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The manager of a state fund that pays ranchers for livestock killed by certain predators dipped into cash reserves to cover last year’s bills, but the costs weren’t as high as he and others feared.

George Edwards, executive director of the Livestock Loss Board, said the cost of paying out claims was about $8,000 more than the board’s annual budget of $200,000. The increased costs came in the first year the board covered kills by mountain lions in addition to grizzly bears and wolves, but Edwards said the cost wasn’t as high as he feared.

“I was very worried,” said Edwards, adding that he “thought we’d get a lot more mountain lion claims than we have so far.”

The 2017 Montana Legislature ordered the addition of mountain lions but didn’t add to the board’s budget, which caused concern for Edwards and supporters of the board’s work. Wolf and grizzly kills had stretched the budget over the past few years, and an estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services put the cost of mountain lion kills at more than $61,000 in 2016.

The board has reimbursed livestock producers for 40 animals killed by mountain lions since last October, when it first started paying livestock producers for animals lost to the big cats. Six of the animals were in Gallatin County — three goats, two sheep and one cow.

Though the cost surpassed the board’s budget, it didn’t reach the projection made by Wildlife Services. Edwards said the lower-than-expected cost is likely due to many incidents going unreported. He also noted that lions tend to go after sheep and goats, which aren’t as expensive as cattle.

The state’s fiscal year ended June 30, meaning the board has received a new round of funding for the next year. So far in 2018, it’s paid more than $48,000 to livestock producers.

The board, which was established in 2008, pays livestock producers market rates for predator-killed livestock. It also provides grants and assistance for work to prevent conflict between livestock and predators.

When it was first created, it only covered wolf kills. Grizzly bears were added in 2013.

The annual appropriation of $200,000 began in 2011, and it was more than enough to cover wolf kills. But, once grizzly bears were added, costs increased. Losses paid out by the board exceeded its budget in 2016, according to a fiscal analysis of House Bill 286, which added mountain lions to the board’s coverage.

Edwards said they stockpiled some savings during the years the board was covering only wolf kills, and that the board has a roughly $100,000 cushion. Last year’s claims forced them to dip into that cushion a bit, he said, but “not nearly as much as I was worried about.”

It doesn’t mean the budget will be adequate into the future, however. The board still hasn’t seen a full year of covering mountain lion kills, and some want to see it spending more on conflict prevention work.

Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the board’s budget will “always be an issue.”

“There’s an increasing interest in these programs to prevent conflicts between predators and livestock,” Gevock said. “These efforts are only gaining steam. That means we’re going to need more funding.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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