Advisory group discuss wolf compensation for livestock depredation in Colorado
The Colorado Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG) developing recommendations for Colorado Parks & Wildlife on plans to restore and manage gray wolves in the state spent time in a virtual meeting on Jan. 26 and 27 hashing over alternative plans for livestock compensation for losses due to wolves.
The group had developed eight alternatives, ranging from paying the fair market value only for confirmed kills to a program that would allow producers to itemize production losses and missing livestock, as well as an outcome-based alternative or “pay for performance.”
The group’s discussions reveal the complexities involved in establishing such a program, with some alternatives proposing differing levels of compensation based on whether the livestock producer employs conflict mitigation measures. The group discussed various standards of evidence of depredation to qualify for compensation, from “preponderance of evidence” to one “reasonably believed to be a loss with a bias for resolving unknowns in a producers’ favor.”
Many western state wildlife agencies and researchers have determined that only a small percentage of livestock killed by wolves are found and verified by specialists, so several states offer a compensation factor to provide some compensation for missing livestock when wolf depredation is confirmed on a flock or herd. The SAG’s alternatives tackled this topic as well, with several alternatives not providing compensation for missing livestock but others providing various compensation ratios to account for missing livestock.
The preferred alternative for the majority of SAG members was one in which the producer would be able to choose between a simple compensation ratio for missing livestock, or itemization of production loss and missing livestock. Only two SAG members voted in strong opposition this alternative: Matt Barnes and Darlene Kobobel.
Kobobel, a wolf advocate, said that other businesses sustain losses without compensation, and said livestock graze public lands for minimal fees while destroying the environment.
Barnes, a range scientist and wildlife conservationist, said he is opposed to the use of a multiplier or compensation ratio to account for missing livestock. Barnes said that he was once told by a Wyoming cowboy that since Wyoming uses a multiplier to account for missing livestock in some circumstances, ranchers had found “a better way” by not taking sick calves off the range, and instead “let a wolf or a bear get it so they can get compensated and make it easier on them because basically, that calf is more valuable dead than alive.”
In contrast, numerous SAG members spoke about the importance of developing a robust comprehensive compensation to those most impacted by the wolf reintroduction program: livestock producers.
Hallie Mahowald of the Western Landowners Alliance said such a program recognizes that “these conflicts result in economic losses, these impacts born largely by folks that maintain and steward working lands, both public and private,” and do so while sharing the landscape with wildlife, she said. “We’re now asking them to do so in a shared landscape with a new predator, both migrating and reintroduced. I just think this is an opportunity for us to show support, and also just to recognize the value of the biodiversity of the habitat that these lands provide, which parking lots and condos and other development doesn’t.”
She pointed out, “The more we can do here is not hurting wolves, and to me it feels like a key aspect of the success of restoration of wolves.”
MAKING PRODUCERS WHOLE
Although not a voting member of SAG, Colorado Department of Agriculture Conservation Services Director Les Owen said he hoped that Colorado adopts a different approach for livestock compensation than the varied programs throughout the western states because “the one thing in common in the other states’ programs is that none of them make an impacted producer whole.” Owens said, “I hope that Colorado can do that different, that we can get as close as possible to making impacted producers whole.”
Renee Deal, a sheep producer, reminded the group of its previously adopted desired outcomes, including that livestock owners not be financially harmed, wolves are restored, conflicts are minimized, and trust and support are built across communities.
Acknowledging that compensation “is a really complicated piece of the puzzle,” Deal said, “If we can achieve all of this, that’s a huge win across the board,” she said. Deal was in the majority in voting on the preferred alternative which she said, “best encompasses these desired outcomes and the guiding principles.”
“It offers choice, it encourages accountability by having this detailed bookkeeping, and it encourages conflict mitigation,” she said. “But I think most of all, it fosters good will in the ag community by acknowledging all the losses that could potentially occur and providing a remedy for that.”
FINDING COMMON GROUND
Bob Chastain of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo said he believes it would be mistake to be too conservative with a compensation program, since the group is trying to find common ground and building relationships with all involved and impacted by the wolf restoration effort.
“This thing is going to play out on a ranch at 2 o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere, when we’ve either done such a good job bridge-building that people will let those wolves walk, or whether or not there will be some illegal action that will take place,” Chastain said. “It feels like the biggest mistake we could make would be to be too conservative on compensation. We should extend ourselves a little bit on the compensation, even if we don’t completely buy into that.”
Jonathan Procter of Defenders of Wildlife said while he would prefer a simple, uniform compensation program with a separate funding program for conflict prevention measures, he could support the alternatives supported by the ranching community as laid out in the process. “This is an area where I can compromise to help other constituencies in this process, and I think that’s what we all should do,” he said.
Brian Kurzel of the National Wildlife Federation said developing a comprehensive compensation plan may help Colorado avoid the kind of polarization felt about wolves like that in some other states that have dealt with wolves for decades. Development of such a program, he said, “is a way to build the social, political and economic conditions” to avoid that scenario.
“We set the tone that those who are most impacted are treated fairly” he said, so that wolves eventually aren’t seen as a complete adversary. Such a program should include components that “first and foremost is palatable to producers, that is also seen as fair, with adequate personal responsibility, and an incentive that assures producers are moving towards using conflict minimization.”
Kurzel said that some of the alternatives fell short of providing economic fairness in terms of making impacting livestock producers whole, so he would favor an alternative supported by livestock producers. “By saying making producers whole, it’s making producers whole for the economic impact that forced upon them by the reintroduction of wolves,” he clarified.
The other two alternatives that received the highest level of support from SAG members in its rounds of consensus voting were those that were stand-alone versions of the same policies (providing a ratio for missing stock, and itemization of losses).
Wolves in Colorado are listed as a state-protected endangered species that can only be killed in self-defense of humans. Illegal take of a wolf in Colorado could result in fines up to $100,000, a year of jail time, and a lifetime loss of hunting privileges. Although wolves have naturally migrated into the state, Proposition 114 requires Colorado Parks & Wildlife to reintroduce gray wolves to lands located west of the Continental Divide no later than Dec. 31, 2023.