Conservation Groups and Livestock Interests Work to Create a New $25 Million Rancher Slush Fund

Recently we were informed of a new effort by two conservation groups, a Native American tribe and livestock interests “to secure $25 million from the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill to help livestock producers reduce the risk of livestock losses to grizzly bears, wolves, black bears and mountain lions.”

This taxpayer money is meant to “reduce the impacts that carnivores can have on livestock producers” although how the funds’ effectiveness would be monitored is unclear.

There is no doubt about the need for ranchers to incorporate non-lethal, preventative livestock husbandry practices into their grazing management regimes in order to prevent conflict with wolves and other native predators.

The question that needs to be answered is who ought be responsible for the costs of needed animal husbandry ?  Do ranchers have a right to a predator free landscape ? Given what we know of the past, how good an idea is it for taxpayers to further subsidize efforts that ought be standard management practices ?

Here is a list of those organizations that have signed onto this idea so far:

  • Montana Stockgrower’s Association
  • Montana Woolgrower’s Association
  • Montana Cattlemen’s Association
  • Montana Farmer’s Union
  • Blackfoot Tribe
  • SFW, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife
  • MACO, Montana Association of Counties
  • Montana Livestock Cooperative
  • Defenders of Wildlife
  • Madison County Commissioner
  • Jefferson County Commissioners
  • Beaverhead County Commissioner
  • Granite County Commissioner
  • Natural Resources Defense Council

Why should taxpayers be expected to cover this cost of livestock production ?

On federal public lands, the cost of the grazing fee is dramatically below market value despite direction in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) that the BLM recover market value for livestock grazing and other commercial uses of public lands.

One of the reasons the Forest Service and the BLM cite for the dramatically low grazing fee is that livestock may be lost to predators.  So, taxpayers are already providing subsidized forage to ranchers to protect their livestock from the risks on public lands – including predators.

Why another slush fund for ranchers ?

Subsidies Aimed at Increasing Ranchers’ “Tolerance” for Wolves Haven’t Worked

Since 1987 Defenders of Wildlife has compensated ranchers for livestock losses attributed to wolves in an effort to increase ranchers’ “tolerance” for wolves.  We at The Wildlife News have scrutinized the efficacy of past efforts to bribe ranchers for their “tolerance” of wolves, and while there is a legitimate argument to be made that such efforts may be helpful in the realm of general public relations – any claims to efficacy on the ground, at increasing ranchers’ “tolerance” for wolves or for curtailing the Livestock industry’s willingness to deploy considerable political capital against wolves are generally unfounded.   It’s been a slush fund that has done more to line ranchers’ pockets and introduce a “moral hazard” preventing precautionary husbandry practices than anything else.

Fortunately, once wolves were delisted by a congressional rider, Defenders ceased paying for those losses in the Northern Rockies. Unfortunately, ranchers convinced the federal government – i.e. taxpayers – to keep the spigot of dollars flowing in 2010 and into the foreseeable future.

Tax-Payer Dollars Have Been Co-opted From Similar Pilot Efforts In the Past

One recent source of compensation funding came from language inserted in the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Act which appropriated $1 million in funding for five years that was distributed to several states by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).  The language of the appropriation explicitly directed that funds be spent equally for compensation and on proactive, non-lethal efforts to avoid wolf and livestock conflicts.

ALLOCATION OF FUNDING.—[The Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture, acting jointly], shall allocate funding made available […] equally […] to assist livestock producers in undertaking proactive, non-lethal activities to reduce the risk of livestock loss due to predation by wolves; and […] to compensate livestock producers for livestock losses due to such predation.

Despite the explicit direction of Congress, the USFWS issued a waiver for fiscal year 2010 telling the states that “distribution of grant funds may be divided between the two purposes in whatever proportion each recipient State deems appropriate.”  This resulted in the funds being used entirely on compensation efforts in at least the state of Idaho.

To make matters worse, the distribution of federal, state, and private dollars to compensate ranchers for wolf kills has been an unfettered disaster.  The bodies responsible for distributing funds are made-up of ranchers themselves and by county commissioners more enthralled by the cowboy mystique than any sense of fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers.  The programs have not been subject to any meaningful public scrutiny and ranchers are getting paid for verified and unverified losses alike – there exists no accountability or practical measures of fiduciary responsibility.  It is a slush fund.

Additionally, the State of Idaho receives money from the federal government for wolf management expenses.  Out of this funding, $100,000 is diverted away from management to the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation and is spent to reimburse ranchers for livestock losses.  Much of this money is actually spent on unverified losses of livestock to wolves.

The documentation required to receive compensation for unverified losses is rather loose and leaves the possibility open that negligent ranchers will receive compensation for livestock left or lost on public lands at the end of the season.  One other observation that has been made is that it also dilutes the amount that other ranchers receive for verified losses.

One recent example of reimbursement for unverified losses which illustrates just how thin the evidence has to be, involves reimbursement for sheep that trampled each other to death.  The investigator at the scene was unable to determine whether wolves were even involved in the incident and the sheepherder never saw what caused the guard dogs to start barking and growling which caused the sheep to pile up and trample each other to death.  The tracks of a lone wolf were found in the area but it was never determined whether the wolf was there at the time of the incident or came across the dead sheep later.  Nonetheless, the sheep operator was reimbursed $6,226.90 for the loss of 18 sheep and 58 lambs despite the complete lack of evidence that wolves were involved.

Another example in Montana, where 126 unattended sheep were killed by wolves, even after warnings to move or guard the sheep were ignored, illustrates that negligence is rewarded using compensation money and that money from programs intended to increase tolerance for wolves is spent without any requirements on behalf of the recipients.

Will The Money Be Spent to Subsidize State Efforts to Reduce Wolf Populations ?

Initial ideas for how these proposed dollars would be spent include the suggestion that they may be used to help trap and collar wolves to help ranchers monitor packs.

State governments are actively looking to reduce wolf numbers.  A critical component of anti-wolf efforts to dramatically reduce wolf numbers relies on managers’ ability to hunt them down.  However, as it stands managers have got a real problem as confirmed by information received about the proposed non-lethal protection fund :

The idea for this fund came out of the recognition that there are chronic budget shortages at the state and federal levels for carnivore management

State budgets are plummeting, as are Wildlife Services’ resources, so dollars to trap and collar wolves in order to monitor their locations are harder to come by.

As the saying goes: ‘a collared wolf is a dead wolf’. It even goes beyond that.  Collared (i.e. “Judas”) wolves lead Wildlife Services, state officials, and perhaps even ranchers and hunters to the pack, enabling managers to kill at will.

Even as these dollars may be raised with the best of intentions, is it likely that the monies acquired by this Farm Bill program would be used for trapping and collaring wolves ?  Is it likely that in the future, those “Judas” wolves will enable control actions aimed at eradicating entire packs from the landscape ?

What other budget shortfalls that were once used to “MAN”age wolves at the state and local level may be offset by these dollars ?

What Are the Environmental Costs of “Co-Existence” Efforts That Have the Effect of Subsidizing Ranching on Public Lands ?

Basin Creek, Bull Trout Habitat

Some of the larger wolf-advocacy groups are frequently put in a position of both publicly celebrating the ecological contributions of wolves (i.e. “trophic cascade”) to landscape recovery across a myriad of habitats while seeking to work with ranchers and ranching industry groups to find common-ground and opportunities at reducing conflicts in the name of predator recovery.  Obviously this effort is one such case.

But is a strategy of finding government money to cover the cost of livestock production, particularly on public lands, consistent with the habitat recovery objectives so championed as a primary reason why wolves are important to the landscape ?

Livestock grazing is the most ubiquitous and destructive land-use on the western public landscape.  Spending tax-dollars to cover the costs of business for ranchers helps keep that activity on public lands, even if it does prevent wolves from interacting with livestock.

“Co-existing” with Livestock means ecological impacts across the landscape, diminishing wolves’ ecological niche.

In addition, George Wuerthner notes:

Even so-called “predator-friendly” livestock operations can have a negative effect on overall wolf recovery. For one, there is no free lunch. Currently, the majority of forage is allotted to livestock, leaving less to support native herbivores. In many areas, this significantly reduces the overall number of prey animals available to wolves.

Second, the mere presence of domestic livestock displaces many ungulate species, from mule deer to elk to antelope. Displacement can force native herbivores into less desirable habitat, making them more vulnerable to weather, poor forage and other impacts that reduce their populations.

Third, dead animals left on the land are attractants for wolves. Wolves often get their first taste of beef or lamb by consuming a dead cow or sheep before they prey on live animals. By creating conditions that can turn a wolf into a livestock predator, even a predator-friendly producer may contribute to the death of wolves if the animals wind up killing livestock elsewhere.

Is there even a need for this additional subsidy?

As we have seen in Idaho, and soon Montana and likely Wyoming, under state management the wolf population has severely declined due to high levels of mortality.  In Idaho the population was reduced by 48-59% in just one year leaving an estimated 496-539 wolves just before pups were born in April.  Presumably, this leaves fewer wolves in areas where conflict occurs and negates any rationale for providing an additional subsidy.

Public Lands Ranchers Already Receive a Myriad of Subsidies

Lamb Meat Adjustment Assistance Program
Wool subsidies
Livestock subsidies
Livestock Indemnity Program
USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services
Public Lands Grazing Fee
H2A migrant worker program

Is there a way to require ranchers to incorporate non-lethal, preventative livestock husbandry practices into their grazing management without the use of tax-dollars ?

Yes, at the very least on public lands.  Public lands livestock ranchers apply for permits to graze their cattle on hundreds of millions of acres of public lands.  Those permits are subject to a variety of environmental laws and agency rules meant to regulate the land use in order to ensure species recovery, water quality, and other environmental values.  Every permit is subject to “Terms and Conditions” which are enforceable by law and which manage where livestock may be in an allotment and for how long, maintenance of fences and livestock installations, how much forage livestock may eat prior to moving along, and other management protocols prescribed to protect the public interest.

Given the fee for such permits are already subsidized to financially accommodate the threat of conflict with native predators, there is no reason why a concerted effort by wolf-advocacy groups could not encourage the Department of Interior and Agriculture, at the planning level and even individual permitting processes, to incorporate non-lethal, preventative livestock husbandry practices as “terms and conditions” of use of public lands.  In fact, many groups such as Western Watersheds Project, are working on the ground to accomplish just that.  If ranchers want to use public lands that belong to everyone, why should they not be expected to take reasonable and prudent measures to protect their livestock AND protect members of the natural communities including predators ?

The Christopher Columbus method of putting livestock out on the landscape in the spring and then “discovering” them again in the fall does not reduce predation on livestock and shouldn’t be rewarded with greater subsidies.

There is no reason to subsidize the very industry-group whose antagonism toward wolves is largely responsible for fueling the War on Wolves.

Written by Brian Ertz and Ken Cole


  1. Jeff N. Avatar
    Jeff N.

    On another topic posted on this site, Rancher Bob equated the alleged persecution of ranchers to the genocide of the Jews. Will Rancher Bob now have big enough balls to to equate public land ranchers as socialists?

    Bob, if you are or have been a rancher who has used public lands and taxpayer money in order for you to run your business, are you a Socialist?

  2. Jerry Black Avatar

    More subsidies??? The problem isn’t predators, it’s COWS!!
    The fact that Defenders is involved in this is no surprise. They’ve had too much time on their hands ever since they threw the wolves “under the bus”.
    And, since I mentioned Defenders….Montanans wouldn’t be dealing with a wolf “trapping” issue if Defenders had given Footloose Montana any support for their anti-trapping initiative 2 years ago. Defenders of “Wildlife” refused to support that initiative which fell only 1000 signatures short of qualifying for the ballot. They didn’t want to piss off the ranchers.

    1. Elk275 Avatar

      Jerry Black

      Do you think that if the anti-trapping initiative would have aquired an additional 1000 signatures that it would have been passed by the voters? I never did believe that the voters would have approved that initiative. Even if it would have passed it was only for public land, according to Louise only 29% of the land mass of Montana is public. State land is not public land according to the state.

      From Elk’s observations there are enough wolves on private property during trapping season and enought landowners willing to grant permission to hunt and trap wolves that the passage of the anti trapping initiative would have had an effect on the number of wolves trapped. But private land trapping would still have an effect. I was told that one coyote trapper trapped three wolves on private property in the Big Valley one day several years ago. This was from a state biologist assigned to the area.

  3. Antje Göttert Avatar
    Antje Göttert

    Livestock producers and their lobbyists are the plague of public lands and the destroyer of the last wild habitats.

  4. skyrim Avatar

    Out of the entire list of big name groups shown, only one; (•Natural Resources Defense Council) has any standing with me. And that support is now only marginal.
    This proposal is maddening if not outright insane.

  5. Daniel Berg Avatar
    Daniel Berg

    I don’t think there should be any compensation for losses occuring on public lands.

    If the fund is created, I hope there is strict oversight. There’s no doubt in my mind that this fund could be abused by those who have nothing but contempt for predators and the folks who defend them.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Given the tiny fee paid for grazing public lands compared to private land rental fees, or the cost of acquiring more deeded land, it’s very hard to find a economic justification for any kind auxiliary payments for losses.

      Politically speaking, livestock interests are always willing to take money handed to them, although there is almost no evidence it changes their behavior (except for a small sub-set who are willing to respond in a less emotional and more cooperative way)

  6. SAP Avatar

    Forgive me, but I don’t see any sort of documentation about this proposal here at all. So it seems like speculation to assume it’s going to go in a terrible direction. If it’s NRCS funding, in all likelihood it can’t be spend on public land anyway.

    As Ralph mentions, among ranchers there is ” a small sub-set who are willing to respond in a less emotional and more cooperative way.” There is also a subset on the other end of the spectrum that will cut off their noses to spite their faces — still hoping for some kind of magical incantation that will un-do the wolf recovery program and put Ed Bangs in Leavenworth. As someone pointed out here the other day, if that crowd really had a leg to stand on, they would have already brought a lawsuit or found someone to file criminal charges.

    The cooperative subset is getting tired of being told they’re victims. Don’t expect them to take on a lot of social exposure by agreeing to appear in a pro-wolf video or magazine article, but they’re looking for good ideas that will work for reducing risk.

    Risk reduction doesn’t hold out any 100 percent guarantees, but it can be an efficient way to put effort in the right places at the right times and dramatically reduce losses. Electric fences around calving pastures for use during calving is one example. Extra vigilance in September and October (wolf pups are big but no help hunting, so they require a lot of food that they don’t help kill; meanwhile, elk are in peak condition and being tended by testosterone-jacked bulls) is another. A lot of major and minor changes that can go into an overall risk reduction package.

    Also, these interventions aren’t just for wolves. Look at Mike Madel’s successes on the Rocky Mountain Front, keeping grizzlies out of cattle by removing dead stock and with electric fencing.

    We’ve covered this topic here before, and Brian as always raises some very good points. This from almost three years ago in particular:

    Brian and I disagree on some things, such as the propriety of subsidizing livestock producers with some of these risk-reduction practices. It comes down to subjective value differences as well as different forecasts for how change is most likely to happen. I think the rest of the nation should help share the burden of keeping large carnivores around, and I think that working with willing partners to figure out how to reduce risk of conflicts is going to get us to an acceptable future a lot faster.

    I do agree that throwing money at the problem, without carefully evaluating what works, and without a goal of eventual self-sufficiency, gets us absolutely nowhere. It is actually probably counterproductive – in my experience, gratitude degenerates into a sense of entitlement pretty rapidly.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “Risk reduction doesn’t hold out any 100 percent guarantees, but it can be an efficient way to put effort in the right places at the right times and dramatically reduce losses”

      SAP – good point. What many fail to realize though, wolves are not invading pastures, “private property” and killing livestock 24/7, 365 days a year. If that were the case, the numbers would of risen drastically over the last 17 years instead of declining, as figures seem to show.

      I seldom hear about attacks (by wolves) on young livestock (usually heifers) unless its in the winter when they’ve been seperated from the rest of the cattle or in the spring, during calving season.

      You’ve spent time in my neck of the woods SAP, how much interest have you seen in non-lethal methods?

      That sense of entitlement is tough to broach when you’ve had the likes of WS, for decades, just a phone call away, everytime the playing field needs to be cleansed of problem wildlife 🙂

      1. SAP Avatar

        Nancy – it might surprise you what people are interested in and what they’ll do, once they get tired of the reactive approach.

        One rancher had a particularly problematic pasture – it was along the forested foothills, and he had some wolf predation there. Rather than forego the grass, he stocked it at a higher rate for a shorter time. Two effects: 1) less time exposure to wolves [cattle were simply not there as long]; 2) more human presence in keeping the cattle moved within the pasture. Probably a third effect was the cattle were in a bigger, denser group and maybe safer even if wolves were around.

        See recent videos (NRDC, plus PBS ) of J-L Ranch in Centennial — they are doing the same thing – cattle are kept in tighter bunches and moved more frequently. In addition to more human presence and more “bison-like” cattle herd, there is also the effect of the cattle not being in the same predictable place. In order to kill cattle, wolves have to be able to find them. If the “finding” stage of the hunt demands too much energy, they may go do hunt something else.

    2. Ken Cole Avatar

      But who should pay for this extra vigilance or efforts to reduce conflict? They have been paid for tolerance all along yet they still ended up killing half of the wolves in Idaho. What did DoW or the American taxpayer get for their money? What makes you think anything will change by throwing more money at them?

      Really, the problem is nowhere near what the livestock industry is making it out to be.

      Take a look at this report issued today by WildEarth Guardians:

      I think they recognize who the real adversaries of wolves are here. Why give them more money to hijack the process even further? It doesn’t make any sense.

      1. SAP Avatar

        Ken asks “What makes you think anything will change by throwing more money at them?”

        I don’t. I think we need to look hard at what the past efforts looked like and not repeat those mistakes.

        I don’t expect to get rid of livestock in the West. I expect us to figure out how to effectively reduce risk of wolf predation. We can do that by putting the resources into promising practices to make sure they get a fair test run. And make sure we don’t incentiveize the wrong behaviors (moral hazard that you guys alluded to).

        I’ll turn your question back to you Ken: If your goal is to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts and the consequent killing of wolves, what would an effective program look like? You are certainly free to respond with “get rid of all livestock” if you like. Short of that fell swoop, what’s the plan?

        Part of the learning curve over the last 15 years has been that we (conservationists) were so eager to prevent conflicts that we were willing to go out and camp with livestock, string miles of fladry, and hand out cash to pay for open-ended projects with little evaluation. We found out that that doesn’t work — such projects were totally dependent on either labor or cash from “wolf lovers.” NGOs, in an unseemly rush to be “innovators” and “in” with ranchers, would compete with each other in the cash-throwing decathlon.

        It fed right into many ranchers’ attitudes that “you wolf lovers need to pay for any and all changes that we have to make due to wolves.” Great until the money dries up, which happened pretty quickly when funders realized that there’s no exit strategy, and that some of this stuff wasn’t contributing in any substantive way to wolf conservation.

        Just because it went that way in the past doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

        And again, I’ll say that we don’t know any details about this proposal. Rumor is it’s DOA anyhow. If not, I sure hope there are some pretty clear guidelines about cost-sharing and about paying for proven practices only.

        1. Ken Cole Avatar

          My goal isn’t to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts. The level of conflict is low as it is. My goal is to protect the entire ecosystem, not just wolves, and the best way to do that is to severely reduce or eliminate livestock on public lands rather than subsidize its presence.

          Throwing out more money doesn’t accomplish that goal, it perpetuates it.

          I hope the rumors are correct because there is nothing anywhere else about this plan that I can find.

  7. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    Instead of a slush fund for wolf predation, we need a slush fund to buy out isolated ranches that are surrounded by public lands and as such, have a perpetual predator problem. By getting rid of these ranches and eliminating their grazing allotments, a lot of the wolf/livestock conflicts could be eliminated. The East Fork of the Salmon River would be a great place to start. Make the ranchers such a good offer that they could not refuse.
    Money from the endless wolf/wildlife studies could also be better used for buy outs.

  8. Jerry Black Avatar

    3 Bison Captured….Hazing is Next.
    (Gotta protect the sacred cows)!!!!
    Great read is ..”Sacred Cows at the Public Trough” by Denzel Ferguson

  9. nabeki Avatar

    Northern Rocky Mountain Wolves: A Public Policy Process Failure
    How Two Special Interest Groups Hijacked Wolf Conservation in America
    By Wendy Keefover • WildEarth Guardians

  10. mikarooni Avatar

    Technically, this isn’t a subsidy or a slush fund. Technically and depending on which side you’re viewing it from, it’s either a bribe or tribute.

  11. Wolfy Avatar

    Haven’t the wildlife and conservation groups learned anything from “dancing with the devil”? Ranching is the enemy to wildlife. WS is their gun hand. Cut the source of the money, don’t add to it.

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Brian Ertz