Coexisting with carnivores
Livestock losses fluctuate as grizzly, wolf populations recover
MADISON COUNTY—Over the past decade, Montana has become the home of a conflict few places in the United States see: protecting and fostering agricultural interests while at the same time protecting threatened carnivore species, most centrally wolves and grizzly bears.
The issue has only become more contentious with time, as bear and wolf populations recover from their near-extinction. For grizzly bears, this came in the 1970s, for wolves even earlier than that. As both species begin to expand back into territories they once inhabited, a central question has emerged: how can we all coexist?
Wolves and grizzlies, the bears, oh my!
Back when Lewis and Clark explored the West, biologists believe there were nearly 50,000 grizzly bears roaming the Missouri River drainage and its tributaries. The bears were—and still are—plentiful in Alaska, and they adapted well to the western United States.
About 170 years later, in 1975, when grizzly bears were initially placed on the endangered species list, less than 2 percent of the bear’s original numbers remained in the lower 48 states. Westward expansion and extreme levels of hunting led to the localized extinction of 31 of 37 known bands of grizzlies—established areas with a significant population of the bears. By the time they were listed as endangered, only 1,400 grizzlies were left in the entire Lower 48.
Today, grizzlies are present in five areas: the Yellowstone Ecosystem (YEC); Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, near Glacier National Park; the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, in the Kootenai National Forest and Canada; the Selkirk Ecosystem, in Idaho and northeastern Washington; and the North Cascades Ecosystem, in northwestern Washington.
Bear numbers are recovering – albeit slowly, but enough so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Yellowstone population’s endangered, then threatened status. The YEC now has about 700 bears according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), a population growing by as much as 4 percent annually.
Grizzlies still face a major challenge: the five ecosystems are essentially islands, remote from one another, limiting the bears to only a small fraction of their original habitat, and confining genetic biodivesity.
Wolves have followed a similar path.
Before the 1800s, wolves occupied the entirety of the United States, numbering somewhere in the hundreds of thousands in population. With the population of the west, their habitat diminished along with their access to prey, and ranchers and farmers targeted them to protect their livestock. By 1975, they were effectively extinguished from the Yellowstone Ecosystem, which had previously been one of their primary habitat areas. All of the area’s established wolf packs were eliminated, leaving only a very occasional sighting of a literal “lone wolf.”
Once wolves were also listed as endangered, the Endangered Species Act mandated that a recovery effort be pursued.
After much debate and more public comments than any proposal until that time had received, the road to wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone began in the late 1970s.
Since that time, wolves have been unlisted and relisted several times due to some localized recovery and legal challenges surrounding the listing. Most recently, they were delisted in Montana and Idaho in 2011, but remain classified as endangered in Wyoming.
The latest reports for Montana estimate that 750 - 850 wolves reside in the state, where wolf hunting was recommended as a management tool in 2004. That management tactic was approved, and limited wolf hunting is now allowed on a licensed basis at certain times of the year.
Carnivore vs. livestock?
As the populations of both grizzly bears and wolves began to recover, both species are wandering back into their former habitat. And this causes a conflict between people, their livestock and these two predators.
“Grizzlies are expanding over time into livestock-producing areas,” says FWP biologist Cecily Costello. “Their range is expanding every year.” This means that while expanding back into territories they used to inhabit, bears are unintentionally wandering into closer proximity with livestock and ranchers.
“There are what we call core habitat areas,” says Lisa Upson, director of the NGO People and Carnivores, which focuses on the conservation of carnivore populations while working closely with stakeholders like ranchers, hunters and Montana’s tribal governments.
“In western Montana the core habitat areas we’re trying to create connectivity between are the NCDE, central Idaho and the Yellowstone Ecosystem. But we need to do that keeping people in mind, making that work for people.”
When large carnivores like bears and wolves reach a certain population density, Upson says, they will automatically shift toward less-populated areas, constantly on the lookout for food sources, security and mates.
As that shift has increased, so has the number of livestock kills by carnivores. This reached a peak in 2009, where over 300 livestock animals were killed statewide.
After that peak year, FWP instituted more aggressive wolf management practices, which has resulted in a significant decrease in wolf-related livestock predations.
In Madison County, though, wolves are by far the lesser concern compared to grizzlies. Population distribution of wolves shows that they reside most heavily within close proximity of Yellowstone National Park and across Montana’s western border toward the Idaho panhandle.
In terms of livestock kills, the county has seen 19 confirmed wolf kills in the past five years, compared to 44 confirmed losses due to grizzly bears.
“Right now, wolves aren’t the big issue,” says Rick Sandru, a rancher near Twin Bridges and board member of the Ruby Valley Conservation District. “It’s the grizzly bears. The state is trying to figure out how they’re going to manage them in the process of them being delisted.”
Sandru has lost dozens of livestock animals to carnivores in his lifetime and knows there are resources for ranchers to be reimbursed for animals they lose.
The Livestock Loss Board (LLB), created by the state legislature in 2007, will refund the market value of any animal confirmed killed by a carnivore. But there are other losses the LLB can’t reimburse.
“As ranchers, we’re caretakers of our livestock,” says Sandru. “When you find one that’s maimed, even if it’s not a good financial investment, you’ll try to save it. You just feel so bad for them.
“Those are costs that we don’t recover: doctoring time, lost weight, those are other prices we pay to have grizzly bears on the landscape.”
When a carnivore kills a rancher’s animal, the first recourse is to call the LLB or Wildlife Services, who will come out to identify what killed the animal. But the LLB has an annual allotment of $200,000 that comes out of the state’s general fund, and during the 2018 fiscal year they paid $240,000, says executive director George Edwards.
“The money we get is a statutory appropriation...it goes in six-year cycles,” says Edwards. “Any of the unused money rolls over into a savings account for future claims in case we have a catastrophic loss. We had some buildup on that until grizzly bears were added.”
Initially, the board only covered livestock losses by wolves. In 2013, the legislature added grizzlies to that list, and in 2017 mountain lions joined the list. Edwards says those additions really “eat into savings” for the LLB.
Plus, Wildlife Services (a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) has received so many calls so far in 2018 that it’s struggling to keep up with the volume. There can be as much as a week’s wait time before they can come out to a ranch and view a livestock kill to ascertain what killed the animal.
That means a rancher has to preserve the carcass of one of their animals, taking photos and often placing a tarp over the animal. Keeping a carcass that long can then provide an attractant for even more wildlife.
It seems like a rock and a hard place. But there are ways that healthy carnivore populations and ranching livelihoods can coexist, and both People and Carnivores and the LLB are facilitating them.
People and Carnivores offers fencing services designed to keep carnivores out of livestock-populated areas. Flagged fencing and both temporary and permanent options have been used on what Upson calls a “context-specific basis,” and the group also works with landowners to purchase guard dogs to keep their herds safe.
Another option is range riders. Once a widely-used tactic, use of range riders has waned in recent years. But when they act as herders, range riders can more effectively protect livestock, keeping them safer in carnivore country.
Range riders also help to determine where livestock graze. By doing so, grasslands and forested habitats remain healthier, meaning bears and wolves wander less frequently down into pasturelands.
LLB also provides loss prevention grants that allow ranchers to pursue options like these.
“Ranchers or organizations can apply for grants for things like range riders, who observe for losses and can lead to early detection of potential predator losses,” says Edwards.
LLB also helps to fund the purchase of guard dogs, food and supplies to help support those dogs and electric fencing, particularly around calving areas, to keep livestock safe.
The application period for those grants is still open for local farmers and ranchers. Those who are interested can find grant applications online at www.llb.mt.gov. The LLB is accepting grant applications until October 10.
But the option that has drawn the most proactive action in recent years around Madison County has been the prospect of what Upson calls “carcass management programs.” They’ve also been called simply “compost facilities.”
People and Carnivores helped to establish such a facility in Wisdom, which has proven successful.
Sandru says the Ruby Valley was close to having just such a facility in the recent past at the Twin Bridges dump.
“The Conservation District launched an effort to open a carcass composting facility with an enormous amount of local support,” he says. But there was one problem.
“The airport was worried that having a composting facility would attract more birds and be a problem for the airport,” says Sandru. “We wanted to get ahead of this grizzly bear activity, and it’s been very successful in other places where they’ve started composting.
“We’re kind of stymied right now.”
Public support for a composting facility remains high around the valley, and Sandru says the only thing standing in the way is finding an alternative location. Creating such a site would remove excess attractants for the area’s carnivores, and lead to fewer livestock-carnivore conflicts and less loss for local ranchers.
Until that happens, the dialogue continues.
In recent years Madison County has lost an average of around 17 animals per year to carnivores, down from a high of 35 in 2010. The hope is that with enough interagency communication and some local action, that number could draw closer and closer to zero.
For more information on the work of People and Carnivores, contact Kim Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on the Livestock Loss Board or to apply for one of their grants, contact George Edwards at (406) 444-5609.