That’s the message that ranchers are sending to the region’s wildlife as part of the Reserve’s Wild Sky program. Ranchers that enroll in Wild Sky receive financial incentives to implement wildlife-friendly practices. Some families are also choosing to install motion-activated camera traps that provide data about wildlife populations.
Reserve staff and Wild Sky ranchers are on the lookout for predators like black bears, cougars, bobcats, river otters, and badgers. For ranchers, images showing predators on their lands demonstrate that wildlife is welcome and also means that they’ll receive a cash bonus. For American Prairie Reserve, these pictures translate into data that help us measure baseline populations of predators and then trends over time.
The path to increasing wildlife populations takes two tracks: public demand for more wildlife and a growing supply of wildlife that can survive over time. With Wild Sky, we’re able to work with landowners around the Reserve’s edges to tolerate wildlife in greater numbers. But what about animals that have been completely removed, like grizzly bears and wolves?
By expanding the Wild Sky program along key corridors to the Rocky Mountain Front and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, we can improve connectivity and resilience as well as tolerance. According to Kyran Kunkel, our expert wildlife biologist, Montana’s predators have been expanding their ranges for the last thirty years:
“Wild Sky is a way to create stepping stones for bears and wolves to reach the Reserve on their own. Rather than compensating ranchers for dead livestock, our approach is to proactively incentivize landowners to have more wildlife around.”
Based on experiences so far, it’s working. Photo payments have already been made to Wild Sky ranchers for black bears and cougars on lands where their presence has been suspected but not confirmed. And although the management of ranches and American Prairie Reserve will never be the same, we’re seeing that Wild Sky is helping to soften the boundaries between us for the benefit of wildlife.