As conservation havens or bubbles, national parks may skew people’s understanding of the larger challenges facing wildlife. Case in point: The management of elk, bison, wolves, grizzly bears and other animals that migrate and/or have habitat and territorial requirements beyond park boundaries.

The moment these animals step outside the park boundary — where they may come in contact with unsympathetic humans and their livestock — they are as likely to be viewed through a rifle scope as through a pair of binoculars. No category of animal suffers this reality more than predators, especially wolves and grizzlies, which are venturing out of federally protected strongholds like Yellowstone National Park, only to be managed by other, inimical federal programs that appear fixated on the needs some humans to the exclusion of other interested parties.

Over the last 15 months, I’ve made many trips to Montana to study predators and their management. For being an outsider (a status I was reminded of often), I learned a great deal about my quarry, but I learned even more about the humans tasked with managing it. When it comes to making both lethal and non-lethal decisions, the group ranges from the powerful to the essentially powerless. Members include the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services, ranchers, cowboys, range riders, local community members and anyone else in the area who has an opinion about predators and their place on the landscape. I’ve met or talked with many of these folks, and I was often heartened by their sensitivity to the needs of humans, livestock and predators alike.

As is true in other places where predators, humans and livestock work to coexist, the site of my research has seen its share of management successes. For starters, most of the people there know that a big part of what makes their patch of ground so extraordinary is that it is still home to predators, and they’ve taken meaningful steps to keep it that way, including hiring range riders to monitor cattle herds. But they don’t just monitor; lone cows and cow/calf pairs are more likely to be depredated, so sometimes the riders gather up the herd at night, identify any sick or distressed cattle, and alert ranchers to sick or dead cows that may attract predators.

Range riding is important work, and I shudder to think of how life would be different for cattle and predators if the riders weren’t looking out for them. But the fact is, 50 range riders, let alone a few, aren’t nearly enough to cover even a fraction of the area, and their season runs from May through October, when most of the cows leave the valley and those that remain are, in theory at least, tended by cowboys.

Spring, summer and fall are busy times for humans in the valley, and that usually translates into more eyes on the herd, wary predators and less opportunity for conflict. But winter is a dark time with little room for error.

If you’re a rancher and you lose a cow to depredation because you didn’t check your herd for two weeks, the Livestock Loss Board will not only forgive your mistake, they’ll actually pay you for making it by compensating you for your loss. If, however, you’re a wolf who capitalizes on a rancher’s poor husbandry by taking a mired cow, you usually get a bullet to the head.

I know we can do better, but first we will have to raise our expectations of what is possible.

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Maximilian Werner is an assistant professor at the University of Utah. He has been studying predator control in southwest Montana for the past 15 months, seven of which were on fellowship. His latest book, "The Bone Pile: Essays on Nature and Culture" will be published in May. He can be reached at mswerner@gmail.com.

This column is the first in a three-part series; the second part will be published Thursday and the final part Friday.

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