Trophy game damages hits rancher hardWritten by Saige Albert
Thermopolis – Trophy game animals across the state of Wyoming, and in particular large carnivores, severely impact the bottom line of ranchers, and when provision to collect damages from those animals are limited, Thermopolis Rancher Josh Longwell says he isn’t sure how long they can continue operating.
“We sent our first damage claims in to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) in 2012 for $6,000. The next year, that jumped to $23,000, then $88,000 and then $110,000,” Longwell comments. “Our sheep and cattle losses are off the charts as bear and wolf populations grow.”
Longwell operates Hay Creek Land and Cattle Company west of Thermopolis with his family, running both sheep and cattle.
For Longwell, one of the most challenging game animal is the wolf, which causes damage to their ranch outside the designated trophy game management area.
“Wolf depredation outside the trophy game area isn't compensated. We are in the predator zone,” he comments. “Livestock that are killed by wolves in the trophy game zone are paid at seven-to-one.”
When wolves were controlled by the state of Wyoming, Longwell noted that they were able to kill wolves on sight under any circumstances.
“The wolves were overpopulated, and when they came outside of the trophy game boundary, we could take care of them,” Longwell explains. “Now, since they are listed again, we can’t shoot them. We have to call Wildlife Services, and they have to de-populate wolves.”
He also adds, however, that Wildlife Services must get further permissions, and wolves are removed on an as-necessary basis.
“It’s really challenging to deal with,” Longwell laments.
In the 2016 Budget Session of the Wyoming Legislature, the state did provide some funds to provide for wolf depredation, but the funding was very limited.
“They started with $200,000, but by the time they got done, it was only $60,000,” Longwell explained. “That is distributed between all of the producers outside of the trophy game area. We have to share that $15,000 this year, and we’re probably not going to be compensated even close to the value of our cattle.”
Longwell estimates that compensation will amount to less than a one-to-one value for livestock lost. So far, for 2016, Longwell has 12 calves that are confirmed wolf kills and 13 sheep.
“We want to be conservative on our numbers,” he continues, “but when we take into account the multiplier, that’s 90 calves and 97 lambs if we were in the trophy zone.”
Because the wolf kills are outside the trophy zone, the ranch won’t receive compensation for those losses.
The multiplier numbers are utilized to document losses that are never found, eaten by predators or not verified.
While wolves are a big problem, grizzly bears also prove problematic for Longwell.
“Grizzly kills are paid 3.5-to-one,” he says. “WGFD does pay these damages across the state.”
For 2016, they’ve seen 17 confirmed grizzly kills.
At the same time, end of summer grizzly bear populations on Frank’s Peak, Dome Mountain and Whashakie Needle, which sit at the top of Hay Creek Land and Cattle, hit around 50 bears.
“The area can’t sustain that many bears,” comments Longwell.
Longwell also notes that the ranch lies outside the recent defined Designated Management Area (DMA) for grizzly bears, as defined by the recent grizzly bear management plan passed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission.
Lambing, calving challenges
Hay Creek Land and Cattle Company lambs and calves on a large, open pasture near their headquarters.
“When we were lambing last year, we had grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions and black bears all come in during the same night killing sheep,” Longwell comments. “Every morning, we go ‘Easter egg hunting’ looking for dead.”
Longwell explains, damages went beyond just depredated livestock to include lambs that were trampled after sheep flocks stampeded to avoid predators and lambs that were abandoned immediately after birth by ewes attempting to avoid predators. They also experience a high percentage of bummed lambs.
“We aren’t paid at all for those lambs that don’t have a mark on them,” he says, noting that the multiplier helps to compensate for those animals.
Previous damage claims
With damages incurred every year, Longwell also notes there has been conflict with WGFD regarding payment of claims.
“In 2014, WGFD was not going to pay the multiplier,” Longwell says. “They said that we experienced our losses on ‘home range’ instead of ‘open range,’ so we weren’t eligible for the multiplier,” he says.
“The state of Wyoming owns the wildlife of the state, and WGFD is the managing party,” he continues. “They made a deal with the devil when they reintroduced the wolves and the bears. I can’t afford, as a rancher, to pay the consequences of that decision.”
WGFD Large Carnivore Conflict Coordinator Brian DeBolt explains that the multiplier is in place to take areas of difficult terrain where it might be challenging to locate livestock that have been killed by trophy game animals.
“On many summer ranges, the topography and terrain can be very difficult, making it hard to find animals that are killed and hard to get them verified,” he says. “However, if there are killed on an irrigated pasture or in the lowlands next to the farm or ranch, it’s much more likely that we’re going to find the kills, so the multiplier doesn’t apply.”
Longwell, however, opted to take the WGFD to arbitration, arguing that their lambing area where they experienced losses was open range.
The arbitration process involves three arbitrators – one picked by WGFD, one picked by the claimant and one chosen by the other two arbitrators.
“We presented our case, and the arbitrators ruled in our favor, agreeing that we were due the multiplier,” Longwell explains. “When we filed for 2015 claims, they denied us the multiplier again. We’ll be going back into arbitration for these claims, as well, on the same sheep, the same land and probably the same predators to try to get compensation for our damages.”
“There’s a direct correlation. The more damage we see, the more open cows we see and the lighter the steers get.”
“One of the biggest economic impacts that we see is the devaluation of the ranch and our private property,” he continues. “These predators are stripping the value of our ranch because it’s so difficult to raise livestock. The wildlife are disappearing right behind the livestock. There is no value in our ranch if we can’t raise livestock and don’t have any wildlife. If we can’t make a living here, that’s a huge impact on us and our community.”
“Every time we have a loss, a WGFD employee has to come from Cody, about two hours up the mountain to verify it,” he explains. “It’s a lot of time for them, but most of them are great to work with.”
DeBolt also notes that the ability of WGFD to provide relief is limited.
“We have very limited authority,” he explains. “We do have the authority to verify and pay for trophy game damage, and we do as much of that as possible.”
Since wolves and grizzly bears are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DeBolt adds that WGFD is very limited in the management actions they can take to alleviate problems.
He says. “In the area where they are classified as trophy game, we’ll continue to pay damages. Outside of that area where they are classified as predators, we don’t pay damages because we do not regulate predators. That is under the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.”
For damages by wolves outside of the trophy game area, DeBolt adds, “We have no legal authority or responsibility – through either federal or state statute – that allows us to pay for wolf damages. It is completely out of our authority.”
DeBolt comments, “We’re seeing more livestock depredation caused by grizzly bears and wolves as they expand their range and numbers.”
Longwell agrees that the problem remains.
“We have two apex predators that are running amok. They have been mismanaged,” Longwell says. “It’s devastating.”
“We have to watch these predators kill our livestock, and we can’t do anything about it,” he continues. “I’m passionate about ranching and the livestock we raise. It’s overwhelming to think that we put so much passion and energy into raising these livestock, and they are killed.”
“For 2016, we have the affidavits on losses, with the multiplier added, that amount to roughly a 150 calf lost, and 2016 is far from over,” Longwell comments. “It’s crazy to me that we’re going to let two predators take over our state and put ranchers – our heritage – out of business.”