Wildlife Services helps Montana livestock producers kill thousands of wild predators every year. But as its funding decreases, the agency may have to leave producers to their own devices, which may include bounties.
On Friday, John Steuber, Montana State Director of Wildlife Services, told the Montana Board of Livestock that Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, couldn’t continue killing predators without the money it gets from the state, especially from cattle producers who pitch in 50 cents to a dollar per head.
“Where we stand right now, with the decrease in federal appropriations and the decrease in per capita funds, we don’t have enough money to cover our federal salaries. So we rely extremely heavily on cattle petitions. Without cattle petitions, we would be furloughing employees,” Steuber said. “This right here is the only thing keeping the program going.”
Steuber told the board members that Wildlife Services hasn't been able to kill as many predators in recent years because his annual budget is shrinking with continuing federal and state budget cuts and the decline in Montana sheep herds.
Out of Steuber’s $2.9 million budget for Montana predator control, the federal government still pays the most: more than $1.6 million. But that’s less than the more than $2 million that he got before 2011. In 2011, Congress got rid of earmarked money, which dropped the federal contribution to $1.77 million. In 2013, Steuber’s funding took another hit when Congress couldn’t pass a budget, so the government had to shut down for a few weeks, and then the sequester was put in place.
So Steuber increasingly depends on state contributions, which includes almost $300,000 from Board of Livestock appropriations.
Contributions from woolgrowers no longer help much because the number of sheep in Montana has dropped by half since 1997. Back then, producers paid more than $154,000 to protect almost 270,000 sheep. Now, they contribute about $86,000.
Cattle have managed to offset that loss. The number of cattle in cooperating counties has doubled since 2005 to more than a million, so cattle petitions collected by the Montana Stockgrowers Association amounted to more than $529,000 in 2016.
The problem for Wildlife Services is that not every county cooperates in cattle petitions. Because petition funds can amount to between $15,000 and $30,000 annually, depending on the number of cows, some counties decide to put the money elsewhere. Only 28 counties contribute money. The rest either don't have a petition program or won't cooperate, like Carter and Powder River counties. Granite Country recently voted to pull out of the cooperative program.
Steuber said he won’t spend money to fill the Wildlife Services hunter/trapper positions in counties that won't cooperate.
“It’s not fair to those counties supporting Wildlife Services,” Steuber said.
Petroleum County has withheld some of its cattle petition money for a number of years to pay bounty hunters to get rid of coyotes. But recently country commissioners learned that wasn’t legal, said WS District Supervisor Kraig Glazier. So the Montana Association of Counties is considering sponsoring a bill to allow counties to pay bounty hunters with petition money. Livestock Loss supervisor George Edwards said they also wanted to update the law regarding bounties on wolves.
Steubers said bounties are preferred when people want to exterminate predators whether livestock are a concern or not.
“There’s two different thoughts. Wildlife Services believes in reducing damage. We don’t go out there just to count how many coyotes we can kill,” Steubers said. “Most counties have gone away from bounties, and most states have gone away from bounties.”
Board member John Sculley pointed out that allowing counties to siphon off cattle-petition money could further reduce Wildlife Services’ funding and statewide predator control efforts. It could set a precedent not only for predators but other livestock issues, Sculley said.
“I can’t help but think about brucellosis. If I fast forward five to six years, I’ll bet brucellosisis still out there. and I’ll bet it’s removed from the USDA (list), and I’ll bet the money is removed at that level. And I’ll bet cattle petitions are going to have to deal with funding brucellosis recovery programs at the local level and we’ll be right back in this swamp,” Sculley said
Board member Brett DeBruycker objected the bill's broad wording related to all counties when only Petroleum County is pushing for bounties.
“Do we really believe that would pass a legislative vote? If it did or didn’t, just to have this come up the way it’s worded, do you really think this helps your cause? Because I don’t,” DeBruycker said.
Steuber might be pinching pennies, but Wildlife Services is still killing plenty of animals.
Steuber said coyotes cause the most livestock damage of any predator, by far. His agency claims that in 2015, coyotes killed almost 1,500 lambs, 212 calves and 240 chickens in Montana. So in 2015, Wildlife Services employees killed 6,600 coyotes, shooting about half of those using helicopters. They also shot black bears and mountain lions believed to have been involved in livestock damage.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks pays Wildlife Services $110,000 a year to deal with problem wolves. In 2015, WS killed 31 wolves, but that was fewer than in previous years, Steuber said.
“Wolf depredations are down. We removed 151 wolves in 2010, and the total ahs dropped since then. It might have something to do with the effective hunting and trapping season,” Steuber said.
As the Montana wolf population has stabilized, grizzly bears are increasingly moving out of the mountains and parks onto the central and eastern plains. In 2011, Wildlife Services employees investigated 28 possible bear kills. Four years later, that had climbed to 88 investigations, and Wildlife Services claims that grizzly bears killed 25 adult cattle, 53 calves, 33 sheep and 32 lambs. Since the number of grizzly bear reports has increased, the Livestock Loss Board just signed an agreement to pay $82,000 for Wildlife Services to investigate possible grizzly bear kills in 2017. For now, Wildlife Services can’t kill grizzly bears because they still have endangered species protection, so problem bears are transferred to a different location.