ALDER – The Madison County Livestock Protective Committee had their first meeting last week with an audience of about 45 ranchers from around the county and much of the discussion focused on the ongoing struggle with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks over wolf management issues.
The three-person committee was appointed at last Tuesday’s Madison County Commissioner meeting. The following day committee members Rick Sandru, Neil Barnosky and
Gary Clark hosted the meeting along with all three Madison County Commissioners. The goal of the meeting was to answer questions and listen to concerns from local ranchers and set up the officers in the committee.
The Madison Livestock Protective Committee was formed after a petition was circulated among sheep and cattle ranchers in the county asking them to support a per head fee of up to 50 cents on adult animals to help pay for livestock protection issues.
Once the needed signatures were collected, the commissioners formed the committee, said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz.
State statute requires that for the petition to pass, signatures must be gathered by 51 percent of the livestock owners who own 55 percent of the livestock.
Once the petition was passed, the commissioners had to form the committee to administer the funds collected by the fee.
The petition was circulated this past summer and fall and was an idea that came from a Southwest Montana Stockgrowers Association meeting this past spring, Sandru told ranchers on Wednesday.
Initially the thought behind collecting the fee is to get some money together to help offset the cost to ranchers of dealing with wolf depredation problems, since Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is unwilling to do their job, he said.
However, the money can be used for nearly anything as long as it falls within scope of the committee, Schulz said.
Though the meeting was held to answer questions and discuss the livestock protective committee, the concern most prevalent in the discussions was Montana FWP’s management of wolves.
Last year, Montana FWP took over wolf management from the federal government as the species was removed from the protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Last spring during the 2011 Montana Legislative Session, state senator Debby Barrett from Dillon sponsored Senate Bill 348 directing FWP to spend $900,000 on wolf management. The hope was that the bill would force the state to more aggressively address wolf/livestock conflicts around the state, Schulz said. However, it seems FWP has ignored the intent of the legislation and used the money to fund wolf specialists, administration and other ancillary portions of their wolf program.
Coupled with this has been a reduction in federal funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, which is the agency used by FWP to kill or collar wolves causing depredation problems.
For several years FWP has allocated $110,000 annually to Wildlife Services to help with wolf management. However, with the reduction in federal funding, that contribution from FWP isn’t enough any longer, Schulz said.
The idea behind SB 348 was that FWP would allocate more money directly to Wildlife Services, he said. However, that didn’t happen. As a result some ranchers are forced to pay for Wildlife Services out of their own pocket when they have wolf depredation problems, Sandru said.
This can get particularly expensive when Wildlife Services uses a helicopter to track down problem wolves.
“They (Wildlife Services) haven’t been paying for that, so when the helicopter goes in the air, that cost goes on the producers,” Sandru said.
The funds collected by the county for the livestock protective committee could be used to offset those kinds of costs incurred by producers. Essentially, the committee will oversee the payment of funds collected by the fee, he said.
However, the funds could possibly be used by producers to sue FWP over their management of wolves, something a couple of the ranchers brought up during the meeting.
FWP has been side-stepping their obligations when it comes to wolf management, said Ruby Valley rancher John Anderson. Having funds collected from local producers and controlled by local producers could be an asset if they have to try and force the state to do their job.
“It does put a pot of money there under our control,” Anderson said.
FWP seems to pay little attention to concerns by producers about the impact wolves have had on their animals and operations, he said.
“Right now they know we don’t have any money,” Sandru said. “Maybe if we had $50,000 in a fund they’d look at us a little different.”
The discontent with FWP and their wolf management seemed to be unanimous among those at the meeting, including the county commissioners.
“Fish and game just wants to side step the issue,” said Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel. “They know they haven’t done their jobs.”
And livestock producers aren’t the only ones concerned, Schulz said.
“They hunters are finding an incredible reduction in wildlife, both mule deer and elk – elk being the big issue,” Schulz said.
However, ranchers have gained little traction in taking their concerns to FWP, he said.
“The only way they’ve been able to make a statement is to shut their land off to hunting,” Schulz said. “Something to get FWP’s attention.”
After the general meeting, Sandru, Clark and Barnosky all met and elected Sandru president of the Madison County Livestock Protective Committee and Barnosky will serve as secretary.
The three men also set the per head fee at 50 cents for cattle and 10 cents for sheep. The fee should raise about $25,000 annually and will be on 2012 tax statements.
It’s impressive that Madison County was able to get this petition passed in such a short time frame, Sandru said after the meeting. But unfortunately the committee won’t have much to do until money is collected from tax payments at the end of this year.
“There’s basically not going to be anything for this committee to do until there are funds collected in this account,” he said.
Even though the wolf issue is front and center now, other issues may present problems in the future and the protective committee will be able to address those isues as well, Sandru said.
“I think this fund is going to be way more valuable down the road on other issues,” he said.