Matters of Scale
The Sun Valley, which circumscribes a resort town popular with the rich and famous (once Hemingway, now Zuckerberg), is decidedly “green.” Here, local glossies are printed in earth tones and suggest that anyone can acquire a gentrified Western aesthetic with an off-grid cabin, a root cellar, or a lawn fertilized with local fish. The valley is home to a handful of environmental nonprofits; one particularly divisive group, Western Watersheds Project, advocates for an end to grazing on public land. (Among their concerns, livestock trample vegetation, invite erosion, and take precedence over wild predators.) It was no surprise, then, that when Stevens began at Lava Lake, many rumored he had sold out. “If a handful of people say that to your face,” said Mitchell, “how many are saying the same thing behind your back?”
Stevens kept a low public profile during his first three years at Lava Lake. He called on his herders in the field, mapped the properties, befriended the former ranchers, and met frequently with Pedro, his foreman, who had worked the same allotments under different ownership. A few early incidents tested Stevens’s facility: The wolf attack in 2002; then a dispute over fencing with a rancher whose cow had wandered onto a Lava Lake allotment. Both were quietly resolved. By 2004, having collected extensive ecosystem data from the ranch, Stevens and the Beans completed a grazing management plan. Two years later, they launched the Lava Lake Institute, to conduct scientific assessments of their management practices. They also founded the Pioneer Mountain Group, to consult on conservation projects and apply their acquired expertise locally and abroad. In the Sun Valley, where restaurants began to offer Lava Lake lamb, the ranch earned a great deal of respect. “People were starting to put the whole story together,” said Stevens. “There were reasons our lamb tasted so good.”
Stevens’s break into the ranching community was less ideological. “When the guys saw those big, beautiful lambs sent off to market, that did a lot to resolve any issue,” he said. Each night before the animals were shipped south for slaughter, Stevens would camp by the corral with the herders. The next morning, at first light, they would sort and weigh the lambs and pack them into trucks. Each would wager a dollar on the lambs’ average weight, and when all had been tallied, Stevens would stand to announce the winner. For breakfast, they ate powdered doughnuts washed down with Crown Royal.
In August of 2005, Stevens lost two-dozen sheep and a guard dog on the North Fork of the Big Lost River, not far from where he had slept two summers before. When he got word of the kill, he called Rick Williamson, a wolf specialist at Wildlife Services. Williamson met Stevens in the field that same day. “It was obviously wolves,” Williamson told me, recalling the incident. “They’re sloppy killers. They bite, they chew.” The wounds were hemorrhaging. “Mike said, ‘Where do you think we should go from here?’ And I said, ‘Well, where do you think we should go from here?’ He said he wanted to stay away from lethal control, and that was fine with me.”
Stevens tells the story a little differently. He worried the wolves would attack again and suggested moving the sheep band to a different allotment. Williamson convinced him otherwise. “Let’s use every trick in the bag,” Stevens recalls him saying. Years before, when Lava Lake lost its first sheep to wolves, Stevens purchased cracker shells and rubber bullets to use as deterrents. He added guard dogs, and had the herders trained to erect turbo fladry—electrified wires strung with flags, resembling those used in car lots—around the sheep bands. Eventually, Stevens hired more herders for a night watch. But the “trick” Williamson suggested—telemetry—was far more advanced than anything Stevens had used. Wildlife Services had fitted several wolves in a nearby pack with radio collars. Herders, now, could estimate the wolves’ location and distance from the sheep band by pointing a receiving unit in the pack’s direction and listening for a frequency. If the signal was loud, a wolf was close.
When used at once, the techniques worked. (The ranch has had no wolf attacks since 2005.) But deterrents at Lava Lake hardly kept predators from wandering onto other ranches. The next summer, wolves that frequented the Beans’ private allotments killed 13 sheep on an adjacent ranch. The rancher ordered the wolves shot, and the regional director of Wildlife Services asked Stevens for permission to hunt the wolves on Lava Lake property. Stevens refused. “You’re making this a lot harder on the other ranchers,” he recalls the director saying. When I asked Williamson, who has since retired from the agency, about the incident, he told me, “I respected Mike for that. But you have to understand, there are a lot of people who think the only good wolf is a dead wolf.”
Stevens admits he was fully aware of the ranchers’ predicament. But his refusal to allow lethal control on Lava Lake was pragmatic. “We were not starry-eyed about any of this,” he said. “If we were perceived as predator-killers, regardless of how much good work we were doing, we would lose respect in the valley. We didn’t have time to argue, ‘well, do wolves belong in this ecosystem?’ They were here, and we knew what the community fallout would be if we didn’t attempt to coexist.”
In the spring of 2007, Stevens learned that a new set of wolves, named the Phantom Hill Pack, had made a den on a Lava Lake allotment, just north of Ketchum. This time, Williamson advised him to abandon the area. Stevens agreed, but nervously. “All those wolves had to do was walk across the highway to another sheep operator and get shot,” he said. Upon hearing the news, Stevens phoned several of his colleagues. Among them was Suzanne Stone, the Northern Rockies coordinator at Defenders of Wildlife, with whom Stevens collaborated frequently. According to Stone, Stevens was shaken. “You don’t see Mike get flustered very often,” she told me, “so you definitely pay attention when he is.”