Montana leads the pack in wolf depredation compensation plans

Jul 24, 2009

Montana leads the pack in wolf

depredation compensation plans

After the removal of the gray wolf from the federal Endangered Species List last spring, wolf management has shifted from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to the various states where wolves have been delisted. This holds true in the northwestern states of Idaho and Montana, where wolves have been totally delisted, and for Oregon, where wolves are delisted in the eastern third of the state. In all three of these states, strong restrictions are in place to protect wolves. Even in cases where wolves are preying on livestock, state laws often make it difficult for ranchers to defend their property before the damage is done. Therefore, ranchers have been looking to their state governments to provide financial compensation when wolves destroy or damage their livestock. Yet not all states have made compensating ranchers a priority. While Montana and Idaho provide funding to assist ranchers in recouping their losses, Oregon currently provides no government-funded resources to ranchers struggling with wolf predation issues.

The two-year running Montana Livestock Loss and Mitigation Program pays out 100 percent of losses both on cases of confirmed and probable wolf depredation. Missing animals are not compensated for. Montana ranchers who suspect they may be suffering losses due to wolves must first contact their regional USDA Office of Wildlife Services. Upon investigation, a USDA field officer will fill out a form documenting whether there has been confirmed or probable wolf depredation. To collect losses, a Montana rancher then sends this form to the Department of Livestock, which will determine fair market value for his or her losses based on current USDA market reports. Unweaned calves are valued as weanlings in order to fully compensate the rancher for the value of the calf at sale time. The value of registered cattle is also taken into account, should the losses be incurred by a purebred herd.

George Edwards heads the Montana Livestock Loss and Mitigation Program which is administered through the Montana Department of Livestock. One of the great benefits of the Montana compensation program, according to Edwards, is that losses are handled by the Department of Livestock, as opposed to some other state entity whose specialty lies elsewhere. "Compensation payments for loss of livestock are best handled by the Department of Livestock ... The system is working out well. The benefit of (running the program through) the Department of Livestock is that we are already working with livestock markets, brand laws and brand mortgages," explained Edwards.

In other words, not only is the Department of Livestock best equipped to give fair valuation for livestock lost to wolf attacks, but because of their intimate familiarity with brand laws, they are best able to ensure the integrity of the program, thus preventing fraud and a potential waste of taxpayer dollars. In an instance where a rancher has mortgaged his or her brand to a bank, Edwards said, the compensation fund not only protects the producer, it protects the lending institution, as well.

Says Edwards, "By requiring proof of ownership, we make sure we’re not paying out claims to the wrong person. Our program is so transparent that I think we go a step beyond almost anyone else who has attempted this. We are going out to check for proof of ownership and mortgages. We want to be sure that the correct person gets paid."

Montana’s Livestock Loss and Mitigation Program is ahead of the game in another respect: it is supported entirely by private and state funding. Now in its second year, it began with a $50,000 private donation from Defenders of Wildlife (DOW) and a $30,000 infusion from the state government. This spring, DOW donated another $50,000 while the state legislature allocated $150,000 to the program. Other donors have included the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and Western Wolf Alliance. According to Edwards, the fund is continually searching for other private entities—ranging from ag organizations, environmental groups or even individuals—to contribute to the account. They are currently set up to accept donations online at And Montana’s grassroots funding efforts may well become vitally important in the future. As part of the recently passed Omnibus Public Lands Bill (HR 146), the federal government instituted the Wolf Livestock Loss Demonstration Project which sets aside $1,000,000 to use for matching on a 50 percent cost-share basis with state and tribal governments which are paying out privately and state-raised funds for wolf depredation compensation. Although no funding for this project was allocated in HR 146, an appropriations bill (HR 2996) is currently in the works to fund the project.

The upshot is that Montana stands to double whatever state and private funding it is able to raise through federal matching, should appropriations bill HR 2996 pass. This could prove critical, as the Montana Livestock Loss and Mitigation Program stands to loose its biggest private donor, DOW. DOW, along with 12 other groups, has appealed the decision to federally delist the wolf. During the period of litigation, they will continue to fund wolf depredation compensation. However, should their appeal fail and the federal delisting be upheld, they will discontinue compensation funding, both to individual producers and to state programs, and instead focus their efforts on educating ranchers on how to protect their livestock from wolf attacks.

Suzanne Stone, northern Rockies representative for DOW, explained that should the federal delisting be upheld, DOW will redirect their funding from depredation compensation to depredation prevention.

"We’ll try to put the focus on preventing the conflict from the get-go. We think that will be a win-win situation for everyone," she said.

Despite their potential withdrawal as a key contributer to the Montana Livestock Loss and Mitigation Program, it is possible that DOW may still have an important role to play. As Edwards points out, limited funding has prevented the program from sponsoring proactive efforts to educate ranchers on how to reduce or prevent wolf attacks.

"That’s the other half: mitigation," he said. "We want to be able to do it all, but (lack of) funding prevents us from doing it all."

There is, therefore, the potential for an ongoing partnership between the Livestock Loss and Mitigation Program and DOW, with the latter helping to sponsor the mitigation half of the effort.

In short, Montana is well ahead of the game of financially compensating ranchers for wolf attacks on livestock. Although significant funding challenges lie ahead, a solid record of state funding and the future potential for federal matching funds, along with grassroots contributions, suggest that Montana ranchers can feel confident that future depredation losses will be covered.

In Idaho, a wolf predation compensation program is also in place. This is a near necessity in a state which, according to Dustin Miller of the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation (OSC), is currently managing for more that eight times the number of wolves originally agreed upon with USFWS.

"We have wolves coming out of our ears," says Miller.

The initial process of submitting a compensation claim in Idaho is the same as in Montana. According to Todd Grimm, Western District supervisor for the Idaho Wildlife Services Program, when an Idaho rancher has had a case of possible wolf depredation, they must first contact their regional USDA Wildlife Services office which will document if there has been a confirmed or probable wolf depredation. At that point, however, the rancher is given a form along with contacts both for DOW and for OSC. Ranchers are strongly encouraged to contact DOW as a first resort. DOW currently pays 100 percent of value on confirmed kills and 50 percent value on probable kills. (According to DOW’s web site, valuation is determined by taking "the rancher’s assessment of the animal’s value and (comparing) it with current auction reports and livestock prices as reported in regional newspapers. If there is a significant difference, the local county extension agent determines the price.") Ideally, it is only after being compensated by DOW that ranchers petition OSC for the remaining 50 percent value on probable kills, should there be any.

Although ranchers are not required to first seek assistance through DOW, it is important to the success of the program that they do. OSC’s depredation compensation fund consists of an annual $100,000 budget allocated through a congressional appropriation through USFWS. This annual infusion must cover all predation compensation not covered by DOW, as well as compensation for missing livestock. So far, the cooperative effort between DOW and OSC has been a success, and OSC has been able to maintain a functional compensation program, despite the modest size of their federal appropriation.

"Bottom line is our program is working and without it, many livestock producers would not receive anything for their missing livestock," explains Miller.

Down the line, however, there are questions. The Idaho program is heavily dependent on DOW for the compensation that ranchers receive. If DOW discontinues their funding of compensation programs—as they have stated they will if their appeal fails— Idaho’s annual $100,000 appropriation will have to cover all cases of predation and livestock losses. With such limited funding, it is questionable whether OSC could fully compensate all claims. Looking ahead to the future, Miller acknowledges that "at some point after the litigation, DOW will stop paying, the feds will stop providing us with management and monitoring funds, and the state will have to figure how best to compensate producers."

Even if Idaho is able to maintain their federal appropriation, Idaho will not be eligible for federal matching funds on the basis of that amount should the appropriations bill pass. In short, although Idaho’s compensation program is currently successful and of great benefit to Idaho ranchers, its continuation is precarious unless sources of state and private funding can be found.

However, in Oregon, the certainty of ongoing depredation compensation is even more fragile. Despite repeated attempts by both the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) to introduce legislation for state funding of a wolf predation compensation program, this legislation has failed to pass. Unlike Idaho, Oregon lacks any present source of federal funding. And, unlike Montana, Oregon lacks a broad base of private funding. All Oregon wolf depredation claims are therefore directed to DOW after verification by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. As with Montana and Idaho, this leaves Oregon vulnerable to DOW’s potential discontinuation of these funds should the federal delisting be upheld. But should that occur, with no other present sources of funding, Oregon ranchers could stand to lose all opportunities for compensation unless other sources of funding can be developed.

According to Jim Welsh, OCA political advocate, although OCA has tried to procure state funding for a compensation fund in the past, current efforts to pass legislation have targeted preventing wolf attacks by allowing ranchers to defend their livestock against wolves before depredation takes place.

"Our focus has been on the producer’s ability to protect their property," said Welsh, "when wolves are biting, chasing, and harassing livestock."

However, Welsh confirmed that developing a wolf depredation compensation fund is currently in the planning stages.

With tight state budgets and a lagging economy, it has been a struggle for all entities interested in the welfare of ranchers to put together the best possible depredation compensation program for local cattlemen. Arguably, Montana’s program is truly sustainable in the sense that with broad state and private funding, they are not only prepared to weather the likely discontinuation of DOW funds, but they are also in a good position to take advantage of a federal cost-sharing program should funding be appropriated. Additionally, the Montana program is administered through the Montana Department of Livestock, which is arguably the government entity best equipped to deal with issues of livestock loss and compensation.

According to Edwards, Montana’s program could constitute a good "road map" for other states looking to protect their ranchers from depredation losses.

"We want to share it with other people. We’re willing to speak with anybody to help the other states," he said. "We’re just trying to keep the ranchers solvent, and we have the potential to grow and make this program really successful. We are trying to keep the producer productive and on the land. That’s the bottom line." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent