The Montana Department of Livestock has paid nearly $200,000 so far this year to ranchers who lost animals to predators.
As of Monday, the state Livestock Loss Board recorded 241 animals killed by wolves, grizzlies, and mountain lions this year, including 106 cattle, 130 sheep, and three goats. The state had paid $196,994 to 80 different ranchers.
Since there’s not a deadline for producers to file a claim, numbers this year are still incomplete, said George Edwards, manager of the Livestock Loss Board. He estimated claims would trickle in through March.
Still, this year is shaping up better for ranchers than last year, when the loss board paid out nearly $350,000 to 125 different owners for 413 animals lost to predation.
“Numbers in general are down… it’s looking like it will be a good year,” Edwards said. He doubted the remaining claims would exceed $100,000.
Lewis and Clark County counted the most animals lost to predators this year — 66 animals, including 42 sheep killed by a single grizzly bear. So far, ranchers in that county have been paid $26,971.
Madison County was second, with 49 animals lost, including 38 sheep lost to one wolf. Ranchers in that county have received more than $66,000 in payouts.
In Gallatin County, there has been one claim for six sheep killed by a mountain lion, according to the board’s records.
In Park County, the board recorded two cows killed by a grizzly bear.
There have been more sheep claims than cattle so far this year, which is unusual, Edwards said. He attributed that to the multiple sheep killed in single attacks in Lewis and Clark and Madison counties.
The Montana Legislature started the Livestock Loss Board in 2007 to reimburse ranchers for livestock lost to wolf predation. In 2013, the board added reimbursements for grizzly bears.
The reimbursements cover the market price of livestock, Edwards said. For example, if a predator kills a calf, the producer would be reimbursed for what the animal would have sold for once weaned from its mother.
The original intent of the loss board was to reimburse ranchers for predation “beyond a rancher’s control,” Edwards said — meaning predation by animals with endangered species protections.
But in 2017, the intent pivoted to cover increasing losses by mountain lions, which don’t have federal protections.
Coyotes, one of the deadliest predators in Montana, are notably missing from the loss board. That’s because it would cost the Legislature “millions,” Edwards said.
The Livestock Loss Board has $300,000 annually to spend on loss claims. They can draw from the budgets of lighter years if claims exceed that amount.
In 2019, the state increased the budget from $200,000 following an increase in grizzly kills, Edwards said.
If a rancher suspects a loss from predation, they should call USDA Wildlife Services for an investigation.
Wildlife Services will send an employee to look at the carcass. They’ll measure bite marks and tooth shapes, collect hair samples and check for hemorrhaging under the hide, Edwards said.
If the agency determines a wolf, grizzly, or mountain lion killed the animal, the producer can then file a claim with the Livestock Loss Board. Predators that are caught are relocated or often euthanized.
While the process of determining the animal responsible and filing a claim can take some time, once Edwards receives the claims, he will send that producer money within a few days.
The loss board’s numbers are lower than the true livestock loss to predation in Montana, Edwards said. They only reflect ranchers who filed a loss claim that was vetted by USDA Wildlife Services.
Last year, the Legislature awarded the board an additional $100,000 to fund grant projects focused on non-lethal ways to deter predators.
Wildlife Services has worked on non-lethal predation management across the state too, like sending employees to remove a carcass from the kill site as soon as possible and then composting it.
The agency has also hired range riders to ensure a constant human presence around livestock, and put up fladry fencing — an electric rope with red flags — around pastures to deter predators before losses occur.