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MT: Ranchers want bounty on predators

By EVE BYRON, Independent Record

A proposal to put a bounty on large predators like wolves and mountain lions in Jefferson County is leaving state and federal officials a little confused.

County Commissioner Leonard Wortman said he’s hearing from ranchers who have experienced numerous conflicts between their livestock and large predators, so at the county meeting this afternoon the commissioners will discuss whether to explore allowing livestock owners to tax themselves and use the funds as a reward for killing wolves and mountain lions.

“We found a statute that allows a bounty on large predators,” Wortman said on Monday. “It says the livestock owners would have to petition the county to place a bounty on them, up to $100 for a wolf or mountain lion and $20 on pups and kittens.”

The problem is that mountain lions and gray wolves, which only recently were taken off of the list of endangered species — are managed as game animals by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. That state agency sets quotas and hunting seasons; and as their regulations currently stand, shooting game animals like wolves and lions outside of the seasons, taking them without the required permits or killing more than the quota is illegal.

But the bounty statutes authorize that, and officials at multiple state agencies added that it appears a couple of statutes may be conflicting.

Becky Jakes-Dockter, FWP chief legal counsel, said there is a county bounty program, but in her reading any harvested animals would have to be taken legally and be paid for by taxes levied in the county.

She added that she doesn’t see where such a bounty would provide incentive to people hunting wolves.

“They would still have to have a permit and the county law couldn’t supercede FWP,” she said.

The state pays bounty claims on some animals like coyotes through the Board of Livestock, mainly using a predator assessment tax that some counties put on livestock at the request of the majority of livestock owners in the county.

George Edwards, the DOL’s livestock loss mitigation coordinator, said counties in Montana also have a per-capita tax already on livestock. Along with the predator assessment tax, those funds typically pay for federal agents with Wildlife Services to hunt down wild animals like wolves, mountain lions and coyotes that have preyed on livestock.

But Wildlife Services doesn’t pay bounties for a private party to kill problem wolves.

Mike Foster, a Wildlife Services supervisor in Montana, said they respond to complaints on wolves and are authorized by FWP to remove them. He also was puzzled about putting bounties on wolves.

“I think if you’re talking bounty you’re talking way out of turn. That’s something we don’t have authority to do,” Foster said. “A bounty on wolves doesn’t exist in this state.”

Edwards added that statutes he’s seen still authorize a bounty, at least on mountain lions.

“The bounty state still exists, but I don’t know what that means when it comes to legal standing because things have changed, times have changed and the law has been changed,” Edwards said. “I’m curious to see how this shakes out, since it’s still on the books.”

Jefferson County’s move toward instituting bounties comes as Ravalli County commissioners consider becoming the first county in Montana to adopt a predator policy. That policy also includes conflicts between state laws and what the county is proposing.

Ravalli Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher was quoted in the Ravalli Republic as saying they want the policy to be the beginning of a conversation with state officials over large predator management. That commission is set to discuss the matter at its Thursday meeting.

Part of Ravalli County’s draft includes removing the quota on wolves; letting people take up to five wolves annually, whether by hunting or trapping; and being able to bag a wolf with only an elk or deer tag.

Wortman said Jefferson County ranchers have asked the commission whether there’s some kind of action they can take as livestock predations have increased.

“We’re getting more and more complaints,” Wortman said. “A rancher lost a calf here and another one above Boulder where a cow had her udder chewed off and in the Boulder Valley there was a horse that looked like it was attacked by wolves — the horse got chewed up pretty bad.”

Jefferson County also plans to discuss filing a lawsuit with FWP over wolf management in Montana, he said. He believes that the management plan calls for limiting wolf numbers to around 150 in Montana, and that far more than that are present on the landscape, which is something the commission wants to explore.

“That may be a brief discussion,” Wortman said. “We can live with 150 wolves and don’t want to create a problem, but it’s closer to 1,000 wolves in Montana and we are seeing an affect.”

The meeting is set to begin at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Jefferson County Courthouse. The bounty discussion will be preceded by subdivision reviews.