RANGE RIDERS IN THE UPPER RUBY CONTINUE A MONTANA RANCHING TRADITION.
“So why the heck do you want to do a story on us?”
That was the first thing that Tel Miller said, other than a kind hello, as we walked through the threshold of the early 20th century log-sided homestead.
To Tel Miller and his fellow rider Lindsey Wuelfing, their job is nothing too out of the ordinary.
They are range riders for the Warm Springs Grazing Association. During the summer months, these two live 30 miles up the Ruby Valley at an old homestead and spend their days looking after cattle that come from ranches down valley to graze on the surrounding land.
Contracted by either a ranch or a collaboration of ranchers, modern day range riders care for and watch cattle when they are in remote pastures, typically in the summertime. Making daily observation treks, the riders keep an eye on the cows’ health, check and maintain fence lines and water sources, and, when the time comes, rotate pastures.
Ranchers introduced range riding when they arrived in the Ruby Valley around the turn of the 20th century to protect their cattle up high in the mountains during their summer pasturage. Since most ranchers sent their cattle up into the mountains to graze on what is now United States National Forest land, they hired men to live with the cattle and provide protection to their cows.
Decades ago, ranchers who had easements to graze their cattle in the Warm Springs drainage of the Gravelly Range formed the Warm Springs Grazing Association. At its height, six nearby ranches were a part of the Association. But, as it goes, ranch ownerships and size ebb and flow with time. Today, three ranches make up the Association: the Ruby River Ranch, the Lueck Ranch, and the Giem Angus Ranch. Warm Springs runs cows on 22,500 acres of land that ranges in elevation from around 6,000 feet to just shy of 9,000 feet. It is broken up into six different pastures that the cattle typically graze for about a month, so some of the land gets rested every year.
Over time, the role of the Warm Springs riders has evolved to include more than just monitoring the cows. In addition to making sure the heard stays healthy, the riders also focus on the health of the land. Realizing that in order to continue pasturing their cows up Warm Springs year after year they needed to maintain fertile ground for the cows to graze, the Association partnered with the United States Forest Service to create a grid of pastures to ease pressure on grasses, install water tanks to lessen stream use, and monitor riparian areas for overuse.
The updates earned the Association the 2000 Montana Environmental Stewardship Award, granted by the Montana Stockgrowers Association, which “acknowledge[s] producers who go the extra mile when it comes to preserving and enhancing the resources on their land.”
Tel simply pointed around the big basin.
“We run cows from the road we just came up [Warm Springs Creek Road] to the skyline [of the Gravellies] all the way over to that country back there [pointing to the reaches of the Greenhorn Mountain Range],” he said. That is a lot of ground to cover.
This is Tel’s second summer working for the Association. Last year, Lindsey made the near 40 mile drive to the Upper Ruby a few days a week to help, working around her other job at a vet clinic and running her family ranch. When Warm Springs offered her a job as a full-fledged range rider, she found someone to take care of the ranch, cut her clinic hours, and moved to the Upper Ruby.
Nearly every day, Tel and Lindsey wake up at the old homestead, saddle their horses, load them into the trailer, and drive two or so miles up the pothole-ridden Warm Springs Creek Road to check on the cattle.
“(We) need to make a presence every day,” said Tel, even if that means just riding the side-by-side ATV up to the cows, checking on them from the outskirts, and double checking that there are no busted fences that would allow the cows to stray farther than they should.
The consistent human presence helps ensure the cows stay healthy and also deters predators.
“Our job is to protect the cows… not manage and document predators,” explained Tel.
Safeguarding the cows. They are all Lindsey and Tel care about. That is their job as range riders.
They do not go out looking for predators to count them and assess their location. “We pray we don’t see anything,” said Tel.
In the two years that Tel has been riding for Warm Springs, he has not seen a grizzly with his own eyes. And it was a long time ago, before he was even working for the association, that he spotted a wolf in the Upper Ruby.
But the predators make their presence known.
This has been a big bear year for the Upper Ruby. The Forest Service had to close down Lazy Man Creek and Short Creek roads, which aren’t too far from Warm Springs pasturage, due to frequent incidents of grizzlies killing calves in the area.
Lindsey estimates there are eight collared grizzlies between Warm Springs and Timber Creek alone. If that is the case, they would all be within their range.
On the day of our visit to Warm Springs, a bite mark on the back of one of the calves served as the tell-tale sign of a grizzly attack. Tel explained that wolves go for the hind end first, but bears always go for neck and spine. The size of the puncture wound — deeper than a finger — confirmed it was the work of a grizzly.
Neither Lindsey nor Tel expected calf number 585 to survive the attack. The bacteria in a grizzly bear’s mouth can cause a terrible infection, making most bites deadly.
But not 585. He was still putting up a fight. Tel and Lindsey had a tough time even getting him down to doctor.
Full of maggots and dying flesh and as odorous as week-old roadkill, the wound was horrendous.
“I bring more stuff than most cowboys,” said Lindsey, referring to the stash of peroxide, iodine, and antibiotics she used to treat 585. Her vet training clearly comes in handy out on the range.
Lindsey worked the wound good — pouring a whole bottle of peroxide to kill the maggots followed by 10 or so pads of iodine to push out all of the puss, using heavy, heavy pressure.
“You know what, I think he is going to make it!” she exclaimed with disbelief. This is the first time the duo had an opportunity to doctor a calf from a grizzly bite.
Most of the time they simply find dead calves. It’s disappointing and frustrating, but that’s how it goes in grizzly territory. For the growing grizzly population in the Gravelly Mountains, calves make a welcomed summertime meal. But, Tel and Lindsey persist with the hope that establishing consistent human presence around the cows will eventually deter the bears and send them back to their natural prey.
This focus on deterring — not killing — predators is a classic concept of the range riding tradition.
With 585 safely back with his mom, it was time to give the current pasture a rest. Without the help of dogs, Tel and Lindsey mounted their horses and set about moving the cattle up the safe-covered hill and into the next pasture.
When all was said and done, it was lunchtime and already hot as heck. The soaring temperatures slowed the progress. The ladies did not want to move.
Back down at the homestead, Tel and Lindsey unsaddled, checked their voicemail, and prepared for their afternoon activity: fixing fences.
Tel and Lindsey will remain in the Upper Ruby until roundup, sometime in October. Last year, it was snowy by that time. When roundup comes, nearly 20 riders will saddle up and scour the hills for cows, trying to bring each one back to either be trucked back down the valley — or driven by riders on horse.
When the season is finally over, the duo will head home to Sheridan, where they will take on more cattle from a ranch over in the Big Hole and put them up for the winter with their own cattle at Lindsey’s ranch.
You could say that their lives revolve around taking care of cows and being stewards of the land. That seems like a pretty good way to live, if you ask me.
Photos by August Schield.
A big thanks to Tel Miller and Lindsey Wuelfing for allowing us to follow them around all day, and likely messing up their schedule. It was fun! Also, I’ll watch your new pup whenever you need it!
Thanks also to Gary Giem for guiding me in who to contact.
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