Wildlife damage mitigation payment debate heats up

While the state pays for wildlife damages, much of the costs are associated with federally protected species

Posted 9/7/21

Late last October, former President Donald Trump signed the America’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE) Act into law. It was described as “the most significant wildlife conservation and …

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Wildlife damage mitigation payment debate heats up

While the state pays for wildlife damages, much of the costs are associated with federally protected species


Late last October, former President Donald Trump signed the America’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE) Act into law. It was described as “the most significant wildlife conservation and sportsmen’s law in decades,” by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who introduced the bill.

The act includes a little known provision, promising to help compensate ranchers for lost livestock from predator attacks. Local leaders were excited by the prospects of future budget relief. 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been footing the bill for wildlife damage mitigation in the state for more than 80 years, after the Wyoming Legislature created the first program in 1939. Things are different now, particularly since grizzly bears were listed for protections under the Endangered Species Act in 1975 and wolves were reintroduced in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1995.

The Game and Fish continues to foot the bills. And it isn’t cheap.

There are many types of damage caused by wildlife — from livestock losses to broken fences, damaged buildings and trampled crops. Although the figures vary from year-to-year, grizzly bear and wolf depredation on livestock represent a primary portion of the more than $1 million a year paid for verified wildlife damage, said Dan Thompson, large carnivore section supervisor for Game and Fish. Advocates say the government payments are important for encouraging tolerance of predators in important agricultural environments. And while the state continues to make payments, assistance from the federal government has yet to arrive.


A waiting game

Ten months after Barrasso heralded the ACE Act’s passage, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is writing rules for payments and waiting for the funds to be appropriated to cover the cost of the new law.

“The ACE Act is still in the process of being implemented,” said Laura Mengelkamp, Barrasso’s communications director. She said the current administration is still working to establish the program to provide grants to states and tribes.

“Sen. Barrasso recognizes how important this program is for Wyoming’s livestock producers who face financial hardship due to lost livestock from predator attacks,” she said. “He will continue to work with the administration and Congress to make sure the program is funded and up and running as soon as possible.”

The timing of the act was somewhat unfortunate. It was signed after Congress made appropriations last year — and a possible government shutdown this year could delay a new funding measure. The Fish and Wildlife Service says it all comes down to the appropriations process. 

“While the Service is unable to implement the grant program authorized under Section 102 of the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act without dedicated appropriations, we encourage livestock producers experiencing losses to consider existing programs that support proactive efforts to prevent predator-livestock conflict and compensate producers for confirmed losses,” said Christina M. Meister, a spokesperson for the agency.

However, Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna was surprised to hear there might be other federal help available. Between his time at the stock growers association and before that at the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, Magagna said he’s not aware of other funds available for compensation — nor has heard of anyone benefiting from them.

Until the ACE Act is funded and new rules set, Game and Fish continues to be stuck footing the entire bill for damages by federally protected species — with a budget largely funded through the sale of licenses and fees to hunters and anglers.

“It’s all being paid by sportsmen,” said Luke Ellsbury, large carnivore conflict biologist for Game and Fish.

Magagna sees it both ways.

“It’s essential to us that these ranchers receive compensation for some of these losses,” he said. “At the same time, I recognize the position of sportsmen saying, ‘Well, why should we have to pay the bill? We didn’t ask for grizzly bear.’”

However, without the payments, large tracts of private property might not be readily available habitat for wildlife, Ellsbury warned.

“Our payments are some of the best in the world and meant to maintain tolerance and agricultural habitat on the landscape,” he said.

Still, tension is building despite the program. Recent cases show some ranchers are growing tired of the continued Endangered Species Act listing of the grizzly bear and are increasingly becoming vocal about what they see as inadequate compensation from the State of Wyoming’s program.


Multiplying conflicts

When Hot Springs County rancher Josh Longwell lost dozens of sheep and calves to grizzly bears and mountain lions in 2018, the Game and Fish offered him $89,498.24. However, Longwell felt that was far short of his actual losses, calculating that the state owed him $422,971.

When the state’s payment system was developed, the Wyoming Legislature directed the commission to set rules for damage claims. The board decided to pay 3.5 times the value of a lost steer or heifer calf and 1:1 payments for cows and yearlings found to have been killed by a grizzly.

However, Longwell wanted to be reimbursed 20 times for each calf lost, three times for each yearling lost; he also sought to use the 3.5 times open range multiplier for sheep killed in what the Game and Fish determined to be a pasture setting (where the multiplier is typically 1:1).

In arguing for higher multipliers, Longwell has contended that, for each cow or sheep killed, there’s accompanying costs for fuel, time and loss of stock weight. 

In 2020, a Hot Springs County arbitration panel generally sided with Longwell and awarded him $339,730, but District Court Judge Bill Simpson of Cody overturned that ruling in June. Simpson said the panel overstepped its authority by ignoring the multipliers laid out in state rules; Longwell has appealed to the State Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, in July, Longwell appealed a $71,339 offer for his 2020 losses, once again adding a multiplier of 20 to his missing calves and asking the Game and Fish Commission to award $342,804. The commission denied his appeal.

“You’re painting me in a corner and the next thing I have to do ... You’re gonna make me a criminal,” Longwell told the commission during its July meeting in Sheridan, seemingly implying he might start killing grizzly bears. “And then guess what? I go to prison. Because we love these bears.”

In another case, the commission authorized a payment of $11,626 to Christian Peterson of Crandall Creek Ranch despite his claims of $128,857 in losses to grizzlies and wolves in 2020.

Peterson said he had 52 cows killed or missing. He too attempted to apply a 20x multiplier to his losses caused by predation — many of which were unverified. 

The Game and Fish has paid more than $5.5 million for wildlife damage mitigation over the past five years. The amount could increase, pending the results of two open cases. All species are included in the payment system, but grizzly bears are involved in the most wildlife conflicts.

Wyoming has spent more than $55 million in grizzly conservation and management programs since 1975 when the species was listed for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. About a third of that — more than $21 million — has been spent in the past decade. 

Meanwhile, the department’s budget has remained mostly stagnant and the state no longer supports it through the general fund. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the final word in grizzly bear management decisions, contributes about $100,000 per year to management of the species and conservation programs.

Since 2010, and including grants from Fish and Wildlife, the Game and Fish has spent an average of nearly $1.59 million per year on direct expenditures for grizzly bear conservation and management.

Members of the Game and Fish Commission have criticized the meager amount offered by the federal government.

“We [shouldn’t] take that measly 100 grand from the feds and tell them to keep it and manage the bears ourselves from this point forward,” former Commissioner Mike Schmid said at an April 2019 meeting.

The comments from Schmid, who Gov. Mark Gordon removed from the commission in January, echoed the sentiment of many livestock producers and outdoor enthusiasts in the state as tolerance wanes and the bear population grows. 


Making changes?

Currently, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee reports about 737 grizzly bears inside the borders of the Demographic Monitoring Area — land that’s considered suitable habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. However, the Yellowstone area’s population could actually be well over 1,000, said Frank van Manen, leader of the committee’s Grizzly Bear Study Team.

Grizzlies have also been expanding outside the Demographic Monitoring Area in search of their own territory every year, Ellsbury said. Due to a limited budget and workforce, the Study Team does not count bears when they leave the monitoring area, but grizzlies often wind up up in conflicts or in harm’s way as they spread into more developed areas.

Conflicts can also arise in areas where ranching operations overlap with key bear habitat.

A recent Conflict Reduction Consortium sponsored by the Western Landowners Alliance sought to suggest phrases and word use that don’t trigger negative reactions when used in context with wildlife mitigation.

“Words used by people providing assistance around large carnivore-livestock conflict reduction can either further polarize a sensitive situation or bring people together in a common purpose around common goals, including reducing livestock losses and stewarding the land and improving wildlife habitat,” a guide on the organization’s website reads.

For instance, the word “tolerance” can “create the impression that rural communities do not appreciate wildlife; that ranchers have to learn to accept or live with wildlife.”

“In fact people who live in rural areas do value wildlife and often take pride in stewarding the land where wildlife resides,” the report says.

Powell resident Tim Metzler, a sportsman who frequents the Crandall area, understands how important ranching is to the state’s heritage and to wildlife.

“It’s critical that ranching survives,” Metzler said. “If their land gets sold and divided we’ll lose  important wildlife habitat.”

However, he said it may be time to take a hard look at grazing lease practices on Forest Service land.

“It’s costing us more than the leases bring in,” Metzler said. “It doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Changes in the cattle industry could further test the system. Ranchers are moving away from calving, opting instead to bring yearlings in to fatten up in pastures, including on public land, Magagna said. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association is pushing for a higher damage award for yearlings, to reflect the change in the business. But they’re not seeking the multipliers that Longwell and Peterson have requested.

“Asking to be reimbursed for loss of weight on their animals [due to stress from predation] or a number of other factors are simply not part of the current program,” Magagna said. “I’m not saying that they’re not legitimate concerns — they certainly are — but they’re not a part of the statutes or regulations of Game and Fish at this point. For us as an organization, we’re not requesting that.”

When the ACE Act is finally funded, the Fish and Wildlife Service puts rules in place and federal payments are flowing, it may give relief to both the state and stock growers in northwest Wyoming. Until then, the issue could grow in prominence, said Ellsbury.

“Drought means a busier fall because bears will be more food stressed,” he said, adding, “We’re busier than average this year.”

Until then, while Game and Fish continue to fund conservation and management of federally protected grizzly bears, they’re caught in the middle between the agricultural community, sportsmen and those criticizing the department for management decisions that are often out of their hands.

“It’s different in the trenches than it is when slinging comments from behind the computer,” Thompson said.

(CJ Baker contributed reporting.)