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Defenders of Wildlife Pioneers Rough Terrain in the Northern Rockies

Stephanie Saline

When people and big predators share the land, economic and social costs can complicate species conservation. The Ecosystem Marketplace spotlights a Defenders of Wildlife program that puts the organization's money where its mouth is.

When people and big predators share the land, economic and social costs can complicate species conservation. The Ecosystem Marketplace spotlights a Defenders of Wildlife program that puts the organization's money where its mouth is. In Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley, it's hard to find a parking spot. Sedans and minivans line the shoulder of the road. Men and women in hats and thick jackets weave between the cars with take-out coffee cups in hand, shouldering tripod-mounted binoculars. When a dark speck below the ridgeline moves, it sends excited murmurs through the crowd. There's a chance it could be what these people have gathered to see, and what, even twenty years ago, didn't exist: a wolf in the Northern Rockies. Wolves once roamed most land above 20 degrees latitude in the northern hemisphere, their range stretching from Mexico to the Arctic. By the early 20th Century, however, wolf populations had been decimated in the United States and, by the time the gray wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the species was virtually extinct in the U.S. outside of Minnesota and Alaska. To many ranchers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the disappearance of wolves represented a victory, not a loss. Put simply: wolves kill livestock. And so, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 as part of a federal endangered species recovery plan, they were controversial to say the least. In Yellowstone country, many ranchers still have a saying when it comes to preventing livestock losses to wolves: "shoot, shovel, and shut up." As the debate heated up amid preparation for wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone in the late 1980s, Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental non-profit widely lauded for being among the most effective conservation groups in the United States, decided to face ranchers' practical opposition to wolves head-on. Specifically, Defenders of Wildlife set up funds to reimburse livestock producers for wolf-related losses in 1987, giving ranchers an incentive to let wolves live.

Stepping Up to the Plate

The Defenders' wolf compensation fund—renamed the Bailey Wildlife Foundation Compensation Trust in 1997—was created "to reassure producers that losses wouldn't put them out of business," says Suzanne Stone, the Defenders' Northern Rockies Representative. To qualify for compensation, a producer must have enough evidence to suggest a wolf was responsible. On ranches where wolves are nearby, sometimes livestock simply go missing. In these cases, there is no reimbursement. To be considered for compensation, producers must also show evidence of best husbandry practices and use of non-lethal methods of wolf control like carcass removal, guard dogs, electric fencing and radio-activated guard (RAG) boxes. During the compensation process, Defenders works with the producer to determine the fair market value of the loss and then mails checks within a month of receiving a claim. "A calf that was killed when it weighed 150 pounds in the spring would have been 600 or 700 pounds by the time it would be sold in the fall," says Stone. The compensation trust pays the projected fair market value of the animal in the fall based on rancher sales records, with payments capped at $3,000 per animal. In 2005, Montana farmers lost 46,000 head of sheep and lambs statewide, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service. Of the 12,400 killed by predators, only 300 were confirmed wolf kills. But those statistics wouldn't mean much to the producer in Weiser, Idaho, who lost 16 ewes and 154 lambs to wolves in 2004. The Defenders fund reimbursed him $23,158.52. Most payments aren't that high—the average payment is between $200 and $2,000, with the program paying 100% for confirmed kills and 50% for probable kills. Since its inception, the fund has paid $543,905 to 431 livestock producers. "Compensation does play a role in tolerance levels," says Jay Bodner, Natural Resource Coordinator for Montana Stockgrowers Association. "Defenders deserves a pile of credit for stepping up to the plate," agrees Carolyn Sime, Statewide Wolf Coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the state agency now responsible for wolf management. "But there's nothing more effective than involving human capital in wildlife conservation. If people aren't involved in what affects them, there's no buying."

Wolves in Central Park

According to research, there is general public support for compensation, but stakeholders on all sides agree that the solution is far from perfect. There is, for instance, hearty skepticism about a private conservation program penning the checks. In addition to managing compensation payments, Defenders litigates to keep wolves under federal protection. For this reason, some producers choose not to pursue compensation. "They aren't comfortable with who's running the program," explains Bodner of Montana Stockgrowers. "Others say that Defenders gets publicity from compensation," of which those producers want no part. For ranchers who do choose to participate, some costs associated with wolves still fall outside the scope of Defenders' program. The cap paid per animal loss was recently raised from $2,000 to $3,000. The fair market value of specialized breed like Angus can be thousands more. After a depredation, livestock producers who have invested in developing a specific genetic line must absorb that difference. Similarly, livestock producers have reported that having wolves in the area causes livestock stress, evidenced by reduced weaning rates, less time grazing, and maternal cows aborting as a result of wolf harassment. These losses are not reimbursed by Defenders' program. "Ranchers have a good idea of what's happening to these animals, says Bodner, "but they can't prove it." In one case, at least, public funding has made up some of the difference. In 2002, Idaho created a payment program for six counties where depredations were prevalent. The Idaho Wolf Depredation Compensation Plan compensates confirmed and probable depredations, as well as general losses related to wolves in the area and proactive prevention measures. As part of the state's wolf management agreement with the federal government, $100,000 is earmarked for compensation. "Is this perfect? No, no way," says Nina Fascione, Vice President of Defenders Field Compensation Program, "compensation is only the tip of the iceberg." At the heart of the issue is that fact that brokering the coexistence of people and predators involves more than checkbooks. "The benefits and costs of having wolves around don't accrue to the same people at the same rate," explains Sime of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. What tourists and tour operators, wolf watchers and photographers gain by having wolves around is a cost to livestock producers and hunters. "It's not strictly economics," says Sime, "it's also cultural heritage, historical, philosophical." To wit, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks took its citizen-drafted wolf management plan on a road trip for public comment in 2002. "I want three good reasons what wolves are good for. And I don't want to hear that tourists like to hear them howl," was one response. "If they want wolves, put them in Central Park," was another. Predator payments, it seems, are a controversial and qualified success in the Northern Rockies. And so, as Yellowstone's wolves come up for delisting from the Endangered Species Act (the population has largely recovered since 1973), stakeholders are weighing in on the future of predator payments in the Yellowstone region. Who should make them? Who should receive them? And what form should they take?

A Work in Progress

As the process of delisting wolves from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act continues, the future of wolves in the Yellowstone region will depend more heavily on their human neighbors. According to a recent Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks report, there were at least 835 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming by the end of 2004. Montana and Idaho both have federally approved wolf-management plans that would shift responsibility from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to each state once the Yellowstone wolf population was removed from the Endangered Species List. Wyoming's plan—which classified the wolf as a "trophy game animal" and "predatory animal" to be hunted and trapped largely without regulation—was rejected on the basis that it did not protect wolves from threats that led to their extermination from their historical range in the first place. The issue is currently in litigation. Clearly, the shift from federal to state management will affect the future of compensation. In Montana, there is support for a state-run payment program like that in Idaho, but the source of funding is still up for discussion. "Defenders said from the get go that the fund was for federally protected species," says Fascione. "Once federal protection is removed, will our program cease to exist? Maybe our role will switch toward the proactive." She hesitates. "I don't have any answers yet. It's a work in progress."

If You Can't Beat 'Em…

In 1998, Defenders started the Bailey Wildlife Foundation Proactive Carnivore Conservation Fund. The innovative fund creates an opportunity for conservation biologists and ranchers to work together on non-lethal wolf management projects that promote the peaceful coexistence of people and predators. Electric fencing, livestock relocation, fladry (rope strung with orange or red flags), ranger riders and radio-activated guard (RAG) boxes are among the methods used. Between 1998 and 2005, the fund paid out $529,213 on projects ranging from guard dogs to aerial monitoring. Defenders also recently assembled an advisory council of livestock producers to help guide decision-making on compensation claims. And, according to Stone, the collaboration has been instructive. "It was ranchers who suggested letting livestock keep horns intact [to protect themselves from wolves] and also came up with the idea of RAG boxes," she says. As predators grow more common on the western landscape and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service looks to removing federal protection for wolves, the council also weighs in on the evolution of the compensation and proactive programs. "One of the council ranchers didn't like wolves, and frankly didn't like Defenders," says Stone. "but he still volunteers his time to help." In talking about the future of compensation, Bodner of Montana Stockgrowers explains why a rancher would work to conserve an animal he doesn't like. "The most we can hope for is to be involved in management and resolve conflicts quickly," he says. Perhaps what is true in the case of wolves holds meaning for the future of predator conservation on private lands in general. While conservation payments have an undeniable role to play when it comes to protecting the future of endangered species, investing in human capital is the real key when it comes to protecting predators equitably and effectively. Stephanie Saline is a writer based in Bozeman, Montana who is working on her first play. She can be reached at lechosa@gmail.com. First published: March 24, 2006

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