WA ranchers could seek compensation for profits lost to wolves

Nov 16, 2012

In the ongoing saga of Washington’s wolves, ranchers may be able to recover lost potential profits from wolf-worried skinny cows and other livestock.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) presented proposed changes to the wildlife portion of its state administration code Friday, Nov. 9. The proposed changes involved several expansions to the compensation program for ranchers and landowners losing livestock to wolves. Of particular interest is one proposal which would compensate ranchers for weight their cattle lost due to wolf-caused stress and other losses of potential profit.

The amendments were presented to the committee and the floor was opened for public comment. The amendments will be voted on in the committee’s December meeting, though it is expected the amendments will pass.

The proposal strikes the prohibition against compensation for lost profits as a result of bears, cougars and wolves which exist in the earlier provisions for compensation. Compensation would be payable on “lost or diminished value of commercial livestock.” Commercial livestock is defined as cattle, sheep and horses intended for sale. Damage or death to livestock by coyotes is specifically not covered due to the magnitude of claims that would represent.

This would allow for ranchers to make claims for compensation on the grounds wolves—or the two other big Washington predators—are worrying their cattle into losing weight, not gaining as much as they have before wolves were reintroduced, or other wolf-caused stress-induced economic impacts. It would also allow compensation to pay for the value of a lost calf at its sell weight rather than what it weighed when killed, meaning lost potential profit could be claimed.

If the proposed amendments pass, Washington would be the first north western state to compensate ranchers on weight loss and profit loss claims.

Jack Fields, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said the amendments are an excellent gesture indicating WDFW is willing to follow through with promises made to livestock producers to mitigate losses from wolves in the initial creation of the state’s wolf plan.

It has been a process, however, and Fields spoke of some of the early difficulties.

“Initially, the department couldn’t understand the frustration ranchers have voiced about depredation.”

In the past, WDFW would compensate producers based on the weight of the animal when it was killed in a confirmed wolf kill. But, particularly in the case of wolf-killed calves, the losses of potential profit could be severe.

Though the move is a good one, it is not without some downsides. If the amendments pass, allowing for compensation claims to be made against lost profits, the burden of proof on those making the claims will be heavy.

“On the one hand, it’s great, but folks are going to need good, good records.”

One other detractor from the move is while more people can make compensation claims on a wider variety of losses due to wolves, there is very little money set aside for compensation claims.

“The challenge is that we have $50,000 budgeted for compensation,” Field explained. Of course, that amount can go quickly on an annual basis, particularly given the value of cattle in today’s market.

Still, the expansion of compensation coverage is a welcomed gesture even if there would be difficulties and shortcomings involved if the amendments pass. The issue of wolf management is notoriously an emotional one on both sides.

“The department understands the political excrement storm that is the wolf  issue,” Fields said with some humor. Despite his mixed opinions of actions taken by WDFW, Fields admitted their dedication to working with livestock producers to lessen the blow of wolf reintroduction is unquestionable and worthy of appreciation. He pointed to the removal of the Wedge pack earlier this season as evidence of WDFW’s dedication to rancher interests.

“The department is trying to make some significant steps forward. And we’ll be right there rolling up our sleeves with them. We need to find a way to get [compensation] funded.”

As with any wolf issue, environmentalists were ready with critique on the proposed expansion of compensation claims. Suzanne Stone, the northern Rocky Mountain region representative of Defenders of Wildlife, questioned the validity of weight-loss claims.

“The weight loss claim has been made by a lot of ranchers. But as of yet, there’s not been a study that has actually proven that weight loss occurs because of wolves.”

This claim may or may not be accurate as it is difficult to impossible to prove non-existence of something. However, a body of research and readily-available documentation exists indicating big game animals such as elk and deer move more frequently and at greater distances when in close proximity to wolves.

Though the research conflicts on how much this additional movement impacts those ungulates’ ability to feed, some suggest it has a negative impact on food-finding time and efforts.

This is often the claim made against wolves in terms of weight loss in cattle and sheep; more moving means less time eating, less time eating means less weight gain.

Other research specifically on elk feeding behavior has shown an impact of wolf reintroduction on elk eating habits. In studies touted by the very environmental groups which often find themselves on the other side of the wolf issue from ranchers, the presence of wolves in elk territories has discouraged elk from eating plants in certain areas for fear of predation. This impact has even been named “the Wolf Effect.”

It is not unreasonable to assume this same sort of behavior could be happening in cattle as well as big game ungulates. The added stressor of alertness for predators could also have an impact on feed efficiency as well as overall intake, as loafing abilities would be impacted.

Other changes

Of course there are limitations on what can be claimed for compensation for wildlife-caused losses. In the case of damage to commercial livestock, the department would pay up to $1,500 per head of cattle or horses, and up to $200 per sheep for damage caused by bears, cougars or wolves. The compensation would only cover direct damage or losses sustained to the animal itself, and would not cover things like veterinary expenses for injured animals.

Commercial livestock is defined as cattle, sheep or horses intended for sale. Other animals, including traditionally commercially-raised livestock animals such as hogs, are classified as “non-commercial.”

Claims would have a per-claim limit of $10,000 per claimant. Claims could be denied for a number of reasons. If the claim is for less than $500, for species other than the three classed as commercial, the claimant does not provide sufficient evidence of the loss, or WDFW officials are not allowed to inspect the area, claims can be denied.

Other situations where a claim is denied include lack of funds—due to the legislature not procuring it or from it being exhausted for a given year—or if the claimant can seek compensation from other sources such as insurance.

The proposed changes also include an expansion on what non-commercial livestock are eligible for compensation. Wolf-caused damage to non-commercial cattle, horses or sheep, and any mules, donkeys, goats, swine, llamas, alpacas and guard dogs, could also be compensated.

Compensation for noncommercial animals also comes with limitations: up to $1,500 per head for noncommercial cattle and horses, or llamas, alpacas and guard dogs; up to $500 per head for mules, donkeys and swine; and up to $200 per head for goats and noncommercial sheep. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor