Nervous but determined, a Heart Mountain area rancher stood in front of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission last month, seeking compensation for calves he’s sure were killed by grizzly bears.
Two of Russ Boardman’s calves were partially buried when they were discovered; at a separate location, all that remained of another calf was a piece of hide, about 2 feet long by 1 foot wide. They were the first calves that Boardman, owner of the B-Slash Ranch, had lost in about a dozen years — and, he believes, the first ever lost to grizzlies.
“We have big, healthy calves,” Boardman told the commission. “We don’t lose them; we live with them.”
Boardman filed the required paperwork with the Game and Fish Department in September, reporting a total loss of $10,715 from predation. That was from 10 calves and steers that he lost while grazing on the Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve last year.
The Game and Fish has a liberal compensation program, said large carnivore program coordinator Dan Thompson, paying out nearly $1 million in compensation in 2018. The program ensures producers don’t suffer financial losses from large carnivores moving beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.
But for every cow, sheep or guard animal presumably lost to predators, there’s an investigation before any payment is made.
Dusty Lasseter, who works exclusively with large carnivores for the Game and Fish, investigated Boardman’s case and was unable to verify the calves were killed by grizzlies.
When the Game and Fish Department denied his request, Boardman appealed to the commission, specifically seeking a review of three calves. The commission, however, agreed with the department’s findings.
Lasseter explained to commissioners last month that he didn’t find the damage to the calves that’s usually associated with livestock killed by grizzlies.
“I often say it’s like a bomb blew up,” Lasseter explained to commissioners. “There’s broken bones, damaged muscles, bruising and punctures.”
In this case, neither of the calves had puncture marks to the dorsal midline or head. Further, the two calves were buried in the same location, while grizzly depredations are usually dispersed, Lasseter said.
He agreed that a grizzly bear “cached” the two dead calves, but “when we investigate these cases, a lot of the time the livestock have died from other causes and grizzly bears have scavenged those dead livestock.”
Lasseter said he calls them as he sees them.
“I wouldn’t have any integrity if I did it any other way,” he said after the debate.
In the end, Game and Fish officials decided Boardman’s calves didn’t qualify for a “more likely than not” killed by a trophy game animal status.
There was no argument the animals had been cached by a grizzly. But whether they were killed or scavenged by a bear was unclear to the commission after hearing Boardman’s appeal. (Commission president David Rael recused himself from the debate due to a friendship with Boardman.)
Commissioner Pat Crank made the motion to deny the request.
“There’s a history that we don’t [pay] these kind of claims,” Crank said. “There’s no evidence consistent with our experience and training with grizzly bear kills that these were killed by a grizzly.”
The process and denial of compensation left Boardman upset.
“I’m taking this to the next step,” Boardman said Monday, explaining that he plans to take the case to arbitration. He has 90 days from the denial of compensation from the commission to file.
“This is purely a business decision. This is nothing against the Game and Fish. They are great,” he added. “This is the cost of an unfunded mandate by a federal judge.”
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen reinstated endangered species protections for grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem last year, taking management of the species away from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Christensen ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife acted improperly in delisting the species, halting planned hunts in Wyoming and Idaho.
In the wake of his ruling, Boardman and many local livestock producers and residents have expressed growing weariness with expanding predator populations.
As Boardman noted to the commission, the Wyoming Grizzly Bear Management Plan says that public support “is key to the long-term welfare and sustainability of the grizzly bear population.”
However, “public support for grizzlies from livestock producers can only occur if there’s an honest, fair and common sense process for the producer to receive just compensation for predatory losses,” he said. “Not a bureaucratic and expensive system that places undue hardships and unrealistic burdens of proof on the livestock producer.”
Boardman has leased land on Heart Mountain for his cattle for the past 12 years. The Nature Conservancy property is managed both for historic use (ranching), public recreation and for wildlife. This was the first time the B-Slash Ranch has lost cattle on the property — and it was the first time Game and Fish investigated cattle depredation on Heart Mountain pastures.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in distribution of bears,” Lasseter said.
The popular trail from the Heart Mountain Ranch office to the summit of the mountain is currently closed due to high grizzly traffic. The Boardman case meant that ranch managers had to relocate grazing operations, but they have flexibility on the large property.
Unlike some other agricultural properties in the area, The Nature Conservancy isn’t totally dependent on grazing. However, Ranch Preserve Manager Brian Peters said they have to make the same adjustments to having grizzlies in the region.
“We’re trying to manage for a balance between wildlife and historic use,” he said.
Lasseter said Heart Mountain is on the edge of biologically suitable grizzly habitat.
Three grizzlies made it as far east as Byron last year — about 100 miles from Yellowstone’s East Gate — due to the suitable habitat being oversaturated with bears, according to Game and Fish officials. Since grizzlies were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act more than 40 years ago, populations have gone from well under 200 grizzlies to more than 700 inside the core Demographic Monitoring Area (DMA) and in Yellowstone. Grizzlies outside the boundaries of the DMA are not included in the official counts and the estimates are designed to be extremely conservative.
As grizzly bears push further east and south, livestock producers are experiencing more problems. There were 244 grizzly conflicts in 2018, mostly involving grizzlies attacking cattle. That was more than the combined total of black bear, mountain lion, gray wolf and coyote conflicts.
Lasseter said that during the fall, looking at dead livestock is a daily activity.
“My phone would be nothing but dead calf pictures if I took a picture of every calf I saw,” he said.
Conflicts impact not only livestock producers, but also the Game and Fish and sportsmen, who pay for more than 85 percent of the department’s budget. Costs, both in dollars and in grizzly deaths, are increasing as populations expand.
Wildlife managers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, guided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, euthanized 42 grizzlies last year — including a record 32 “lethal removals” in Wyoming.
While Boardman believes the price of doing business near grizzly habitat has gone up, costing him thousands of dollars, he said he’s now more worried about a hiker being hurt or killed on the Heart Mountain trail than the loss of livestock.
“We can replace cattle,” he said, “but we can’t replace people.”