By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
The 2021 killing season on the HD Ranch west of Thermopolis began in January, when the Wyoming Game & Fish Department confirmed an adult ewe had been killed by a mountain lion. Although the agency attempted to capture the lion, the effort was unsuccessful.
More ewes and their lambs were verified as killed by a mountain lion in three separate incidents in April and June. Each time, the agency attempted to capture the problem predator, but the predator proved elusive.
In July, multiple grizzly bears joined the mountain lion (or lions) in killing of both sheep and calves on the HD, in at least seven incidents that month. Each time the agency responded to verify the kills, but only set traps for the bears twice, failing both times at capturing the culprits.
By August, the kills were confirmed nearly every other day, with WG&F confirming kills on 17 occasions that month, and with multiple kills confirmed in at least six of the incidents. In seven cases, the agency response was “investigate only” because either the livestock carcass was consumed, or because of the incident’s “remote location.”
In another five cases, WG&F set traps, but was unsuccessful in capturing the depredating predator. But WG&F did manage to remove one mountain lion and four grizzly bears from the ranch that month.
A few days into September, another grizzly bear was trapped and removed from the ranch. Although the kills continued with a lesser frequency that month, with four incidents of grizzlies killing sheep and cattle in addition to kills by mountain lions in two other incidents, the agency only attempted to capture a grizzly bear one other time that month, again to no avail.
In October, two more calves were confirmed as killed by grizzlies on the ranch, and on both occasions, WG&F investigated but didn’t take further action.
The HD’s Losses
At the end of 2021, HD Ranch manager Josh Longwell tallied up the confirmed kills, subtracting the losses due to other causes, with the balance demonstrating the missing livesotock – animals that had been born, branded, and tallied – to learn how much had been lost.
By his count, he ended the year with a loss of more than $236,000. WG&F has agreed to pay about $100,000, leaving uncompensated losses of $136,000. That’s a tough way to end a year but imagine trying to suck up those losses year after year. Not many ranches could sustain those losses for one year, let alone year after year, and those losses occur even in the presence of herders and livestock guardian dogs.
That’s the situation the HD Ranch finds itself. Every year when depredation problems on the HD Ranch make the news, there are inevitably the same complaints that arise, generally centered on the fact that these ranches were bought by Frank Robbins, a rich out-of-stater, who was involved with controversies with the Bureau of Land Management.
While all that is true, none of it has anything to do with the depredations happening on the ranch in the last decade and the shortcomings of the compensation program. Robbins is Longwell’s father-in-law, but Longwell has been managing the ranch enterprise for the last decade.
He consistently publicly praises the hard work done by WG&F in documenting livestock losses and trying to resolve conflicts with large carnivores on the ranch. He works cooperatively with the BLM, and USDA Wildlife Services, in making sure he is running this major cattle and sheep outfit as a commercial enterprise that his children will one day take over.
Wyoming law provides that WG&F is to compensate livestock owners for damages due to state trophy game animals like mountain lions and grizzly bears.
The 2003 Wyoming Legislature enacted legislation enabling the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to “establish through rule making methods, factors and formulas to be used for determining the amount to compensate any landowner, lessee or agent for livestock damaged as a result of, missing as a result of, or killed by trophy game animals.”
Acknowledging the inability of finding all the missing cattle and sheep believed to be damaged by these large predator species, the WG&F Commission includes a multiplier to help account for missing livestock when large carnivore depredation has been confirmed.
In areas occupied by grizzly bears, the agency uses a multiplier of 3.5, so that for every confirmed kill of a calf or sheep, the livestock owner can be compensated for 3.5 of those animals. For all claims, the agency has to have confirmed damage by these predator species, and in no case is compensation offered for more than the total known death loss.
But the 3.5 multiplier doesn’t adequately compensate for the predator kills on the HD, according to Longwell.
According to a paper published by WG&F nearly 20 years ago, the factors and formulas used in the WG&F regulation were based upon “a combination of analysis of data collected by the department; historic use of similar formulas to pay producers for sheep missing as a result of cougar depredation in the Big Horn Mountains; and cattle and sheep death loss data compiled by a livestock producers association in the Upper Green River area near Pinedale, Wyoming that has frequently experienced missing livestock that are believed to be the result of grizzly and black bear depredation.”
Grizzly bear depredation in the Upper Green is different from the situation at the HD, located on the other side of the Continental Divide.
The Upper Green is the largest cattle grazing allotment in the National Forest system in which cattle enter for summer and fall grazing. The HD Ranch is a patchwork of private, federal and state land. Longwell says that about 90% of the predator kills occur on private lands, of which the family company, Hay Creek Land and Cattle LLC, have accumulated nearly 75,000 acres in Hot Springs County.
The ranch has year-round commercial livestock production centered on the Owl Creek drainage, and bordered by the Wind River Reservation on one side, and National Forest lands on the other, and thousands of acres of BLM and State lands intermixed.
Shifting from serving as a guest ranch with livestock, the company is now all-in on commercial cattle and domestic sheep production, accumulating acreages to provide feed and forage year-round for both species of livestock.
While the WG&F program provides compensation only for direct costs (death loss and injuries), more recent research indicates that indirect costs (decreased weaning and conception rates, and increased illness) due to large carnivore depredation are substantial. Thus, compensation programs such as Wyoming’s systematically undercompensate ranchers.
An analysis of grizzly bear damage to beef calves in the Upper Green published in the Journal of Wildlife Management more than a decade ago concluded that the WG&F compensation factor was too low and did not provide equitable compensation for direct depredations.
That paper, of which I was a co-author, noted: “Current compensation schemes, which ignore the indirect effects of predators, may significantly undercompensate landowners for their role in predator conservation. In an era of high subsidies, full compensation for predator losses would still be small relative to other agricultural subsidies (e.g., total US corn subsidies in 2012 of $3 billion is nearly 5 000 times larger than the total amount spent on wolf-related compensation).”
No one argues that the WG&F compensation fully compensates livestock owners for their losses. In fact, whenever Longwell’s damage claims go before the WG&F Commission, an arbitration panel, or a court, there are usually expressions of sympathy for his losses.
Sympathy doesn’t pay the bills, and it’s past time for the agency to take action to re-evaluate its compensation formulas, and for state and federal lawmakers to try to figure out how to pay for these large predator species that the nation wants but are financially impacting ranchers. It’s time to make predators an asset to ranchers rather than a liability.
Alternatives to the Status Quo
There are numerous ways to push this issue toward a better outcome. State law allows the WG&F Commission to consider “factors and formulas” to be used for determining the amount to compensate for damage by these predators.
How about factoring in the amount of private land involved, and the months that livestock are exposed to these predators when tallying compensation? How about entering into a cooperative research project with Longwell to learn about the specific damage situation and predator load on that ranch? How about Congress allocate federal funding for equitable compensation programs for impacts to livestock operations throughout the Western states that harbor robust populations of wild predators like grizzly bears and gray wolves?
If these species are treasured by the national public, let the national public help to pay for them. The WG&F had spent more than $40 million since 1990 to recover grizzly bears in Wyoming – $40M for a federally protected species. Wyoming is carrying the load for the nation, and we should be getting support for our efforts.
Individual ranchers are currently faced with increasing costs due to both direct and indirect losses associated with depredations while land prices are skyrocketing.
The increased costs of all inputs, combined with diminishing returns, casts doubt on the future of these operations that provide so much to our communities, including those open spaces we all enjoy.
If you want large-scale habitat change and increased human presence, both key factors in a loss of biological diversity, keep inducing conversion of ag land to rural-residential development or other development.
Back in 2007, Dr. Richard Knight of the University of Wyoming proposed that ranchers were a keystone species, defined as “a species whose importance is disproportionate to its numbers.”
He opined that “Ranching works well, ecologically, economically, and culturally. If ranching declines rather than prospers, so too will the health of human and natural communities decline.”
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.