Ranchers play a key role in conservation by keeping their lands available to wildlife, and it’s important that they be compensated for those losses, says a new study
“Our paper makes a case that there are benefits… if those ranchers who have depredation programs see some compensation for wildlife to be on their private lands,” said Mark Boyce, a professor of ecology at the University of Alberta.
If there were no financial compensation, there would only be negative consequences for ranchers who maintain wildlife habitat, which attracts deer, elk and moose and, in turn, large carnivores, says a paper written by Boyce, PhD student Andrea Morehouse, and master’s student Jesse Tigner.
For the report, Morehouse investigated incident reports, reviewing nearly 4,500 claims from 2000 to 2016. Payouts to ranchers come from the Alberta Conservation Association, which has financed the compensation program partly through licences from hunters and anglers since 1996. During that period, the annual amount of the payouts increased eightfold to $800,000 in 2016.
“The cost just keeps going up and up because of the increase of the numbers of wolves and increase in depredation, but also because the price of cattle has gone up substantially,” said Boyce.
In most provinces and in many U.S. states, compensation is provided via agricultural subsidies or government revenues.
Seventy per cent of the predation is caused by wolves because their populations have increased dramatically in the province. In the 1950s, there was a rabies outbreak in southern Alberta, and the government almost eradicated wolves through a focused kill effort. But since the 2000s, wolf populations have rebounded.
“Since 2000, almost all the potential wolf habitat was occupied in Alberta,” said Boyce.
In theory, farmers receive full market value for their losses through a rate, based on current market values, established by the provincial government. But that system doesn’t take into account what the animals would be worth. Wolves often take breeding stock while bears mostly take calves.
“If bears get into calves in the spring, the farmer had those calves that she or he was planning to raise through the growing season, using the current annual production of forage on the ranch,” said Boyce.
Ranchers also argue wolves cause shrinkage in cattle because they are more anxious and don’t gain weight when large predators are around. In Montana, ranchers are compensated for shrinkage, but that’s not the case in Alberta.
The hot spots for predation are the southwest corner of the province, the Pincher Creek area, the Peace Country, and aspen parkland regions.
In the case of predation, a rancher can call a fish and wildlife officer trained to evaluate predator kills. If it’s a confirmed cougar, wolf, or bear kill, the rancher gets 100 per cent compensation. However, older kills may be more difficult to determine as telltale signs — such as bite marks on the necks of wolf prey — may no longer be clearly visible.
It’s important for ranchers to keep on top of their kills, and the paperwork involved is not onerous, said Boyce. He also recommends the use of dogs to ward off bears and having people ride through areas where their cattle are grazing.
“Anything that allows ranchers to retain wildlife on their land is a benefit for conservation,” he said. “It’s not all bad that the Alberta Conservation Association is paying the bills (but) we think an agricultural subsidy program ought to be more broadly supported.”