker and disciple of the free market who today identifies as proud denizen of the Greater Yellowstone region.

Yablonski has tried to move PERC into the middle of conservation discussions. It is perceived by some outsiders to be not as focused on some of the contentious positions that were synonymous with the organization. He believes that one of the keys to safeguarding the ecological integrity of Greater Yellowstone is to respect the role of private property rights in safeguarding places like Paradise Valley
Elk in Paradise Valley. Photo courtesy Brian Yablonski
Elk in Paradise Valley. Photo courtesy Brian Yablonski
Although Greater Yellowstone’s 22.5 million acres contains massive expanses of public lands, four or five million acres of working ranches and private land—located mostly in mountain valleys along rivers—are crucial to phenomena that transcend borders such a migrations, clean water, even confronting the crisis of exotic noxious weeds impacting rangeland.

Paradise Valley is still looked upon as a traditional homeland for the Crow tribe; it has ranching descendants of the Story family, whose patriarch Nelson Story in the 1860s, drove a herd of Texas longhorns into Montana and started the cowboy era. It remains a place of retreat for modern tycoons and has had a roster of creative talents that range from the late Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham, Margot Kidder and Peter Fonda to Jeff Bridges, Doug Peacock, John Mayer and kindreds nearby such as Tom Brokaw, Tom McGuane and Michael Keaton.  

Private lands provide crucial winter range for wildlife and function as connective travel corridors for wild hooved animals and predators. Arthur Middleton, an ecologist who works with the Wyoming Migration Initiative, the US Geological Survey, the universities of Wyoming and California, and who spends his summers in Cody, says that 80 percent of Greater Yellowstone’s elk rely upon open, unfragmented private land at some time of the year.

As awe-inspiring as the epic migrations are, only identified within the last two decades thanks for cutting edge technology, there also bring trepidation. The new, spaghetti-like migration maps for the Yellowstone elk herds and other migratory ungulates are an incredible resource for scientists, government agencies, and conservationists,” Yablonski writes in the report. “But for ranchers, they too often cause additional anxiety and concern. Lines on a map often precede efforts to create official wildlife corridor designations, which can mean more regulation, oversight, and litigation for already-strained working landowners, most of whom are excellent stewards of wildlife. Unfortunately, landowners often feel as though they are the last to learn of these efforts.”

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Traditional ranchers and farmers, some of whom are land rich and cash poor, are as imperiled as the grizzlies and wolves once were before they were recovered, says Druska Kinkie, who together with her husband, Rich, have a cattle operation five miles outside of Emigrant between the Yellowstone River and Emigrant Peak. Hers is one of several families that provided insight to Tilt in his report and Ms. Kinkie spoke to Mountain Journal recently.

As a group, many ranchers feel as vulnerable to disappearing as the rural protagonists on Yellowstone, the Western TV soap opera starring Kevin Costner. Covid-19, which is paralyzing the economy, has sent shockwaves through the beef market, but ranchers were already reeling.  Coupled with the average age of agrarians rising every year, the next generation being ambivalent about taking over cowboying from their elders, costs outpacing returns, weather, predators, fickle market forces, ruthless practices of industrial meat packers, and battles with environmentalists have taken their toll, Kinkie said. 

Click on map to enlarge
Click on map to enlarge
Many Paradise Valley ranchers like her feel exhausted and the public doesn’t realize they are constantly rejecting offers from realtors, Wall Street investment hotshots and tech industry billionaires who promise to make them rich if only they sell out and allow their pastures to be subdivided—their pastures becoming peppered with trophy homes or scattershot neighborhoods holding the names of wildlife and people who came before.

Which brings us back to Greater Yellowstone’s renowned wildlife migrations and growing recognition of just how important Paradise Valley is not only for the survival of Yellowstone Park’s famous Northern Elk Herd but also a resident population of wapiti—the Paradise Herd— that moves between public lands in the mountains at the northern end of the valley.  

While prized by hunters, savored by wildlife watchers, and important to the natural food chain that includes grizzlies and wolves, free-ranging public elk, far more than Yellowstone’s lethally controlled bison that have been slaughtered by the thousands upon entering Montana, are more prolific carriers of the disease brucellosis.

The truth is that brucellosis is not an epizootic malady that has lethal consequences for cattle. More serious than the disease affecting a mother cow’s first pregnancy, sometimes causing abortion, brucellosis infection brings a stigma. Worse, it results in intervention by state and federal livestock regulators, namely the Montana Department of Livestock and US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 

Confirmation of brucellosis in a herd results in costly quarantine and broad restrictions imposed on all ranchers in a given area pertaining to the movement and sale of live animals. Tilt, who also runs a private consulting firm called Conservation Benchmarks, cites one analysis, completed in 2016, that showed the potential cost of quarantine to a rancher with a herd of 400 cows could be as much as $150,000 and it’s likely much higher today. 

In and of itself it might not be a knock-out blow but combined with all of the other factors, it may cause ranchers to throw in the towel.  
Top: Elk finding nourishment in a cattle pasture. Above: Wild migrating elk and domestic cattle graze together on a private ranch in Paradise Valley. Photos courtesy Implement Productions
Top: Elk finding nourishment in a cattle pasture. Above: Wild migrating elk and domestic cattle graze together on a private ranch in Paradise Valley. Photos courtesy Implement Productions
In recent years, every single outbreak of brucellosis transmission involving cattle infections linked to wildlife in Greater Yellowstone have involved elk. Multiple outbreaks have happened in Paradise Valley. “We’re considered a hot zone,” Kinkie says. Given the enormous stresses that ranchers are confronting, the importance of their private lands for public wildlife and the scenic character of Paradise Valley, and intense development pressure, the PERC report lays out 13 recommendations to help alleviate economic burden and help ranchers be more resilient in withstanding change.

“I know that some in the environmental community might wish we would just go away,” Kinkie says. “But I honestly don’t believe they have any idea what would happen to this valley.”

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In 2018, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued Secretarial Order 3362 that called upon states to identify critical big-game wildlife migration corridors. Zinke and his politically-appointed successor, David Bernhardt, have said the inspiration behind the order were the recently identified passageways in Greater Yellowstone involving pronghorn, elk and mule deer.

Montana, through data compiled by the state department of Fish Wildlife and Parks selected Paradise Valley as a priority area. However, among some ranchers, there is suspicion of the federal government’s motives (even coming from a Republican Administration) and, in Montana, tension has existed between private property owners and Fish Wildlife and Parks.

Rather than landowners dealing with government mandates, Yablonski says, a better way to engender collaboration in saving migration corridors before they are obliterated by development is to win ranchers as allies by providing incentives that make wildlife assets instead of liabilities. He notes, and Tilt’s report validates it, most ranchers see themselves as conservationists and already are doing things that are wildlife friendly. 

Elk in Paradise not only illuminates what the worries are for ranchers and offers a list of 13 recommendations (see some of them at end of story), but it reveals that bison, grizzlies and wolves, which make headlines in local papers, are not the paramount worry. 

“Of all the wildlife that landowners in Paradise Valley deal with, it is often elk that cause the most conflict,” Tilt writes. “In conversations with ranchers from Paradise Valley and elsewhere across the state, elk are commonly named as the species that ‘keeps ranchers awake at night.’  Even in the face of living with grizzly bears, wolves and other species of state and federal concern, landowners often identify elk as the biggest headache due to the lack of flexible and cooperative tools with which to manage them.”
"Even in the face of living with grizzly bears, wolves and other species of state and federal concern, landowners often identify elk as the biggest headache due to the lack of flexible and cooperative tools with which to manage them.” —Report author Whitney Tilt
In the Northern Rockies overall, thanks to advocacy groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Montana Land Reliance, Nature Conservancy and local land trusts that has focused on securing wildlife habitat, there are more elk on the landscape today than in the last 140 years. 

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The paradox is that despite species abundance today, persistence is not guaranteed. Others who are tracking trends in the West, corroborate the findings of the PERC report. 

For 30 years, Dennis Glick’s forte has been working with rural communities in Greater Yellowstone. As a longtime resident of Livingston, the incremental changes he has witnessed in Paradise Valley have been speeding up. He cautions that it’s easy to draw permanent conclusions based upon a superficial understanding of what’s actually happening. It’s the invisible grid that already exists, that hasn’t yet manifested, that has his attention—and his concern.

“The thing for people to keep in mind is they’re looking at the ghost of a landscape,” Glick says. “They are seeing not what Paradise Valley will be but they are catching a fading glimpse of what it was. If they go down to the Park County Planning Office and look at the plotted subdivisions and lot lines already on the books, they’ll see how open space is poised to be converted into development.  The open space that still is out there is merely a vestige of what used to be the hallmark of Paradise Valley, which is large agricultural working landscapes with a dramatic mountain range on other side.”

Paradise Valley has no zoning. Thousands of lots already have been plotted, each one if developed could come with structures and driveways, noise, septic systems, pets that may chase wildlife, gardens that wildlife eat and will result in wildlife being fenced out—the trappings of suburban Colorado or Bozeman for that matter. “Paradise Valley has some very serious challenges that need to be addressed sooner rather than later—or the horse is going to be so far out of the barn that it’s going to be too late,” he said. “We need constructive, creative people engaged in thoughtful civil dialogue. If we continue our myopic approach, with each person trying to grab their own piece of paradise view and we don’t work together, then in the end we’re all going to lose. And that end, when we lament what we didn’t do, isn’t so very far off.”

Far from being an isolated exception, the imminent transformation of Paradise Valley is “a poster child for all of the problems bearing down on natural landscapes in the New West,” he said, and it’s happening in every valley dealing with growth-related issues and the conversion of agricultural lands to being a dominated by land speculation and real estate deals. What mapping of elk migration corridors and the habitat of other species does is it allows the places most at risk to be prioritized.

“Certainly, one option is to sell for a gazillion dollars but then you have a lot of money and don’t know what to do,” Kinkie says.  “We’re ranchers. We like ranching. We’re not interested in retiring to a golf development in Arizona. But it’s hard. Some in our community have families where the kids don’t get along and one sibling can’t afford to buy the other out. It’s a real issue.”
“Certainly, one option is to sell for a gazillion dollars but then you have a lot of money and don’t know what to do.  We’re ranchers. We like ranching. We’re not interested in retiring to a golf development in Arizona. But it’s hard. Some in our community have families where the kids don’t get along and one sibling can’t afford to buy the other out. It’s a real issue.” —Rancher Druska Kinkie
And that view has won sympathetic portrayals as underdogs battling titans of greed. In the fictional made-for-TV melodrama Yellowstone, set in Paradise Valley, villainous New York City-based investors scheme to buy up ranches for hundreds of millions and turn them into a multi-billion-dollar real estate play featuring a luxury resort and construction of a new outdoor-recreation-oriented city of 40,000 people. Both Bozeman and Big Sky are presented as less than admirable reference points.

Glick is skeptical that free-market solutions alone are adequate to substantively safeguard Paradise Valley’s character and private land habitat so critical to public wildlife. But he praises several ideas in the PERC report that advance different kinds of incentives. They are designed to address landowner concerns, reward them for maintaining open space and better co-existing with wildlife. If they gain traction, they may help some stay intergenerationally on the land. 

“As I see it there are two issues both inter-related,” Glick noted. “The first is addressing the impacts, risks and costs of wildlife for land owners and the second but no less important issue is corralling sprawl. How to accomplish both is the million-dollar question. Yet they go hand in hand. If you fail at one you cannot solve the other.”
The TV modern Western melodrama "Yellowstone" starring Kevin Costner is set in Paradise Valley, Montana.  Two of the real-life menaces written into the storyline involving the fictional Dutton Ranch: brucellosis and greedy land developers. Photo courtesy Paramount
The TV modern Western melodrama "Yellowstone" starring Kevin Costner is set in Paradise Valley, Montana. Two of the real-life menaces written into the storyline involving the fictional Dutton Ranch: brucellosis and greedy land developers. Photo courtesy Paramount
For a few years, Tilt served as general manager of large ranchland on the west side of Paradise Valley owned by Atlanta businessman Arthur Blank. Blank operates the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch and is interested in preserving the pastoral character of Paradise Valley. He put 6,294 acres under a conservation easement with the Montana Land Reliance in 2018, part of 14,000 acres he’s permanently protected from development there and on his neighboring West Creek Ranch. In all, the Montana Land Reliance alone has worked with ranchers to protect more than 30,000 acres in the valley on more than two dozen different easements. 

As coincidence would have it, PERC CEO Yablonski has a family retreat near West Creek Ranch and has taken a keen interest watching the way elk stream through the valley below. Conservation easements, he says, are not the right tool for everyone.

In 2019, after leaving Blank’s employment, Tilt was enlisted by PERC to host a gathering at Chico Hot Springs with ranchers and other landowners, as well as sending out a survey, to hear their concerns.  PERC identified 34 landowners that cumulatively represent 90 percent of the land used for ranching.  More than 85 percent responded to the survey. 

Most landowners, Tilt observed, own at least one section of land—640 acres—and some tens of thousands of acres. The predominant land use reported is grazing livestock, primarily cattle, with 90 percent of participants engaged in grazing of some kind. Some 20 of the 31 survey participants dedicate 80 percent or more of their land to grazing. And 42 percent said that between 80 and 100 percent of their income comes from agriculture and wile 39 percent reported that 20 percent or less of their income is derived from ag.

“The primary agricultural products produced are beef for market (84 percent), hay/grain (71 percent), and recreation such as lodging and outfitting (26 percent),” Tilt writes. ”Ninety percent of the participants live full-time on their property, and half have been on their property for more than 30 years.”

Tilt said that while the survey identified different priorities among landowners, as a group they expressed a desire to maintain their operation as a working ranch that could continue for generations and protect open space. That’s good news for people who care about elk and wildlife. 

Of 30 survey respondents, 20 characterized wildlife presence on their land as “high use” with eight percent reporting moderate use and three as “low use.” Some 81 percent of ranchers reported costs from wildlife and the most often identified animal were elk.  Impacts range from wapiti eating hay set aside for livestock to knocking down fences and overgrazing grass in pastures.

Federal and state livestock regulators classify Paradise Valley as a “designated surveillance area” for brucellosis. Operating inside a DSA, because it has a higher risk of disease prevalence, brings with it added costs and worry to producers. 
Top: The Northern Elk Herd in Yellowstone, pictured here on the move, has been growing and elk have headed deeper into Paradise Valley in winter.  Above: In previous years, cow elk would be heading to the mountains with their calves. But ever increasingly, they and their young are remaining on the bottomlands and lower slopes of Paradise Valley, putting them on a brucellosis collision course with domestic livestock. What's the solution? PERC says it is to use incentives that make elk and asset instead of a liability. Photos courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS (top) and Implement Productions.
Top: The Northern Elk Herd in Yellowstone, pictured here on the move, has been growing and elk have headed deeper into Paradise Valley in winter. Above: In previous years, cow elk would be heading to the mountains with their calves. But ever increasingly, they and their young are remaining on the bottomlands and lower slopes of Paradise Valley, putting them on a brucellosis collision course with domestic livestock. What's the solution? PERC says it is to use incentives that make elk and asset instead of a liability. Photos courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS (top) and Implement Productions.
Brucellosis is an issue that often was cited in the survey and at meetings, Tilt says. One of the most effective strategies for reducing brucellosis risk is separating elk from cattle and yet Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist note that elk need private land winter range to survive the harshest months of the year. 

Tilt identified a rub.  Some ranchers are weary of Fish Wildlife and Parks because its objective appears to be increasing elk numbers and yet the expense of more wapiti is often absorbed by private landowners. “When the result of wildlife use of property is cross tabulated with the percentage of  income landowners derive from their lands, the results show how much more burdensome wildlife can be for landowners whose lands are their livelihood,” he wrote. “Eighty-five percent of landowners who receive 90 to 100 percent of their income from agriculture wish to see decreased use of their property by elk and other wildlife.”

The specter of brucellosis became real in the winter of 2007 when Carbon County confirmed a case and epidemiologists traced it back to Paradise Valley. Then a case was recorded in Paradise Valley and Montana lost its brucellosis-free status, bringing down pressure from the livestock industry to create the surveillance area.

“We never had an elk on this place, ever, until just after the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone,” Kinkie says. “I remember picking up kids from school and there, in front of us, were 800 elk. It was stunning for us. We asked, “what are they doing here and where are they coming from?” 

It turned out to be members of the Northern Yellowstone Herd and numbers have ebbed and flowed ever since, she says. When they first started appearing, the population was robust and near 20,000 and the rate of brucellosis infection was between three and six percent. Now, with between 6,000 and 8,000 wapiti in the herd, depending on the year, the sero-positive rate of elk tested is almost 30 percent.

“Wolves definitely changed elk behavior and, at the same time, grizzly bear numbers increased,” Kinkie says. “I’ll admit it is too simplistic to say it was predators because there have been land use changes and weather changes. The point is that for 20 years elk have been congregating in mass.”

In the spring, pregnant elk cows are birthing calves in the same pastureland shared with domestic cattle. Further, grizzlies are showing up hunting elk calves and wolves have trailed elk down onto ranches. It hasn’t created an appreciable uptick in predation on livestock because it has created worries for people, especially kids playing on their family properties and pets.

What Yablonski saw in spring on the backside of Kinkie's ranch only weeks after domestic livestock had calved.
What Yablonski saw in spring on the backside of Kinkie's ranch only weeks after domestic livestock had calved.
Not long ago, Yablonski was having a conversation with Druska. She suggested that he take a drive to the backside of their ranch in the shadows of the Absarokas. She predicted there would be several hundred elk. “When I got there, my jaw dropped,” Yablonski said. “Sure enough there were several hundred camped out. If you’re a rancher running cows there and concerned about brucellosis and having your operation shut down, I can understand why you’d be more than a little concerned.”

What Montanans may not realize is that ranchers could take drastic measures. They could erect high fences around their property that keep wildlife out. It would have as disastrous consequences as subdivisions.

Here, Tilt invokes another vital statistic: nearly seven of every ten agrarian landowners are 56 years of age or older. According to the survey, 23 percent of landowners indicated they intend to stay on the land as long as they are able, and 19 percent responded that they don’t know how much longer they can stay on the land. 

“Landowners expressed the highest level of interest in participating in programs that preserve their property rights and autonomy and that provide incentives to work jointly with their neighbors,” the PERC report states. “They also expressed high levels of interest in earning price premiums for their products, gaining access to new markets, and exploring approaches to mitigate risk and liability concerns. Overall, it’s clear that landowners are willing to implement conservation practices as long as they preserve individual autonomy and support rather than diminish their financial stability.”

The undeveloped open-space West (ironically a driver for skyrocketing real estate values), Kinkie says, is a product of a good-natured trade-off that has existed where ranchers are stewards of public goods greatly valued—open space and wildlife habitat—while the public understands that public land grazing is essential to their viability. 

Tilt says ranchers in the vanguard of the “ecosystem services” discussion in terms of open space, water, healthy grass and soils that can sequester carbon, and habitat but what cannot be assigned a value is how they hold communities together. They serve on the school board, look after elders, provide eyes and ears in rural areas, plow county roads for no compensation and pull travelers out of snowbanks when they put their rental cars in the ditch.  They vanish, he asks, and how different would Paradise Valley be? 

Yablonski and Tilt say that development pressures have made ranch protection more urgent with windows to address the crisis rapidly closing. “Change is coming fast,” Yablonski says, reflecting on how quickly development transformed Florida. Only a tiny fraction of the inward population surge that flowed into the Sunshine State could have serious negative impacts on Greater Yellowstone. “We don’t have a lot of time but I’ve seen how having the right market forces in place can provide a response that much faster than waiting for government to provide a fix.”

Kinkie avers that most urban denizens of Bozeman have no idea how fast growth is exacting impacts on southwest Montana that are irreversible.  If they could spend just a few weeks seeing the landscape through the eyes of ranchers they might realize how ranchers are the caretakers of things they value.

“You get up every day and you have X amount of stuff to do. Then the usual things happen that you didn’t see coming and have no control over. At the end of the day you are tired. Then you get up the next day, with the best of intentions and the same thing happens,” Kinkie says. “Do you know how it feels to, every day, feel as if you are falling further and further behind and you just feel alone? To get politically active, you need to have enough energy left over at the end of the day in order to press an issue or seek change. Most of us in the valley aren’t capable of doing that. We feel wiped out; we’re in survival mode.” 

Ranchers feel strongly about having their voice represented in a special working ranch group because the issues they are dealing with are specific to them, Kinkie says. “We don’t want to answer to new landowners or environmentalists. We want to be able to come and talk candidly with our neighbors and brainstorm ideas. That’s what PERC has helped us to do. It has helped us open doors to politicians and policy leaders at higher levels we didn’t have access to.”

Key Recommendations From Report

Below are some of the 13 recommendations made in PERC's Elk in Paradise report, designed to help ranchers, through market-based incentives, deal with more elk and rising risk of brucellosis in Paradise Valley. 

Work to Develop a "Brucellosis-risk Transfer Tool"

Essentially, this would involve a bond created to cover the financial loss ranchers experiences if cattle in their herd come down with brucellosis traced to infected wildlife. It would remove much of the worry associated with the possibility that a brucellosis outbreak could cause a devastating financial setback

Establishing a Paradise Valley Working Lands Group

Apart from existing watershed and brucellosis groups, this group, comprised of owners of working ranchers, would come up with recommendations that might be applied to identify incentives and create better public policy, enhancing their ability to be economically viable.

Craft "Elk Occupancy Agreements”

According to the report: “The agreements could compensate ranchers for the costs of allowing elk to migrate across their lands or of separating elk and cattle during calving season,” author Whitney Tilt writes. “Such an ‘elk rent’ program could be funded with private funds raised by willing conservation interests and organizations that support wildlife migrations or by a public-private partnerships and would be guided by real-time observations of elk movements, densities and occupancy times.”

Elk Compensation Fund

An “elk compensation fund” similar to what Defenders of Wildlife did for wolves in the 1990s when ranchers were compensated for cattle and sheep lost to lobos.  “Elk in Paradise Valley can be just as burdensome for landowners as wolves and bears, if not more so,” Tilt writes, noting that hunters, wildlife watchers and businesses that benefit from having elk on the landscape could contribute to create a compensation fund.

Giving Ranchers Transferrable Hunting Tags For Elk They Can Sell

This recommendation, albeit controversial to some, would involve having Fish Wildlife and Parks give ranchers elk hunting tags which they could, in turn, sell to hunters willing to pay more for opportunities to take a trophy bull elk. The income generated would help ranchers deal with the costs associated with having public elk on their land.

Conservation Fee Assessed On Visitors Coming To Yellowstone

As a new funding mechanism, this would involve assessment of a modest tax on top of the current entrance fee paid by Yellowstone tourists. Some of the proceeds would be used to secure wildlife habitat on private land outside the park and could possibly support, for example, the brucellosis-indemnity program.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.  For more on Wilkinson's career, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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