9TH Circuit Court of Appeals GYE grizzly decision’s impact on Madison County ranchers
The conversation surrounding the listing and delisting of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears includes many voices. From ranchers to environmental groups to Yellowstone National Park, each voice provides an important perspective. The Madisonian will cover these perspectives as the conversation continues.
“We never had any bear conflicts until about five years ago,” Bob Sitz, third-generation Montanan and long-time Madison County rancher with Sitz Angus Ranch in Harrison, said. There are so many bears in the environment now, competition for habitat has fueled their food and territorial aggression, he said.
“Livestock losses due to grizzly bears has been increasing every year since we began accepting claims in 2013,” George Edwards, executive director of the Livestock Loss Board, said. According to statistics from the board, six cattle were killed by grizzlies in 2013, 76 cattle were killed by grizzlies in 2016, and 96 cattle were killed by grizzlies in 2019 across the state.
The Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest is located in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), the recovery zone for GYE grizzly bears. The GYE recovery zone encompasses parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and includes sections of five National Forests. Edwards provided examples of grizzly encounters that fell outside the GYE.
“One of the harder hit areas every year is out on the plains out east of Red Lodge,” Edwards said. “We get claims from a good portion of the state now and they’re not necessarily in the recovery zone.”
“It’s [livestock loss due to grizzlies] not going away. We’re just adding counties,” Sitz said.
On July 8, 2020, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Montana District Court’s 2009 opinion keeping GYE grizzlies listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Plaintiffs included Earthjustice and other conservation and tribal organizations. The defendant was the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).
After this decision, there has been no response from FWS about a future delisting push, but it is expected.
“In terms of a hunting season…whether we hunt grizzly bears or not, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service first has to make the decision to delist the grizzly bear as a threatened species. Once that happens, then management authority of the species returns to the individual states,” Dean Waltee, wildlife biologist with Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (FWP) in Sheridan, said.
If delisting were to occur, management of GYE grizzlies would go to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Sitz viewed this as a benefit of delisting, explaining that local fish and game management, local community groups, know more about the local area. “Out here, it is my backyard and I feel like we should have a little say on how we manage our backyard,” he said.
Sitz files all his losses with the Livestock Loss Board. “If you don’t, then the environmental community says, ‘hey there’s no livestock losses,’” he said as part of his reasoning for doing so. Another reason is monetarily based.
The Livestock Loss Board, the state board that processes loss claims, only finds out about a loss if a rancher submits a claim. Money is only given out to Wildlife Service (WS) verified losses. WS is the authority on loss verification as the department is trained in the forensics of the determination. A necropsy is performed, a report is sent to WS in Billings, and the board’s claims report and WS’s investigation are sent to the rancher, who decides whether or not to file the claim.
“Ranchers that suspect a loss is from grizzly bears need to contact Wildlife Services as we do not accept investigations from FWP for loss claims. Most ranchers turn in claims to our board, but some do not. This means our numbers do not accurately reflect all loss that has occurred each year,” Edwards said.
Before 2019, the board received $200,000 in state funding for claims. Originally, loss was attributed only to wolves and any unused money for the year carried over, creating a saving account of sorts.
In 2013, grizzly bears were added to loss determinations. In the last three or four years, the board started paying out more than the allocated $200,000, Edwards said. Rep. Ray Shaw from Alder was instrumental in increasing the claims allocations to $300,000, which was granted during the 2019 legislature session.
According to Edwards, payment ranchers receive is based on the market price of the livestock lost during the week it was killed based on price per pound. This is different for registered stock, which receive the average sale price from the year before, he explained.
WS must be contacted to preserve as much evidence as needed in order to determine a predator loss. Time in between investigations, especially in remote areas such as the Gravellys, can be detrimental. A second investigator was hired by WS for Madison County to account for this issue.
Actual losses are greater than what the board pays claims for, Edwards said. He knows this by hearing from ranchers at livestock conventions who profess what they lost in a year was more than what they were compensated.
The board does not have funding to pay a multiplier, Edwards said. A multiplier allows for a cushion—it accounts for additional livestock that may have been lost due to predation but not verified.
Montana Stockgrowers Association has a resolution encouraging the board to pay a multiplier once the funding becomes available. Edwards said the board is in favor of this, but current funding is restricted to WS verified losses.