Field Notes: An entire ecosystem of conservation at Montana’s J Bar L Ranch

Photo: Kayla Heinze
Conservation partners install electric fencing at the J Bar L Ranch, a Vital Ground conflict prevention partner in southwestern Montana near Yellowstone National Park.

By Kayla Heinze, Communications Specialist

At the J Bar L Ranch in southwestern Montana, the plan is often that things will not go according to plan. This was particularly true on the unseasonably cold and rainy day this August when I joined five other conservationists and Hilary Zaranek, who runs the ranch with her husband Andrew Anderson, to help with some fieldwork.

“If you get the ATV stuck, just leave it,” Hilary told us before we took off to finish our fencing repair and installation project from the day before. We were going a different way today, one that had already taken us through a herd of cattle, and which promised boggy conditions ahead. 

As clouds cozied into the nooks of the hills, we crowded around Hilary’s phone to map our route. Much of my two days at the J Bar L involved figuring out how to get vehicles, equipment and people across the rugged landscape of the Centennial Valley to where they needed to be. Without a paved road for over 20 miles in any direction, the working lands and national wildlife refuge that populate the valley have not succumbed to the pressures of human-oriented convenience. Wildness reigns, and, for those willing to accept it, there are rewards around every bend in the winding dirt roads.

We did get one of the ATVs stuck, but, after some determined pushing, we were able to backtrack and take it another way across the creek. Dodging sagebrush and baby grouse, we made our bumpy way up to the fence line. Each of us sporting a pair of already-soaked-through jeans, the fog grew even thicker and our work began. 

A new ranch for returning animals

Bears documented by a trail camera at the J Bar L Ranch in southwestern Montana. (Photo courtesy of Hilary Zaranek)

The term “frontlines” implies warfare, and Hilary was careful to avoid characterizing her relationship with wildlife on the ranch using a conflict framework. 

About 50 miles west of Yellowstone National Park, grizzlies and wolves are prevalent on the ranch. After populations of these predators started to rebound within the protected national park boundaries during the late 90s, individuals and packs eventually wandered out further, back onto these lands that their species had been absent from for nearly a century. 

So while the J Bar L is not at war, this Vital Ground conservation partner certainly exists on a frontline — a leading edge where ranchers are once again learning how to work and live alongside powerful wild creatures. It does take additional time and labor to keep livestock alive with these predators on the land, but, to Hilary, the real challenge is the process of personal growth that their presence prompts. 

“In coming face to face with the paradigms and subsequent practices that have defined our lives and that have defined who we think we are, we are forced to reckon with some truths that can be pretty hard to see and make sense of,” Hilary said via email. “Conflict prevention work, for us, is evolving the paradigm of the traditional ranch so that the new ranch reflects a new relationship with land and animals.” 

The animals, and opportunities for new relationships with them, are abundant. On just the small portion of acreage we covered during my visit, Hilary pointed out a willow thicket where she once spooked a couple of bears while riding the ATV and a forested hillside where she has found multiple bear-made beds in the cow parsnip. At the dinner table, she passed around a video of two curious grizzlies inspecting one of her trail cameras, her voice toned with pride and affection. 

But as Hilary was quick to remind us, these predators are just one of many moving pieces she needs to factor into her decisions. They have lost livestock to bears and wolves over the years, but many more have died from eating tall larkspur, a toxic but appealing plant that can escape even watchful eyes on a ranch as big as the J Bar L. These dead cows can, in turn, attract predators. 

This is one example of why Hilary and Andrew do not think about conflict prevention as a siloed effort. Interconnection is inescapable on the ranch. 

“When the business works, the ecosystem works,” Hilary said repeatedly. “And when the ecosystem works, the business works.”

Grizzly dig sites pepper the ranch, their long claws aerating the soil. The J Bar L has also experimented with grazing plans that pack cattle into smaller pastures and rotate them more frequently. Anecdotally, Hilary saw this pattern dissuade depredation. And it has myriad other benefits, from carbon storage and preventing erosion to supporting water retention and quality — all of which increase the resiliency and productivity of natural systems foundational to the function of the ranch. 

Of course, everything will not always go smoothly. Hilarly mentioned that a future of ranching alongside predators might also require factoring in a few extra livestock deaths each year. This hints at another pillar of the J Bar L’s philosophy, being proactive rather than reactive. 

The plan is that things will not always go according to plan. But with the experience of years spent riding the range in all sorts of conditions, these ranchers know the ecosystem well enough to embrace its dynamic wildness.

As photographer Louise Johns, who has spent time with the family, put it, “Instead of being a dominant force, the Andersons strive to be part of the landscape, humbled by the rugged space that surrounds them, rather than threatened by its unpredictability.”

Fencing for ranchers and wildlife

A truck loaded with tools and fencing supplies overlooks hills of sagebrush on the ranch. (Photo: Kayla Heinze)

Untangling barbed wire requires patience and persistence. It felt like slow work, especially compared to the herd of pronghorn dashing across the valley below us, but in two days we fixed and installed a mixture of barbed wire and electric fencing that allowed Hilary and Andrew to move their cattle into a new pasture. 

Fencing repairs might not seem like the most obvious or pressing project related to grizzly protection but in an interconnected system like the ranch, all topics need to be on the table. Hay prices and other factors may not be directly related to wildlife but they greatly impact the people who tend the lands those creatures rely on.

Like most conservation work, it was not particularly glamorous. I tracked my fair share of mud home to Missoula, but I was happy to carry tools across the sopping landscape for those two days. Because here’s the thing: when we talk about keeping the landscape open for wildlife, people like Hilary and Andrew are the ones on the ground every day continually making it a reality. Anything we can do to support them in turn supports their ability to care for the high-quality habitat on J Bar L property. That’s why Vital Ground has helped fund the J Bar L’s conservation efforts for two years now and why I made the long drive to be there in person for a few days of fieldwork.

The human ecosystem

Hilary Zaranek discusses the fencing installation plan with Kayla Heinze and another conservation partner. (Photo: Shawn Regan, PERC)

Human community is also considered part of the wholeness of the ranch ecosystem. This was obvious from Hilary and Andrew’s invitation for their partners to visit the ranch and their hospitality once we arrived. Circled around a delicious steak dinner, we shared stories from across the region that made it clear that the J Bar L, while truly a special place, is just one microsystem within an even broader coexistence and conservation biome. Across the West, people on working lands are bridging traditional practices with modern urgencies, like preserving biodiversity and extreme weather.  

It’s important to note, however, that ranchers are not a monolith. Hilary was honest that her peers exist on a spectrum of willingness when it comes to adapting to the presence of predators and other wildlife. Part of the J Bar L’s mission is to share what they learn with others. Building support systems can be just as necessary to the success of a ranch as building fencing, especially since many ranchers already deal with difficult financial situations and other tiring realities. 

“The combination of underlying, and often unacknowledged, stress and pain in people’s lives makes their world feel threatening and provokes defense,” Hilary said via email. “Defensiveness and fear limit potential to grow and heal and to think creatively and collaboratively.”

Conservationists and consumers have a role to play in helping ranchers increase their capacity for innovative thinking. Supporting food being produced with regenerative values and investing in reciprocal relationships with those food-producers is a display of solidarity that can lighten the load enough for the potential burden of living alongside wildlife to become a privilege. With stresses lifted by community support, ranchers can have the space to take necessary precautions and genuinely enjoy being neighbors with these remarkable species. The honor and awe she feels sharing the landscape with grizzlies was already obvious to me from just our short time together, but Hilary poetically confirmed it anyway.

“It is the presence, the abundance, the magic and the wild expression of life all around us, no matter the situation, that we cherish most of all,” she said via email. “Having them out there just makes the mundane that much more interesting.”

I didn’t actually see any bears during my time at the J Bar L. But Hilary is right — just knowing that they were out there filled our slightly dreary workday with a sense of vitality and enchantment. It’s a feeling I’ve come to know well since moving to the Northern Rockies, and it was especially visceral on the lovingly stewarded landscape of the ranch. Life begets more life, and with all this wildlife around, even building fences starts to feel a whole lot more exciting. 

 Learn more about Vital Ground’s conservation partners… 

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