Tony Vagneur: Perhaps its time to mosey up to Big Sky country

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It came across my desk, either social media or email, it doesn’t matter, but the first thing that caught my eye was the scene before me. A long string of Red Angus cattle, lined out along a fence somewhere in Montana, as far as the eye could see, with three punchers and their dogs watching the procession.

It wasn’t exactly a job offer, but if ever there was a summer job made for me, this was it. A group of cattlemen in the Centennial Valley of Montana are looking for a range rider. My salivary glands started working right away, and it got better as I read the job description and what was required.

The mission of the Association is, “to preserve traditional ranching as a way of life in the Centennial Valley, and to maintain quality open space, wildlife habitat, water quality, and wildlife migration corridors as they exist today for future generations.” Through smart conservation easements and other restrictions, there aren’t gonna be subdivisions or 35-acre ranchettes in that valley.

Sounds like a page out of my grandfather and father’s diaries, compiled during their years on the Elkhorn Ranch in Woody Creek. They were cattle ranchers, pure and simple, and they knew their business. My interest was piqued, but what was the job all about. It was a tough one, if you got right down to it, one that wouldn’t appeal to many people, not if you considered the reality of the situation.

The required qualifications were a list of how I’ve spent my life in the mountains: “Ability to ride long distances on horseback (15+ miles/day) in remote settings (often alone) with large predators and hazardous conditions (i.e. bogs, downed wire, inclement weather, etc.).” Qualified applicants need to display a willingness to carry bear spray, a radio and a SPOT device. With the exception of the bear spray, I’m experienced. Sounds like a typical day for me in the summer. SPOT, radios, cell phones and I have been friends for years.

Reading further down, a desired qualification is experience with grizzly bears and wolves; also need to remain neutral on whether predators are good or bad. My quiver contains no real experience in those areas locally, except for the winter trips to the BWCA wilderness to look for, and listen, to wolves. Grizzly bears — I’ve read a lot — keep your eyes open and the bear spray handy, I reckon. My experience with black bears in this area is gleaned by many encounters in the surrounding mountains. And in town.

The main thrust of the job is: “… will be responsible for closely monitoring multiple cattle herds, primarily on horseback, with the intent of minimizing livestock stress and losses due to depredation, as well as tracking wildlife across the Centennial Valley. Range Riders will work as a Team to accomplish these primary goals”. That particular valley is around 450,000 acres, a tad bigger than Jerome Park or the area between Sloan’s Peak and Mount Yeckel, where I spent a great deal of my life.

The ad doesn’t say so, but studies have shown that consistent human interaction with cattle herds reduces stress and losses from predators.

The job runs from May 15 through October 31. I’ve spent up to three consecutive weeks alone at our Red Canyon cow camp in the summer, taking care of the cattle, moving them to higher elevations and packing salt. For 20 years, as a Forest Service volunteer, I spent 2½ months up there each fall, late August through early November, watching over hunters; getting the lost ones back to camp, educating them on various rules, and letting them know about leaving a clean camp. Those were the long stretches of time — there have been innumerable periods of days and weeks spent there, all blurred together.

In the cold of November, after I’d pulled out, waiting for ski season to start, I would sincerely miss the place; miss the routine of staying alive by my own wits and efforts, and would be totally perplexed by the noise civilization makes along the Roaring Fork Valley.

They don’t require that you bring your own horses, but highly recommend it and preference will be given to those who do. The days when the Red Canyon Cattlemen’s Association used to hire a range rider for the Kobey Park area, we phrased it the same way. Long-time range rider, Al Senna, got tired of taming and teaching the green-broke horses we’d send him to ride and started rounding up his own string each spring.

There’s not much left to do: figure out how many horses I need to take, put new batteries in my SPOT device and pack some clean underwear. Wait — do they have a mandatory retirement age?

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at