Since 2007 Montana taxpayers have compensated ranchers when wolves and grizzly bears kill their livestock — to the tune of up to $200,000 a year. Some of that money is also spent on projects designed to prevent predator conflicts. That earns it high marks from both ranchers and conservation organizations.
Last year, state lawmakers voted to add mountain lion-related losses to the compensation list for the first time. The problem is, the program didn’t get any additional funding to do that.
The Montana Wildlife Federation’s Nick Gevock describes that as, “Somewhat of an unfunded mandate in the sense that we added another species, and yet we didn’t provide additional funding to cover that. So, it’s going to cut into payments for grizzly bears and wolves and potentially cut into our payments for the preventive work," Gevock says.
George Edwards is the Livestock Loss Board’s executive director.
“If we start getting low on cash, we may have to hold mountain lion claims till a later date and our board will have to try to make a decision on how to pay those," Edwards says.
The Livestock Loss Board was created in 2007. Back then its singular focus was on wolf-related livestock losses. Grizzly bear losses were added to the board’s mandate in 2013. During last year’s regular legislative session, lawmakers added mountain lions to the list after hearing from constituents about widespread attacks on livestock.
Last November one of the big cats killed 25 ewes at Ken Mckamey’s ranch south of Great Falls.
“We’d had problems with coyote kills on the lambs, so we put them in the corral every night," Mckamey says. "This mountain lion came along and jumped into the corral and killed 20 outright. Another five were still alive, but were bad enough that we had to put them down."
The Livestock Loss Board paid Mckamey $7,900 in compensation.
“Yeah, for us it was sure nice to receive that money," says Mckamey, "The Livestock Loss Board has a been a big help for losses around the state, but I’d much rather have the sheep than have to get paid for the loss.”
Since October 1, the board has paid out almost $11,000 to Montanans who’ve lost livestock to mountain lions.
The state annually appropriates $200,000 of general fund money for the program. It has savings from years past when there were fewer reports of wolf and grizzly bear livestock predation, but otherwise receives no additional money from other state revenue sources.
Director George Edwards was already bracing for a busy and expensive year, even without the new mandate to cover mountain lion-related claims:
“Because the wolf predation will start this spring when the livestock owners’ cows start calving; there’s a surge when that happens. I don’t have a clue as far as mountain lions go because we don’t have a track record. Then, when the grizzly bears start coming out of hibernation that’s going to eat into that dollar amount rapidly.”
The Livestock Loss Board also places a premium on prevention; stopping predation conflicts before they can happen. That’s one of the reasons it has the enthusiastic support of the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF).
Nick Gevock is MWF’s conservation director.
“The best example is the Blackfoot Valley," Geveock says. "They’ve been going even before the livestock loss program was started. They fence chicken coops and beehives and calving yards. They remove livestock carcasses very quickly and compost them. They have a range rider, and they’ve cut down on their grizzly bear conflicts by 93 percent, so it’s an incredible success story."
Livestock Loss Board director George Edwards also hopes the predation payouts don’t end up cannibalizing the program’s prevention work. However his more immediate concern is the impact of state budget cuts which have stripped $9,300 out of his annual operating expenses.
“We’re still functioning fully. It just restricts my ability to travel and get the word out to people about our program and activities," Edwards says.
And according to Edwards, that face-to-face outreach with livestock producers is crucial, especially now that they can get compensated for eligible mountain lion losses.
“We want to be fair to everybody. It’s not like we want to keep anything hidden that we’re covering mountain lions. It’s better to have the word out so people know.”