When it comes to living and ranching in the West, we know that human-wildlife interaction is a given. As grizzly bears slowly move into new areas of the landscape where they’ve been absent for decades, many ranchers are citing an increase in livestock depredation by grizzlies, particularly on open range public lands where they are used to grazing cattle. Unfortunately, in these conflicts, the grizzly rarely wins.
Concerns are also being raised that grizzly-livestock conflicts are causing undue burdens on the livestock industry, with claims by wildlife service agencies that cattle and sheep losses have “skyrocketed” in recent years. Accordinging to Kristen Kipp, member of the Blackfeet tribe in Northwestern Montana, ranchers on the Blackfeet Reservation lose ~3% of cattle to grizzly predation annually, and for some that number is closer to 10%.
But what do livestock mortality numbers really tell us?
The USDA, charged with supporting and reporting on the nation’s livestock industry, released a 2015 summary on nationwide livestock losses. The report suggests that grizzly bears accounted for 3,162 cattle deaths (across 9 states) that year, or ~3% of the total cattle mortality due specifically to wildlife predation. That same report claimed that 24% of annual cattle depredation in Montana was due to grizzlies.
Contrast this with US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) livestock depredation statistics from 2013 that attributed 123 cattle and 11 sheep deaths to grizzly predation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming), and 23 cattle and 11 sheep deaths in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (Montana), which currently support independent populations of grizzlies.
Comparison of these findings between the USDA and FWS just don’t add up. The Humane Society detailed the USDA’s embellishment of their findings in a recent analysis of the 2015 report: “Of the 119 million cattle and sheep inventoried in the US in 2014 and 2015, less than one percent (0.4 percent) died from mammalian and avian predators combined. In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, grizzly bears killed between 0.01 and 0.03 percent of total cattle inventories.” The other 99% of annual deaths is attributed to non-predation maladies such as health and disease, weather, birthing and theft. Regardless of which way you look at all these numbers, they demonstrate one clear thing: grizzly bears kill only a nominal percentage of livestock each year across the Rocky Mountain Front.
What the numbers also don’t edify for us is that many ranchers are grazing open range livestock on public lands, lands that happen to be key dispersion and connectivity zones for grizzlies as their populations expand out of recovery areas. Supporters of the livestock industry claim that the presence of grizzly bears on these public lands pose a real economic threat to ranchers. Unfortunately, no one is putting pressure on livestock owners to change their behaviors or grazing practices in order to mitigate potential grizzly-livestock conflicts. And so the greatest, and easiest, incentive for ranchers if they experience livestock depredation (on public OR private lands) remains a monetary one. In Montana, a rancher need only file a claim through the Montana livestock loss program to receive fair market value compensation for their loss.
Currently, the Livestock Loss Board receives nearly $200,000 a year in federal funding and is able to spend up to $300,000 in compensation. In 2019, nearly $260,838 in reimbursements were paid out to Montana ranchers who filed livestock depredation claims. And still, some ranchers don’t think these economic supports are enough. They want increased funding to wildlife services to take a more active role in dealing with problem bears: drumroll the recent announcement of additional funds by Interior Secretary David Berndhart to add two more people on the ground managing human-bear conflicts.
Wildlife service agencies, managed by the Department of Agriculture, are tasked with resolving “wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to co-exist.” These are the experts that investigate livestock loss claims, deal with offending bears, and support ranchers through the compensation program. More often than not, the offending bear is lethally removed once a loss is confirmed; the leading cause of grizzly deaths today is managed removal due to livestock depredation and getting into human food sources. Unfortunately, wildlife services seem more focused on enabling the livestock industry to maintain business as usual than they are in considering the implications of grizzly bear deaths on the ecosystem, supporting cheaper, more ethical co-existence efforts, or in mitigating grizzly-livestock conflicts in the first place.
In an October 8th article published by Montana Free Press, Martha Williams with Fish Wildlife and Parks reportedly stated that “it seems sometimes there are fewer conflicts where bears have been for a while, where people have figured out tools to help keep them out of trouble.”
States such as Alaska that have been living with grizzlies for longer have accepted the possibility of livestock depredation as part of living in bear country, said Larry Van Daele, Alaska Board of Game member, at the April 11th Grizzly Bear Advisory Council (GBAC) meeting. Alaska does not compensate ranchers for livestock killed by a bear or wolf. Also during the recent GBAC meeting, Garth Mowat of the British Columbia Ministry of Forests suggested that education is the best way to reduce human-bear conflict.
In order for coexistence to work, we need buy-in from the livestock industry. Instead of prioritizing monetary compensation for livestock losses, wildlife services should focus more resources around education and coexistence strategies, and on working with ranchers to incentivize prevention measures such as electric fences, new herding/husbandry practices, carcass cleanup, and modifications to crop, grain and livestock feed enclosures. While these efforts will not stop all future human-bear conflict when it comes to livestock, they will lead to fewer losses, and hopefully build more tolerance along the way.
We urge GBAC members to prioritize discussion of collaborative coexistence efforts at the April 24th meeting, including education and mitigation techniques, and acknowledge how much money is being spent to compensate ranchers that could instead go into supporting cheaper and more ethical coexistence efforts.