A Crandall rancher had his more than $120,000 request in reimbursement for cattle losses caused by grizzly bears and wolves in 2020 mostly rejected by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on July 15.
In Wyoming, individuals can appeal for damages in certain cases involving wildlife-caused damage, including grizzly bear and gray wolf attacks on livestock.
Christian Peterson was only granted $12,026, or around 10%, of his total request of $120,295, to compensate for the loss of 10 yearling cows that were a part of his Crandall Creek Ranch herd of 2,327 cattle. The losses were confirmed by G&F biologists to be caused by wolves and grizzlies. Peterson said an additional 42 cows were killed or missing as believed, but unverified, because of gray wolf and trophy game predation.
The major source of disparity between the requested and rewarded amounts came down to the way Peterson determined the value of his losses.
G&F determined that Peterson used an “unlawful multiplier” in his calculations, and the agency can only reimburse for stock that was confirmed by G&F staff to have been killed by bears and wolves.
Calf or yearling?
Peterson argued that yearling losses should be compensated with the same multiplier as calves due to their similar age and size. Under that model, each head is multiplied by about seven times its worth for gray wolf kills and by 3.5 for grizzly bears kills. The confirmed cattle deaths occurred from June-November 2020, and Peterson said there were numerous signs that bears and wolves killed multiple cows.
He said there can be crossover when it comes to the size of yearlings and calves at the end of the season and said a calf could be the same size at the end of a season as a yearling at the beginning of the summer. Peterson also mentioned yearlings have no mother cow to look over them and still have an immature mindset, making them possibly just as vulnerable to predator attacks as calves.
Although multiplier counts do not apply to yearlings, G&F regulations do not clearly define what constitutes a calf. It is the commission who is in charge with creating these definitions, and then G&F staff to enforce them. If a member of the public doesn’t like a decision, it comes back to the commission.
“Neglecting to include yearling in that calf definition drastically cuts into his profit and deprives him crucial profits from his operation,” Jalie Meinecke, Peterson’s attorney, said to the commission.
Peterson requested a sum of $50,510 for the 42 cows he valued at $1,202 per head. G&F staff disputed this value because they thought it included shipping costs. They put the per-head value at $1,162 per head, but the commission sided with Peterson on his determined value.
“It’s customary in the cattle industry if you buy cattle in advance … that they would give me a $40 down payment per head,” Peterson explained to the commission.
Peterson submitted his application in December 2020 requesting reimbursement for 48 head of cattle, but in March, Peterson reported finding two of the missing cattle, and later that spring, four more were found by the public and G&F staff.
Peterson also submitted $69,785 in claims for expenses incurred as a result of predation management and spotting for dead cattle. This included reimbursement for scouting flights from Choice Aviation, two drones flown daily, memory cards, radios, the cost of hiring extra employees and horses to help look for cattle and find predator kills.
“We’re doing the best we can to keep an eye on this cattle by using this technology and putting lots of miles in the saddle,” Peterson said.
G&F staff recommended not approving these miscellaneous costs as they were determined to be consequential, not actual damages as a result of predator actions.
Peterson said the “majority” of his grazing was occurring solely with federal grazing permits at a rate of $1.35 per animal per month. The cost for 75% of his herd to graze on federal land would be $2,356.08 per month. He said he made $1.08 million off the 903 head of cattle he sold from the 2020 herd.
Although Peterson described G&F staff as “a pleasure to work with,” Crandall Creek Ranch is also currently appealing its 2019 claim for livestock losses.
Peterson said he substituted larger yearlings for calves at his ranch only a few years back in order to reduce losses from predator attacks.
Meinecke said use of yearlings in the mountains was not common in the 1990s when the regulations were written. Peterson said he doesn’t take “problem cattle” to the mountains, but longtime hunter Tim Metzler of Powell said during a Wildlife Task Force public forum on July 13, it’s “bad practice” to ranch calf or yearling cattle in the mountain regions outside Yellowstone, well-known for their dense grizzly populations.
“That’s not good tactics,” he said.
In a separate case heard on July 14, the commission only approved $71,339 for Josh Longwell, who runs HD Ranch outside Thermopolis, from the $322,685 in stock losses he claimed because of grizzly bears and mountain lions.
Longwell used a 20-times multiplier for his calf losses to grizzlies and a three-times multiplier for his yearlings. Luke Ellsbury, G&F large carnivore conflict biologist, told the commission the 20-times multiplier is much higher than any multiplier allowed by Wyoming law and that yearlings are not applicable for any multiplier.
“You guys are going to break me,” Longwell told the commission, mentioning how the attacks occurred on his private property. “You don’t have my permission to manage bears on it, you don’t have my permission to have bears on it.”
Longwell criticized G&F’s compliance with federal laws pertaining to grizzly bears.
G&F officials must follow U.S. Fish and Wildlife guidelines as to how they can handle and trap grizzlies. Fish and Wildlife has tried to remove the Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly from federal protection in the past, but the courts have stymied these attempts. But this spring, Fish and Wildlife recommended leaving grizzly bears on the threatened species list for at least five more years, a move G&F vocally opposed.
According to G&F, the bear population in the Greater Yellowstone could now be as high as 1,200.
“I need you guys to stand up to somebody and get some freakin’ answers,” Longwell said to the commission.
According to Game and Fish, Wyoming has contributed more than $50 million to support the grizzly population to de-list the bear from the Endangered Species Act, with most of that money coming from hunters and anglers. Most of G&F’s budget is funded through hunting licenses.
Since 2015, Longwell has claimed nearly $2 million in damages with G&F approving about $433,000, and another $233,000 spent by G&F in litigation costs fighting the claims.
“I don’t know if I can last 10 more years,” Longwell said. “And we hadn’t even got into, you know, the fact of the stress and all the bullcrap I have to deal with, all these kinds of meetings, arbitration, hiring a lawyer.”
In May, Park County District Court Judge Bill Simpson decided to side with G&F and cut the $339,927 Longwell was awarded through an arbitration panel to $61,202 for his 2018 livestock losses.
Meinecke said it is because of this ruling that Peterson is bringing his additional claims to the commission, because Longwell sought reimbursement for expenses that were not presented to G&F as actual damages. In her statement to the commission, she said she already planned to use financial statements regarding the claim “when we get to district court.”
“That concerns me,” commissioner Ralph Brokaw said in response. “Are we going to finish it here or is it assumed we’re just going through the hoops to get to district court?”
After an executive session held to discuss their legal options, the commission voted unanimously to approve the highly reduced amount for Peterson.