Commissioners heard arguments by the ranchers — some aimed at commissioners’ emotions, others at their logic — about how wildlife caused them economic losses in 2020. With one dissenting vote in the two separate cases, the appointed citizen commission approved $71,339 to Josh Longwell of HD Ranch and $11,626 to Christian Peterson of Crandall Creek Ranch. Longwell claimed $322,685 in stock and other losses to grizzly bears and mountain lions; Peterson claimed $128,857 for losses to grizzlies and wolves.
Wyoming statutes, however, surrender that immunity in certain cases involving wildlife-caused damage, but only within strict sideboards. In the two cases, the ranchers’ claims exceeded those legislatively mandated limits, department officials told commissioners. Commissioners made their decision after the ranchers appealed department decisions limiting the compensation for “damage” to property.
Although Wyoming considers wildlife to be the property of the state, the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity holds that the state can’t be sued for such damage.
Peterson said the agency should compensate him for lost yearling cattle at the same rate it compensates ranchers for verified losses of calves. Game and Fish will compensate for the value of calves confirmed killed by trophy game, plus a “multiplier” for suspected losses, depending on the landscape and predator.
But law limits compensation for yearling cattle to only the verified lost stock itself. Peterson and his attorney made other arguments for more money that the commission ultimately rejected. Those included that he should be paid for drone flights, SD computer cards, extra ranch hands, the maintenance of their housing and other expenses incurred because of wolves and grizzlies.
Longwell, who has lost previous appeals of agency compensation limits, sought repayment for calves lost to grizzlies based on a 20-times multiplier, far above the highest multiplier prescribed in Wyoming law.
“You guys are going to break me,” Longwell told the commission. “It’s private property,” he said of some places where killings have taken place. “You don’t have my permission to manage bears on it, you don’t have my permission to have bears on it.”
Both the HD and Crandall Creek ranches lie outside the eastern border of Yellowstone National Park and have leases to graze on U.S. Forest Service property. At Crandall Creek, Peterson said he switched his operation from a cow/calf ranch to one that runs larger yearlings only — in an attempt to reduce losses to predators.
Wyoming law and regulation don’t allow for Longwell’s arithmetic, Luke Ellsbury, large carnivore conflict biologist, told the commission. “The claimant applied an unlawful multiplier of 20 to his calf losses,” he said.
Calling himself a progressive rancher, Peterson said he uses drones extensively to keep track of cattle, and tries to hedge his bets by monitoring commodity markets. Stock losses led him to buy two-way radios to keep the ranch team safe and coordinated. He also hired and housed two additional cowboys to ride 55,000 acres of Forest Service grazing leases, according to his claim.
Game and Fish biologists verified eight yearling steers killed by grizzlies and two by wolves in 2020. Regulations don’t allow a multiplier to be applied to yearling losses, so the department recommended $11,626 for damages.
Peterson’s claim of $128,857 challenged Game and Fish’s regulations on two fronts. First, he said, yearling losses should be compensated with the same multiplier as calves. Under that reasoning, Peterson claimed 49.9 yearling steers “damaged” by grizzlies and wolves for a value of $59,072.
“There’s no definition of calf,” Peterson’s attorney Jalie Meinecke told the commissioners. “I believe the law allows you to interpret that term as you wish.”
In a lot of cases, she said, there’s “essentially no difference” between the size of a baby calf at the end of the season and the size of a yearling at the beginning of a grazing season.
“And so … the multiplier is absolutely applicable to a yearling operation to protect Christian and other operators like him,” Meinecke said.
But the agency isn’t allowed to compensate for such incidental expenses, biologist Ellsbury told the commission. “It’s not a bear actually damaging radios — any of that,” he said.
Peterson’s second point was that wolves and grizzlies created additional expenses. He listed 12 items required because of wolves and grizzlies — everything from scouting flights to drones, the maintenance of cowboys’ housing and programming two-way radios — totaling $69,785.
“We are presenting those to you at this initial stage so that as we go through this process we can have you, and then potentially an arbitration panel and the court, determine whether these actual damages,” Meinecke told the commission.
The rancher contends those expenses are actual damages, not what are referred to as consequential damages, Peterson’s attorney Meinecke argued. She referred to Longwell’s recent loss in court and said he was unsuccessful, in part, because he sought reimbursement for expenses that were not presented to Game and Fish as actual damages.
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