Montana’s livestock loss and predatory control programs have been renewed for another six years, after Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law a bill that extends their sunset dates.
House Bill 59, sponsored by Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Power, at the request of the Department of Livestock, became law earlier this month after easing through the legislature with support from both agriculture and environmental groups.
The bill authorizes the state’s Livestock Loss Board and Department of Livestock to continue using state appropriated money for predator control. According to the fiscal note, because the money has already been appropriated, the bill will have no impact on Montana’s general fund.
George Edwards, who runs the Livestock Loss Board, said the bill’s passage means Montana can continue its critical work of co-managing wildlife and agriculture.
Groups like the Montana Wool Growers Association, Endangered Species Coalition, and Montana Farm Bureau also supported the bill and praised the work of the loss board.
“It’s really refreshing to see groups from both sides of the aisle come together to support this,” Edwards said.
The board was first formed in the 2007 legislative session to reimburse ranchers for the livestock lost to gray wolf kills. Since wolves have federal protections, ranchers can’t shoot or trap them — but losing just one cow can cost close to $2,000.
The board wanted to provide some recourse for ranchers for predation that’s out of their control, Edwards said.
Grizzly bear kills became reimbursable through the program in 2013, and mountain lions — which aren’t federally protected — joined the list in 2017.
Kills vetted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services are reimbursed for 100% of their market value at the time the loss occurs, Edwards said.
The Livestock Loss Board has roughly $300,000 to spend each year on claims. The loss claims for 2022 totaled $237,985 as of Wednesday, and Edwards is still finishing data input.
During supporting testimony in the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee, agriculture groups said loss claims help ranchers stay in business.
“Predation accounts for roughly half of all sheep and lamb losses in Montana, so livestock predator control funding is integral to remaining viable as a sheep producer,” said Calli Michaels, spokesperson for the Montana Wool Growers Association.
“These funds are already appropriated, well-used, and well-appreciated, and we ask the spending authority be extended,” Michaels said in February.
The livestock loss board has another $100,000 a year for loss prevention project grants, which was also extended under the bill.
Those grants fund tools like guard dogs, carcass removal projects, and electric fencing for calving barns that help protect livestock from predators.
On top of that work, HB 59 also extended funding for the Department of Livestock’s other predator control methods.
The livestock department has over $400,000 a year to spend on predation management, and most of that pays for Wildlife Services’ helicopters that control coyote populations.
Putting coyote kills on the loss board would cost the state millions, Edwards said. They’re by far the worst predator for livestock in Montana — but unlike wolves and grizzlies, there are more options to control them, he said.
Aerial hunting for coyotes is an important part of predation management, and it’s paid for by per-head fees for cattle, Edwards said.
It’s an entirely different funding mechanism than the loss board, but both sunsets are included in HB 59 because that’s how the legislature has done things historically, he said.
Environmental groups said in testimony these programs work and have reduced the state’s predator conflicts over the years.
“When a rancher loses livestock it’s a lose-lose-lose. The rancher loses an animal, the predator is killed or translocated, and it takes tremendous resources to do that,” said Nick Gevock, spokesperson for the Endangered Species Coalition. “So it is in all of our interest to get ahead and prevent these problems in the first place.”
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