From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 43 - January 22, 2004
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

The compensation fraud

by Cat Urbigkit

A compensation program for livestock killed by wolves appears to generate good publicity for the environmental group writing the check, but does little in terms of compensating livestock producers for their actual losses, according to those experiencing livestock depredations.

When it comes to compensation programs for livestock losses to federally protected predators in Wyoming, there are two different programs in place. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department pays for losses caused by grizzly bears, while the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife pays for livestock killed by wolves.

Pinedale rancher Stan Murdock sustained four confirmed wolf kills and seven confirmed grizzly bear kills during last year's grazing season in the Upper Green River region.

"What we're after is adequate compensation for what we are actually losing," Murdock said.

Of the four wolf kills, Defenders of Wildlife has sent a check for three, Murdock said, and is awaiting paperwork from federal officials on the fourth animal.

Defenders will pay for kills confirmed by federal wildlife officials and sets the price for the animal.

"They decided this year that a calf is worth exactly $500," Murdock said. In contrast, WG&F has agreed with stockmen that a calf is worth $556.71 this year, based on market statistics.

The major difference between the state and environmental group's programs are that the state pays a compensation factor, in recognition that not all kills can be found for confirmation.

That compensation factor is presently up to 3.5, meaning for every confirmed bear kill, when other animals are missing, the livestock producer will be paid for that one animal, plus another two and one-half animals. This compensation factor of 3.5 only applies to missing calves; it does not apply to yearling or adult cattle. It's important to note that this compensation factor wasn't a figure pulled from the air, but was based on specific research aimed at determining how many grizzly bear kills are actually discovered on western Wyoming's forested grazing allotments.

So for Murdock's seven confirmed grizzly kills, he'll receive compensation for 24.5. That may seem like a lot, but it still doesn't compensate for all the animals unaccounted for over and above the normal death loss of about two percent, which is subtracted before the numbers are submitted for compensation. Murdock's actual losses totaled more than 40 head. That means 10 percent of his cows came off the forest without the calves they entered with.

In contrast, Defenders will only pay for cattle killed by wolves when the kills have been found, inspected by federal officials and confirmed. The organization will not pay for missing livestock, even though federal wildlife officials acknowledge that few wolf kills are found.

"We're not finding these wolf kills," Murdock said. "It is understandable there is no evidence left because wolves hunt in packs and when they are hungry they leave nothing to confirm."

Say you're a producer who has one calf confirmed as a wolf kill. That means Defenders will offer you a check for $500. First, you're being shorted $56.71 by the group failing to value that animal at market price. But more importantly, recent research in Idaho revealed only one of every eight wolf kills is found. Doing the math, that means that the $500 check you're being offered should have been written for $4,453.68, if the intention is to compensate you for the total predation losses.

The one-in-eight ration held true for Big Piney rancher Bill Murdock. In the last grazing season, he had one confirmed wolf kill, but ended up with a total of eight calves unaccounted for at the end of the season.

Murdock is not filing for compensation from Defenders.

"You kind of hate not to," Murdock said, but "for principle's sake," he's not filing.

"It would just give them ammunition to make the public feel that people are being compensated for their losses when they're not," Murdock said.

Upper Green River Cattle Association members had a total of 10 head of cattle confirmed as killed by wolves in the 2003 grazing season on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It might not sound like a lot, one here and one there, but that doesn't take into consideration the number of cattle killed by wolves that are not found. That 10 confirmed head represents only a small part of the 80 head actually lost to wolf predation. Although Defenders might end up paying a few thousand dollars in compensation for the confirmed kills, the actual value of the animals actually killed by wolves is closer to $50,261.44 When losses to grizzlies are added in, the value of the livestock losses rises to more than $100,000 for last year's grazing season.

Daniel rancher Charles Price had six calves and one yearling confirmed as killed by grizzlies last year, in addition to having one calf killed by a wolf. Price is receiving compensation from the state for his bear losses, but is not going to file for compensation from Defenders for his wolf kills because he doesn't want the group to get any more good publicity.

"Basically the program is a publicity ploy," Price said. "It's cheap advertising for them."

Price, using a more conservative rate of five calves killed for every one wolf kill found, said in reality, Defenders is getting away with paying less than 20 cents for every dollar or more lost by the livestock producer. In doing so, Price said, Defenders can claim they have compensated the rancher, "and the rancher shouldn't squawk."

Price said the other problem with the compensation program is that it doesn't even begin to acknowledge the numerous problems caused by wolf predation on livestock.

"They chase the cattle and get them all stirred up," Price said. The animals are then spooky, hard to handle and fail to continue weight gains. Management can be impacted by cattle refusing to use certain parts of their allotments or pastures in response to pressure from predators, affecting utilization rates. Predation can also cause groups of cattle to scatter in all directions, including through fences.

"The predators are doing the distribution and moving of the cattle," Big Piney rancher Eddie Wardell said. "The bears and the wolves will decide where you are going to go and when you are going to go."

"They like to run them," Price agreed. "They enjoy chasing them as much as they do killing them."

"It's not just the direct losses ... but the fact that you have additional costs from them running the animals." Price said.

Price also pointed out that in the Upper Green last year, there were three grizzlies removed from the area by the first part of August.

"This early management action by the agencies (WG&F and USDA Wildlife Services) undoubtedly substantially reduced the number of grizzly-bear kills," Price said. "The grizzly bears really go on a killing binge in September and October as they prepare for hibernation.

"Such timely management action by the agencies can greatly reduce the depredation loss and substantially reduce the economic impact on both the livestock owner and the agency providing damage compensation," Price added. "The WG&F should be complimented in their proactive approach in removing the livestock-killing bears."

In contrast, FWS was chasing livestock killing wolves around until October," Price pointed out. "However, as you know, they are not liable for any livestock damage compensation due to wolf predation. This authority-without-responsibility is one reason the wolf needs to be managed as a predator in the majority of the state of Wyoming."

One problem with the state compensation program is that a producer must have at least one kill confirmed in order to receive any compensation, regardless of what the losses are. In 2003, the Sommers Ranch experienced losses due to predators, but because none of the confirmed calf kills had the Sommers' brand, the family will not receive any compensation.

Albert Sommers said while his family's losses weren't as bad this year as they were last year, they were still more than double the losses prior to 1995 when grizzlies became well established in the area.

Wardell said his family had one cow confirmed as a wolf kill in the past grazing season. While they've filed for compensation, they've yet to hear back from Defenders.

Wardell said he was satisfied with the efforts of state and federal wildlife officials in quickly responding to requests for confirmation of found kills during the last season. Wardell added that finding the kills often seems to be a matter of luck, despite intensive efforts to locate the kills and get them confirmed. Within a matter of hours, all that's left of a calf kill is a blood spot on the ground, leaving nothing to confirm, Wardell described.

In the past, Stan Murdock did not file for compensation, even though he had substantial losses. His view was that the compensation wasn't adequate and good publicity shouldn't result from a flawed program. But when that meant forfeiting tens of thousands of dollars, he was forced to change his mind. He now submits the claim for compensation, but stipulates that it is only "partial" compensation.

"They are not paying their fair share," Murdock said of Defenders. "They advertise their program, but in actuality, are only making token payments which fall far short of compensation for actual predation losses."

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