Skip to Content

The Weekly News Source for Wyoming's Ranchers, Farmers and AgriBusiness Community

The Cost of Paradise

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By Jessi Johnson

I grew up the daughter of ranch managers. We did not own the places, the houses or any of the livestock – with the exception of a few good horses and dogs – but I witnessed the care, heartbreak and hard scrabble spirit of the West modeled daily by my parents. 

I saw and learned firsthand what it took to make a living in and survive God’s country. 

My childhood looked a lot like that of any Army brat, but in place of military bases, I spent my younger years living on a few of the most rare and incredible ranches on Earth – Heart Bar Heart Ranch in Ovando, Mont.; Elk Mountain Ranch in Wyoming; Willow Creek Ranch in Northern California, and in my adult years, visiting my parents as they ran the B4, RDS and L-T ranches north of Sunlight Basin in Wyoming.

But living in paradise comes at a cost, and the toll nature takes on a working ranch is not for the faint of heart. You trade the flexibility to take vacations for the satisfaction of working with your hands and the fulfillment of having an impact on your immediate surroundings. 

You swap urban niceties for a – hopefully – well-trained horse and dog. You give up Whole Foods stores for the practice of knowing your food and a soul-deep connection to the land. You gain understanding of the violence of nature and the impermanence of life. 

I am a hunter now. I take months off of work to spend time in the mountains pursuing elk, deer, antelope and a different kind of table fare than the homegrown beef I grew up on. 

I no longer live on the working ranches of my childhood, but the lessons learned in youth have had a marrow deep impact on me. The similarities between the hunter’s mindset and that of the old ranchers I grew up with are striking and many. 

I work for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation as the government affairs director, and my job is to establish wildlife- and conservation-based policy for the state of Wyoming. 

What I have witnessed in the fracture between agriculture and hunting leaves me confused and critical of behavior on both sides of the coin, recently highlighted  by the debate around House Bill 60 in the 2024 Wyoming Budget Session, regarding overpopulation of elk and costly damage to forage and private property. 

When I was five, the ranch in Montana was hit by a scary and fast wildfire. Dark plumes of choking smoke, a flurry of opened gates to move livestock and horse trailers lining the roads for a quick escape are all part of a terrifying childhood core memory. 

Wildlife fled before the flames, finding wetlands and riparian areas to take cover, and a small group of eight elk got mired in the mud of a beaver pond bog. 

The day after the fire ripped through, my dad and the whole crew of ranch hands spent the next 12 hours pulling every one of those elk out successfully. One cow elk spent the night in the calving barn with heaters on to recover. 

I learned that day part of the responsibility of taking care of the land is to also take care of the wildlife which depend on it. 

One winter when the snow was piled high enough the elk could jump the stackyard fences, my dad and I spent a week sleeping in a small camper with our two cow dogs, waking up a few times a night to shoot cracker shells over the hungry and circling backs of elk to haze them out of the hay and letting the dogs out to chase lingering herds out of the area. 

I learned a few choice cusswords that season and watched my dad run himself ragged trying to keep the elk from destroying fences, hay and our ability to make it through the winter.

The stress and cost to live alongside iconic wildlife is not always remembered by those who do not go through it. 

The debate around House Bill 60, which ultimately failed in the Senate this year, left me remembering both lessons. 

As a hunter, the idea of thriving elk herds in the present day is a story of incredible conservation success – a species which 150 years ago we thought may go extinct has made a comeback of the century. A herd which is 4,000 animals over objective is celebrated in the hunting and conservation community. 

As a rancher, I understand this comeback has come at a cost. Landscapes have changed – we have more humans and less habitat, more private and public lands with differing managements and constraints. Markets have changed, ranching is less productive and certainly less economically stable than it was. 

Thriving elk herds means more work, more damage and a notch tighter on the belt loops. It is understandable a population over objective is met with frustration. 

This difference in sentiment has driven a wedge between the communities of agriculture and hunters, so much so, it has risen to the level of legislative debate, and our common values have been lost to rhetoric about access for hunting and conflict around funding. 

What I am starting to believe is these issues should not be solved at the statute level but rather the solution lies within hard work of both communities to lean on the bad behavior within our respective ranks. 

Hunters – access to private land to hunt is a privilege, treat it as such. Close gates, stay on the roads, set up access asks early and offer work trades before hunting season. Get after other hunters who do not follow the rules. 

Understand a great many of our wildlife success in conservation history is due to the large tracts of connected private land and working landscapes. Sometimes we have to pay for some of it to help make ends meet and keep working lands open. This is not a handout, it is an understanding and acknowledgment of value. 

Ranchers – part of the responsibility of working land is working with the wildlife. They were here first. A large portion of what makes Wyoming so special to live in is it is the last state that has all of the big game animals and large carnivores. 

This requires more work on your part to help mitigate it and to find balance in management between livestock and wildlife. Lean on your neighbors who forget that.

Our common values outnumber our differences. The table we sit at is small and neighborly, and it is the greatest blessing of Wyoming. Our children grow up knowing where their food comes from, the realities of nature and the responsibilities to ourselves. 

We must not forget we bear the cost of this paradise together. Wildlife and working lands must work hand in hand if we are to save the last best place. 

Jessi Johnson is the Wyoming Wildlife Federation director of government affairs and can be reached at This opinion column was originally published in the spring 2024 edition of CowCountry Magazine.

Back to top