OVANDO - Peter Brown scoots down the dirt road fast enough to bounce a handful of keys out of the dashboard ashtray when he hits the brakes.

He's almost run over a wolf scat.

That's the closest he usually gets to the wolves of the Blackfoot River Valley, where he's spent the summer guarding cattle for ranchers on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. But the little mossy-green turd is even better than a sighting.

Brown can tell by its exterior the scat is at least four days old. Nudging it apart with his boot toe, he can see rabbit hair, but no deer fur and definitely no cow hide. Like a backwoods Sherlock Holmes, he deduces a member of the Ovando Mountain pack has made a sweep through the area but wasn't inclined to stay, even though a herd of Bob Rowland's cows are grazing nearby.

As a range rider, Brown is reviving an ancient practice of protecting livestock from predators. The Blackfoot Challenge, a network of landowners in the Blackfoot Valley, hired him this year after seeing a spike in wolf activity on their ranches.

"I've got a lot more sleep this summer knowing Peter was out there," said Rowland. "Last year, we realized we were in trouble. We knew we had more wolves than ever before. We went from one pack to three packs. If you think of having 20 100-pound dogs, and that's the low-end count, think of the math. You know they're going to need a pile of critters to eat. All the species in the valley are going to pay a price so we can have wolves."

A wolf pack with four to six members (average size in the Blackfoot) eats three to five deer or one elk a week, or about 240 deer a year. By comparison, Highway 200 motorists kill about 360 deer a year.

The average rancher operates on a 3 percent profit or loss margin. That leaves little room for adding beef to a wolf's diet. And Rowland can't prove, but suspects additional losses, such as calf weights that are 10 or 15 percent lower because the herd got chased off its grass, or cows that failed to conceive because of wolf-related stress.

Before the wolves became a regular presence, Rowland would check his roaming herds once a week. This summer, he was out two or three times a week, spending half-days counting ear tags and watching for trouble. All that effort is time away from the rest of the ranch chores.

"In 15 years, I can count the cows and calves I've lost on one hand," Rowland said. "I lost one bull to fighting, two calves - one to disease and one to a wolf - and two cows that got stuck in a bog. This year, I've lost two calves, both within 200 yards of the house."

Rowland has fished Browns Lake near Ovando since he was in diapers. His wife also grew up in the valley, and they've been ranching there full time for the past 16 years. He is also chairman of the Blackfoot Challenge community council, and sits on its wildlife committee.

"We come up with brilliant, hair-brained ideas to deal with elk and wolves and bears," Rowland said, "and then see if they work."

That willingness to experiment has paid off before. In the 1990s, the Blackfoot Valley started feeling serious pressure from grizzly bears. Livestock got eaten, beehives got tipped, garbage got raided, all by a big predator on the federal endangered species list.

One of the first response targets were the boneyards where ranching families dumped their livestock carcasses after butchering or accidental deaths. Many of those yards had been in use for generations. Bears had learned the locations, and some were making regular visits.

The Blackfoot Challenge worked a deal with the Montana Department of Transportation to create a carcass composting site at a snowplow maintenance barn by Clearwater Junction. Getting old carcasses off the ranches helped discourage bears from prowling the barnyards.

Wolves haven't colonized the Blackfoot drainage as rapidly as they have the Madison or Bitterroot valleys. No one's sure why. It could take a little more time. Or perhaps something about the valley and its ranches isn't as attractive as the Dillon area, where a pack took out 120 sheep in an August afternoon this year.

The Blackfoot Challenge members aren't too involved in wolves as a political or legal issue. They haven't taken a position on delisting or hunting quotas. Rather, it's a practical problem that needs local, lawful and low-cost responses.

Where wolves are concerned, the Blackfoot Challenge represents roughly eight livestock herds scattered across 40,000 acres, watched by four wolf packs. Some wolves come out of the north, where Ovando Mountain forms the tip of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Others den around Elevation Mountain, at the northern tip of the Garnet Range.

"It all depends on where you are in the valley," said Seth Wilson, a University of Montana conservation biologist and wildlife coordinator for the Blackfoot Challenge. "Some places are at more risk than others, at different times of the year."

For example, during spring denning times, wolf packs don't roam much and hunt intensively close to home. Later in the summer, wolves concentrate around "rendezvous sites" that become the center of hunting activity.

Ranchers can react in several ways. Moving a herd of cows away from a denning area cuts down on the predation. Installing temporary electric fencing and "fladry" (flag lines originally used for hunting wolves, because the animals avoided crossing them and could be herded into a kill zone or net trap) can protect new calves. And patrolling the herd regularly seems to discourage wolf stalking.

That's where Peter Brown comes in.

Brown grew up on a ranch outside of Helena. He's studying at the University of Montana's School of Forestry, pursuing a master's degree in resource conservation. Armed with a low-key but persuasive manner, he has linked the Blackfoot residents into a valleywide neighborhood watch for predators. Every night, he's on the phone with landowners, advising where he's found wolf sign and learning where others have seen the same.

Cows are his burglar alarm. If they're spread wide across a pasture and grazing, everything's fine. If they're raising their heads occasionally, something might be in the wind. If they're bunching together and not eating, the vigilance tells Brown a threat is probably close by.

It could be a bear, or a person, or a wolf. Keeping track of the cattle's attitudes and locations helps Brown map the wolf packs' movements. So do radio-tracking collars, which he has permission from the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to monitor. He also inspects the herds for sick or injured animals. Those targets of opportunity could attract a predator, so he alerts the rancher to take action.

A flock of crows in a tree prompts another stop of the truck. Brown grabs a can of bear spray and plunges into the brush. He quickly finds a carcass of a young whitetail deer, with its hide peeled back and most of its sirloins eaten down to the ribs.

But the deer is all in one place. That means it probably died of natural causes, and the crows are the diners. Wolves would have pulled the animal to pieces and scattered bones everywhere. A bear probably would have eaten what it could and then thrown dirt over the remains, hiding it for later.

Keeping tabs on the dead is a major part of Brown's day. Bodies tell Brown what's moving about in the forest, how recently, and in the case of a dead cow or pet, when to put the neighbors on alert.

It's also the most dangerous part of the job. Interrupting another top-of-the-food-chain predator mid-meal almost guarantees trouble. Hence the bear spray.

Brown's day starts at 7 a.m. and often extends through the next 16 hours. He carries a motorcycle in the truck bed, for places a four-wheel-drive can't reach.

"I base where I go on what I saw the day before," Brown said. "At night, I get a lot of reports of wolves. Often, I find tracks and scat where they've moved through at night."

Not everyone's convinced that a range rider is worth the trouble. Rod Gilchrist of Lake Upsata Outfitters called the effort a "pie-in-the-sky waste of time."

"Everybody I know bought a (wolf hunting) tag," Gilchrist said. "Not that many will fill them, I think. The only people who are going to shoot a wolf are going to bump into them by accident. They're too hard to hunt."

Nevertheless, this year's public wolf hunt has many Blackfoot Valley residents pleased that another tool is available for wolf response. The general season on wolves doesn't start until Oct. 25. And unlike the Beartooth Wilderness, where backcountry hunters have already shot nine wolves and the hunt has been temporarily suspended, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex has only given up two.

"Some people want no wolves," Wilson said. "Some welcome wolves. We sit around the table and look each other in the eye as neighbors. We have to be able to respectfully disagree, and to celebrate our common vision when we have one."

Reach reporter Rob Chaney at (406) 523-5382 or by e-mail at rchaney@missoulian.com. Reach photographer Michael Gallacher at (406) 523-5270 or at mgallacher@missoulian.com.

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