Grizzly Bears Recovery

This April 29, 2019 file photo provided by the United States Geological Survey shows a grizzly bear and a cub along the Gibbon River in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.

HELENA, Montana — The state of Montana has paid more for livestock killed by predators in 2019 than ever before, and those affected are grappling with how to respond.

The Montana Livestock Loss Board has so far paid ranchers more than $247,000 in claims on more than 360 animals killed by mountain lions, grizzly bears or wolves in 2019. The board is still accepting claims from last year.

It’s the third consecutive year to set a new record.

Madison County had the most losses in 2019 at 44 animals killed.

George Edwards, executive director of the board, said the number of grizzly bear-related losses almost doubled the number of wolf-related losses.

“That was even shocking to me,” Edwards said.

Edwards has been the executive director since the livestock loss board was created in 2008. He said the numbers tracked — including the type of animal killed, by which predator and in what county — provide only a snapshot of livestock loss in Montana.

Livestock killed by one of the three listed predators have to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be eligible for market-rate payouts. There are also ranchers who don’t file claims.

“The reality is is that there are a lot of animals that aren’t found or there isn’t enough evidence,” Edwards said.

Even so, the number of confirmed livestock deaths is rising, and Edwards predicts that will continue.

“This problem is going to grow as the (predator) population grows,” Edwards said.

The 2019 Montana Legislature passed House Bill 520 to increase funding for the Livestock Loss Board from $200,000 to $300,000. Edwards said the bump came just in time because without it, he would have to send IOUs to ranchers.

Another law passed last session requires that people who own any livestock pay their annual per capita fee to the state in order to receive a livestock loss payout. The tax helps fund the Department of Livestock. Edwards said the new law has caused confusion this year.

Jim Brown with the Montana Wool Growers Association said the per capita fee and other self-imposed taxes show that ranchers are invested in preventing predation themselves. Ranchers can petition their respective counties to impose a tax to pay for local predator control programs. The tax requires 51 percent or more of the cattle and sheep producers in the county sign-on.

But even with tax money and general fund dollars, Brown said predator prevention is limited in Montana because of a lack of funding.

“We just need more resources,” Brown said.

Brown also said some ranchers would like to see the state revise how it manages wildlife.

For example, he said it’s time for grizzly bears to be delisted and for management to move into state hands. Brown said this would make it easier for ranchers because some limit what they do to protect their livestock for fear of killing a federally protected grizzly. He said this change could make ranchers more tolerant of other conservation efforts.

“You better have the landowners on board if you want to recover these populations,” Brown said.

The federal government tried to delist the bears in 2017 but the decision was overturned in court in 2018. Gov. Steve Bullock created a Grizzly Bear Advisory Council to study the issue and produce recommendations for management likely by next summer.

Lisa Upson, executive director of People and Carnivores, said management plans need to focus on natural connectivity between bear populations around the state and predation prevention. Her organization is focused on promoting the coexistence of people and predators and preventing conflicts between the two in rural and urban places.

“We see that where landowners are open to trying new things, we can almost always come up with a practice to help them prevent conflicts and put their mind at ease,” Upson said.

The organization uses tools like carcass removal, fencing, guard dogs and range riders to prevent conflict. There are other nonprofits around the state working with similar tools.

However, Upson agreed with Brown that there aren’t enough resources to go around. She said that because large carnivore restoration is a federal priority, conflict prevention should get federal funding.

“We’ve got to find a way to expand conflict prevention and we’ve got to find a way to fund it from both private and public sources in order for it to scale across the region,” Upson said.

Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.