Illustration by Alexandra Falagara
Illustration by Alexandra Falagara

Get your rifles ready: Wolf season opens at the end of August, and for as little as $11.50 you’ve got a better chance than ever of bagging this toothy predator.

In July, Montana doubled its kill quota to 220, and Idaho, well, it has declined to set a quota. Wyoming plans to treat wolves as predators in most of the state, allowing them to be killed on sight. If all goes according to plan, the Rocky Mountain wolf population will be knocked down 60 percent from its peak of 1,733 in 2009.

This is obviously a perfectly sound strategy for preserving an iconic American species, which taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars breeding and feeding. No, not wolves, but public-lands ranchers, whose livestock graze on federal property and who are increasingly concerned about attacks by free-ranging wolf packs.

During this 15-year saga over wolves in the West, which pits conservationists against cowboys, it was easy to miss that the most outspoken cattlemen were not simply asking to guard their private property from deadly intruders. They were defending their right to pay rock-bottom prices to let their cattle graze unchaperoned on 162 million acres of federal land. Conservationists, trying to protect the wolf, were forced to claim these open spaces, vilifying ranchers and hunters and tying up federal regulators in a two-year lawsuit that was ultimately circumvented by Congress.

Fostering Conflict

Living with predators is never easy, but federal grazing policies seem designed to foster conflict rather than cooperation. The future of both wolves and ranchers depends, in part, on reforming our archaic and noncompetitive system through a shift to transferrable federal grazing permits sold on a regulated market.

Increased fees could offset government land management costs, improve environmental monitoring and enforcement, and compensate ranchers when wolves and other predators kill livestock. Environmental groups should be allowed to purchase and retire federal grazing permits in choice wolf habitat. The hunts should also continue, but with limits.

Wolves once roamed throughout the United States, but their presence was never welcome among men and women trying to make a living off the land. In the late 19th century, settlers and government workers devastated Western wolf populations using poison-laced animal carcasses inside and outside their stronghold in Yellowstone National Park. Animals that survived still faced shrinking forest habitat and a decline in their prey species, such as bison and caribou. In 1973, the northern Rocky Mountain wolf became one of the first animals listed under the new Endangered Species Act, but the move only provided the bare minimum of protection and little hope for recovery.

That’s due to the complicated history of public grazing, which also dates back to the late 19th century, when the federal government encouraged western expansion into fertile valleys suited to agriculture. Unclaimed tracts in the uplands became a tragedy of the commons as shepherds and cattlemen competed for space, their livestock trampling healthy stream beds and turning grassy meadows into dustbowls. Range rights were enforced through coercion and violence.

The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 reduced overgrazing by granting ranchers renewable leases to specific allotments, which allowed them to build fences and encouraged them to take care of the public land.

Today, ranchers have 26,000 permits to graze millions of livestock on pasture managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. They pay $1.35 per head of cattle per month -- a price set by cattle prices, livestock production costs and, ostensibly, private grazing lease rates. But since 1980 that amount has decreased 40 percent to its statutory minimum, and it is typically one-10th of grazing fees on private property and state lands.

Taxpayers Foot Bill

The U.S. spends about $135 million per year managing public-lands grazing, according to the Government Accountability Office, but collects only $21 million in fees. Taxpayers also foot the bill for the Agriculture Department’s predator control program, whose hunters killed 81,684 coyotes and 478 wolves in 2009.

These subsidies might be acceptable if the federal government adequately managed public lands for both food security and environmental sustainability. But many allotments have more cattle than they can support, and land managers rarely hold ranchers accountable when they violate their contracts or damage public lands. Permits have been revoked in just a handful of extreme cases after bankruptcies and charges of animal abuse. It’s a plum deal for these lucky ranchers, who drop their calves and cows off at the beginning of summer and pick them up a hundred pounds fatter in the fall.

In 1995, the range wars began anew. That’s when Canadian wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone to bring the elk-heavy ecosystem back into balance. Other wolves started moving into northern Montana and Idaho on their own. As their numbers swelled, they were killing a few hundred sheep and cattle every year.

Ranchers have always had the right to shoot wolves caught in the act of attacking livestock, but they wanted to be able to shoot any wolf on sight and to enlist sport hunters for their cause. In 2011, they got their wish. Congress -- at the urging of the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association -- took the unprecedented step of booting Rocky Mountain wolves from the endangered species list.

Idaho and Montana plan to use hunting to keep wolf populations hovering at just above the threshold that would invite federal scrutiny: a couple of hundred animals each. Wyoming has agreed to treat its 340 or so wolves as predators in all but the northwest corner of the state.

Remarkably, legislators from these states are also seeking, through the 2012 Interior Department appropriations bill, to weaken environmental oversight of grazing permits, ban judicial review of wolf protection in Wyoming and the Midwest, and restrict legal challenges to grazing management. These moves would only lead to more acrimony in the West and, inevitably, more money wasted in the courtroom.

A Market Approach

Reducing wildlife conflicts through a market approach is not a new idea. In a few cases, environmental groups have paid ranchers to voluntarily retire federal permits, and the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife began a program -- now run by the federal government -- to compensate ranchers for confirmed livestock kills. For state land trusts, open permit auctions are obligatory because the law requires them to reap the highest profits to support schools.

Congress should make this happen on a wider scale, empowering land managers to fully appraise permits using the latest environmental and livestock science and by allowing ranchers to sell them at market rates. The Endangered Species Act may be our best tool for keeping wolves from going extinct, but a fair market for grazing could help find the right balance when wolves roam free.

(Brendan Borrell visited Bozeman, Montana, as a media fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Brendan Borrell at bborrell@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net.