A New Tool to Help Share the Cost of Living With Wildlife

This article was originally published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Spring has arrived, and for many Montanans that comes along with excitement for warmer days ahead. But for the hard-working cattle ranchers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, springtime brings new challenges. One of those is the risk of brucellosis, a reproductive disease that elk and bison can transmit to cattle.

Each year, thousands of migrating elk spend winter and early spring in lower-lying valleys, much of which is open space managed by cattle ranchers. During the spring calving season, elk can spread brucellosis, which has devastating financial consequences for ranchers. In addition to causing cattle to abort their young, the disease forces ranchers to endure lengthy and expensive cattle quarantines or otherwise slaughter their entire herds.

Those risks—an unfortunate cost of sustaining crucial habitat for migrating elk—have fallen entirely on the shoulders of ranchers. Until now.

Earlier this year, a coalition of conservation partners launched a new tool to address this challenge in Montana’s Paradise Valley, north of Gardiner. The Paradise Valley Brucellosis Compensation Fund eases the financial burden ranchers face if their cattle contract brucellosis in exchange for providing habitat for elk and other wildlife. The voluntary, privately financed effort is led by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), with support from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Spruance Foundation, and the Bozeman-based outdoor finance company Credova.

The fund addresses a longstanding problem: Elk rely on working cattle ranches for their survival, spending as much as 80% of their time on private lands each winter. But these migrating herds impose significant costs on private landowners. In a recent PERC survey, Paradise Valley ranchers cited brucellosis risk as one of their biggest wildlife challenges.

This can discourage landowners from providing habitat. As one rancher told us, “If we improve habitat [for elk] we’re basically shooting ourselves in the foot because of the increased brucellosis risk.” The result isn’t good for ranchers or elk.

The compensation fund—which is entirely privately financed, using no federal or state dollars—eases the burden on ranchers by covering 50 to 75 percent of their quarantine-related costs following a positive brucellosis test. This structure helps ranchers maintain their operations while still encouraging them to take reasonable precautions against the disease.

The fund represents an innovative market solution to helping ranchers and elk coexist. By compensating landowners for some of the costs associated with brucellosis transmission, the groups who benefit from vibrant elk herds and open spaces—conservationists, sportsmen, local communities, and more—can help shoulder some of the burden of providing habitat for these animals.

This new tool couldn’t come at a better time. Rapid growth and fragmentation due to development are putting pressure on the working cattle ranches that are so crucial for winter elk habitat and open space. And many conservationists, hunters, and community members are recognizing the important role these lands play in sustaining Yellowstone’s iconic elk herds. The new fund provides a way for these groups to directly support elk migrations and open spaces while building bridges with the ranching community.

The fund is currently capitalized at $115,000, with potential to grow. After a three-year pilot period, the model could be expanded into other areas or lay the groundwork for a more self-sustaining risk-transfer tool to address brucellosis risks over the long run.

The Paradise Valley fund differs from other compensation programs. The Montana Legislature recently created a fund to pay landowners for livestock slaughtered due to disease. But that fund—which is available for poultry, sheep, goats, cattle, and more—will receive just $10,000 per year from the livestock head fees paid by ranchers, and it does not cover brucellosis quarantine costs. The Paradise Valley fund provides more significant, direct support by involving the groups that benefit from elk conservation and are willing to help pay for it.

By sharing the costs and risks associated with sustaining Yellowstone’s migratory elk herds, we can support wildlife while supporting the livelihoods of ranchers who conserve habitat. The result is good for wildlife, ranchers, conservationists, hunters, and all of us who cherish this incredible ecosystem.

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