Paradise Valley, MT — The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) today announced an innovative payment-for-presence program to compensate a rancher for providing elk habitat in Montana’s Paradise Valley.
Using advanced camera traps powered by artificial intelligence (AI) together with landowners’ innate knowledge of the land, this innovative program is the first of its kind in the region. Rather than paying ranchers for predator losses as traditional livestock compensation programs do, PERC’s payments are based on the presence of elk to specifically mitigate elk-livestock conflict.
Paradise Valley serves as an important wintering ground for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s migrating elk herds. As rapid development threatens wildlife habitat in the valley, ranchers and their large, open land holdings play a valuable role in maintaining ecosystem connectivity. Providing habitat, however, comes at a cost.
As the national leader in market solutions for conservation, Montana-based PERC works to develop incentive-based solutions that conserve wildlife habitat by helping mitigate those costs to landowners.
“Elk are often viewed as uninvited guests on a rancher’s property,” says PERC CEO Brian Yablonski. “Ranchers are essentially feeding the elk at great personal expense. Ultimately, we need these private open lands to remain intact if we want to conserve this unique migratory ecosystem, and paying ranchers ‘elk rent’ for providing this public good is a critical step toward accomplishing that.”
A minimum of 20 elk captured on camera across the ranch in a single day constitutes an “elk day” and triggers a financial payout to the rancher. A bonus payment is offered when 200 or more elk are captured in a single day, with a $12,000 cap on total annual payments.
Druska Kinkie, who along with her husband and son run Emigrant Peak Ranch, regularly sees 400-500 elk on her property during peak migration season. The heavy wildlife presence imposes costs through lost forage, fence damage, and the threat of disease transfer, namely brucellosis, a reproductive disease that is spread from elk and bison to cattle.
“This program has offered us a ray of hope,” said Druska Kinkie of Emigrant Peak Ranch. “We want to do right by the elk, but not at the expense of our livelihoods. Compensating their presence offsets the costs they impose, making the elk less of a liability for us.”
Harnessing smart cameras to calculate elk rent
The new program brings together Emigrant Peak Ranch and Grizzly Systems, a local technology firm that uses advanced AI camera traps with an integrated software platform. The advanced technology helps differentiate between random movement such as grass blowing in the wind and actual wildlife detection.
To try capturing the number of elk on the ranch at any given time, the program relies on game cameras installed in key locations throughout the property. Over time, the AI technology will learn how to better identify elk, reducing the amount of data to analyze. The rancher can also take photos with her smartphone to augment the game cameras.
The pilot program is designed to test the payment-for-presence system as well as the efficiency of artificial intelligence game cameras with continuous refinement.
“We’re excited to test the potential of our technology in such an important region for wildlife,” said Jeff Reed of Grizzly Systems. “We appreciate PERC’s spirit of creativity and flexibility to explore what makes the most sense for ranchers and wildlife. As our technology evolves, so too can the model of this program, delivering more tailored results.”
PERC’s Paradise Valley payment-for-presence program is the fourth project out of PERC’s Conservation Innovation Lab, including Montana’s first elk occupancy agreement, the Paradise Valley brucellosis compensation fund, and the grizzly grazing conflict reduction project in the Gravelly Range. When conservationists help ranchers offset the costs wildlife impose, they’re ultimately helping sustain the wildlife themselves.