In the midst of controversy over endangered gray wolves and wolf management in the Northern Rockies, one bill in the Montana legislature would offer a creative solution to livestock loss.
Last month, the Montana House passed House Bill 287, which would allow revenue from wolf hides to go toward livestock loss funds. The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Christy Clark, now awaits approval from the Senate. Wolves are listed as an endangered species, but wildlife officials are authorized to shoot wolves that are found preying on livestock.
The Montana Wool Growers Association requested the bill. If approved, the hides from wolves shot by officials would be auctioned or sold to raise money for Montana’s Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board.
Montana Wool Growers public relations director Jim Brown said since government agents sometimes need to kill wolves, the state might as well make good use of the carcass. Brown estimates that, at $500 per hide and given past averages of wolf kills, hides could bring in $7,000 to $8,000 per year for the board.
The potential hide money isn’t much, Brown said, but it would still help the underfunded Livestock Loss and Mitigation board. The board’s two-part mission is to reimburse ranchers for killed livestock and prevent livestock loss. Ranchers can use methods to prevent livestock loss by hiring extra herders, sending out extra guard dogs and using noisemakers to scare off wolves.
“We don’t have any problem with [using those methods], but we don’t have money for it,” Brown said. Arguably, he said, using funds from wolf hides could reduce the number of livestock killed in the future.
Statistically, wolves only accounted for 1 percent of sheep and lamb loss in Montana in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but they remain a significant problem for sheep ranchers like John Helle.
Helle, a third-generation sheep rancher in Dillon, Mont., said it’s often difficult to prove whether a missing sheep was taken by a wolf, but he estimates wolves have taken hundreds of his sheep since they were introduced to Montana in the late ‘90s. He’s lost as many as 21 sheep at a time, he said, and confirmed 12 of those as wolf attacks. Helle calls federal wolf regulations an unfunded mandate.
“They tell us we have to have wolves, and they’re listed under the species act, but we didn’t get anything extra to manage them,” he said.
For ranchers, Brown said, the issue isn’t whether wolves are listed as endangered species for not. “The fact is, it’s on Montana’s landscape and has to be managed by someone,” he said. He’s frustrated that the federal government isn’t doing more to fund programs like the one that prevents livestock losses.
The problem with HB 287 is that the Endangered Species Act doesn’t allow commercial use of a listed species, which could create a legal dilemma if the bill is passed.
“Our argument is that the species act allows these animals to be killed, so why are they wasting this game animal?” Brown said.
Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is responsible for authorizing wolf carcasses for educational or scientific use. As long as wolves are still listed as an endangered species, the state can’t profit off their pelts, he said. “So when they’re delisted, the state can do whatever they want,” he said.
Bangs said while anyone can legally purchase a wolf pelt, and the fur markets are doing a “brisk trade” internationally right now, it’s not likely that selling the Montana wolf pelts would make much money because of the cost of retrieving, curing and tanning. Similar programs in which wildlife officials sold coyote pelts didn’t make any money, he said.
Even if the state could sell wolf pelts, Bangs said two major problems would come up with the program: First, Montana Wildlife Services shoots most wolves in the summer, when pelts aren’t valuable, and second, wolves are often shot from a plane or helicopter, so the cost of picking them up would be too high.
“These kinds of proposals sound good on the surface, but in reality they’re questionable,” he said.