George Edwards, coordinator of Montana's Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Program, uses Facebook to document claims paid to ranchers who've lost livestock to wolf predation. Last Friday Edwards typed, "Today's claim is for a calf killed in Powell County." Lately he's posted similar claims two or three times a week—for cows, calves, bulls, ewes and lambs.
So far this year, Edwards has paid out about $51,000 to compensate the ranchers who have reported 86 dead head of livestock. That's up from about $41,000 during the same period in 2009, when his office paid out a total of $145,000 during the year. With U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's recent decision to return Northern Rockies gray wolves to the endangered species list—a move that preempts the second wolf hunting seasons in Montana and Idaho—Edwards figures his agency's payouts will continue to rise.
"I anticipate seeing an increase in livestock losses," Edwards says. "I mean, more wolves on the landscape means more livestock depredations."
According to state figures, Montana's wolf population grew from 256 in 2005 to 524 in 2009. During that time the number of reported cattle killed by wolves jumped from 23 to 97, and the number of sheep from 33 to 202.
Edwards' tightening wolf-kill reimbursement budget—which relies heavily on donations—can be counted among the many economic implications of Molloy's decision. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) sold 15,603 wolf-hunting licenses for the state's first wolf hunt last year. The licenses earned the agency $325,916. (Because the money came in between legislative sessions, the agency hasn't been given legislative authority to spend it.) The agency can't count on that revenue again.
Carolyn Sime, FWP's wolf program coordinator, says it's actually not much money, considering hunting and fishing licenses account for more than $57 million, or about 66 percent, of the agency's 2010 revenue.
"Even though people's eyeballs might get pretty big about $325,000 for wolf license revenue," she says, "it's really not adequate if the idea is that wolf license revenue would wholly sustain wolf management in Montana."
But what will be more eye-popping, according to Sime, is the cost of addressing the conflict.
"One of the concerns you've heard expressed pretty clearly from the state of Montana with the relisting of the wolf," Sime says, "is the potential for increasing conflicts between wolves and livestock resulting in injured and dead livestock, and the economics that go along with that."
Beyond the Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Program's payouts, Sime points to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, the agency that carries out the on-the-ground work eliminating problem wolves.
"They're the ones out there flying the helicopters killing the wolves," Sime says. "That stuff's not cheap."
As the wolf population rises, so too does the number of wolves Wildlife Services kills. In 2005, 35 wolves were killed in the state. Last year, 145 were killed. Wildlife Services accounts for most of the deaths. It can legally kill wolves regardless of the species' endangered species list status.
"It certainly helps our agency out when there is a hunting season," says Wildlife Services State Director John Steuber.
Steuber estimates his agency's work costs about $400,000, including responding to reports of wolf predations, necropsies, radio-collaring, lethal control, etc. He says that number is sure to rise "dramatically" as the wolf population grows, and Wildlife Service's role will become even more crucial without hunters in the field come fall.
"Now, without a legal harvest, we're going to be back to the 20 to 25 percent increases [in the wolf population] that we've seen in prior years," Steuber says.
Sime doesn't expect Montana's wolf numbers to jump quite that high in the absence of a hunt. Regardless, she believes hunters ought to be the ones culling the packs, not government agents.
"Hunters are willing to pay," Sime says. "They're willing to pay to fund conservation management of habitat and animals. And now, instead, we have government agents doing something that, in the absence of the listed status, hunters would be doing—paying to be doing—and supporting the agency.
"To think that no wolves are going to die now that we're back to a listed status is not realistic," Sime adds. "So the fundamental contrast here is hunters and their role versus government agents killing wolves, which starts to look a little bit like Alaska, if you ask me."
Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiffs that succeeded in returning wolves to the endangered species list, and which contributed $100,000 to help launch the Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Program last year, says hunters can never fully take the place of wildlife managers.
"Hunters cannot target specific wolves that are responsible for livestock losses," says Suzanne Asha Stone, the organization's Northern Rockies representative. "That's the responsibility of professional wildlife managers. Randomly killing wolves can actually provoke livestock losses by splitting up packs and orphaning young wolves that cannot yet hunt wild game on their own."
Economics aside, leave it to the wolf debate to draw contention over not just whether wolves are killed, but who does the killing.