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Montana's Livestock Compensation Funds Dwindle As Losses To Predators Grow

Herford cattle.
Herford cattle.

A Wyoming rancher was awarded nearly $340,000 last month after disputing wildlife managers’ initial offer to pay for several livestock killed by grizzlies and wolves. 

While the large payout is unusual, Montana ranchers say it’s calling attention to funding issues for livestock losses on this side of the border.

Wyoming wildlife officials initially offered Josh Longwell of the HD Ranch outside of Thermopolis $89,000 for the dozens of sheep and cattle he lost to predators in 2018, but Longwell disputed the offer, saying he was owed about five times that amount.

Wyoming compensates ranchers for livestock losses by paying 3.5 times the market value for livestock killed by predators. The multiplier applies in certain situations depending on variables such as the landscape, but it’s meant to account for missing livestock likely killed by predators but were never found. Longwell based his claim on a 20 times multiplier and a panel of arbitrators mostly gave him what he asked for.

Longwell told news outlet Wyofile his claim was meant to raise some eyebrows. Montana ranchers like Trina Bradley, who lives along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, say while the payout is good for Longwell, it’s not something they would want to see here.

“But the reality of the situation is he probably got paid the entire livestock loss budget for the state of Wyoming in the settlement. Is that fair? Not really.” Bradley said.

But Bradley says the point Longwell made in Wyoming is a good one. Many ranchers say they lose a lot of money every year on livestock killed by grizzlies, wolves and mountain lions that are completely consumed or just never found. “If they find one, you get paid for one. If you’re missing five, that’s just too bad. We’re working toward a multiplier for Montana that would work the same as Wyoming’s.”

Executive Director of the Montana Livestock Loss Board George Edwards agrees a multiplier to pay for missing livestock that are never found is sorely needed in the state, and the Livestock Loss Board certainly has the authority to implement one. But funding is the problem.

“Every year, we end up paying for more and more livestock killed by either wolves, mountain lions or grizzlies,” Edwards said.

Since 2014, the number of livestock the Montana loss board has compensated ranchers for has quadrupled. Part of that increase came from when the board began compensating for mountain lion depredations in 2017, but the largest increase in kills has come from grizzly bears as they expand their range.

“There’s been an ongoing trend at least from the claims standpoint. Since we started, to go from 35 head to 173 head is quite a few,” Edwards said.

Montana’s Livestock Loss Board is largely funded by the state. The Legislature increased funding from $200,000 to $300,000 in 2019. But the board paid out almost $260,000 last year and claims are still rolling in.

Former board chair Elaine Allestad left the board last year and says it’s entirely possible that it could exceed its funding in 2020. She says more funding is needed to pay for the growing number of confirmed or probable livestock kills.

Allestad adds that the state could begin putting money into the board’s currently empty trust fund, which was created along with the board in 2007. She says the interest it would generate could help fund a multiplier. “I would think it would maybe work if they did it a little at a time to build up that trust account,” Allestad said.

That fund is able to hold $5 million, but before lawmakers are asked to add money into that account, the Montana Stockgrowers Association says ranchers need to hash out when and where a multiplier would apply in Montana in order to understand how much it could cost. That way it can present well-thought-out plan for funding a multiplier to state lawmakers in 2021.

Executive Vice President Jay Bodner says the idea has a long way to go before it could become a reality. “I think there will be a lot of education on our part to the legislators to let them know this is really what’s happening in Montana and out on the landscape,” Bodner said. “And we certainly need some help to make sure we stay in business.”

Bodner adds that while there certainly is a push to pay ranchers for their missing animals likely killed by grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lines right now, the more immediate need is making sure the Livestock Loss Board has enough money to keep paying ranchers for the dead animals they do find.

He says the board likely will need another $100,000 in 2021 in order to keep up with that trend.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.