George Edwards is a pragmatic, easy-going man with a difficult task: compensating ranchers who have lost livestock to a growing population of wolves. He runs the Montana Livestock Reduction and Mitigation Board, a new agency that deals with wolf predation. The agency tries to reduce wolf/livestock conflicts and may someday help ranchers find ways to better live with the wolves that depend upon private lands for their survival. So far, though, most of its missions are on hold, because all of its scant funding is being used to pay for wolf-killed livestock.
Edwards -- like many livestock producers and a growing number of other rural Western interests -- is frustrated. Not only does he not have enough money to mitigate all the effects of wolves roaming private land, but he also believes that the brunt of the costs are being borne by the very same folks who are being impacted the most – ranchers and hunters. Ranchers pay with their livestock; hunters, through licenses and taxes on firearms, pay for the wildlife habitat and the game herds that feed the wolves, whether they want to or not. With the exception of Defenders of Wildlife, which has paid out $1.2 million over 22 years to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to predators, so-called non-consumptive wildlife groups – the birdwatchers, hikers and environmental groups -- have not directly offered any money for wolf-mitigation efforts or to purchase or restore habitat. Except through filing increasingly unpopular lawsuits, these groups end up with little voice in the policy making process.
“These people (environmentalists) have money to spend on lawsuits to prevent anybody from managing these wolves,” a Montana Department of Livestock employee recently told me, “but they never offer a dollar to pay for the damage they cause.”
The losers in all of this are the predators themselves.
It was the money from the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act taxes on firearms and ammunition that paid for the restoration of big game herds after their near-extirpation in the late 19th century. That game, in turn, has sustained the current wolf reintroduction program. Hunting licenses pay for the state wildlife biologists, and for the habitat and winter range purchases that support the herds. Waterfowl stamp sale revenues bought 5.2 million acres of the federal wildlife refuge system, lands that provide habitat for an estimated one in three of every endangered or threatened species in this country. Taken together, the Pittman-Robertson taxes, the sale of state and federal waterfowl stamps, and the revenue from hunting and fishing license sales contribute an estimated $4.7 million dollars every day to conservation.
Those contributions are simply not matched by wildlife and animal-rights advocates from other groups, whose collective membership numbers in the tens of millions. Yes, they pay federal taxes, which also go into the wildlife pot. But the money is spread so far out that each wildlife lover ends up paying a fraction of a penny for each dollar that a hunter or angler contributes to the cause. Meanwhile, year after year, anti-hunting and allegedly pro-wildlife groups bemoan hunters’ influence over wildlife management, and celebrate the decline in hunter numbers. Yet they offer no methods to replace the lost wildlife and habitat revenues that result from those declines.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.