HELENA - A proposal to put a bounty on large predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, in Jefferson County is leaving state and federal officials a little confused.
County Commissioner Leonard Wortman said he's hearing from ranchers who have experienced many conflicts between their livestock and large predators, so, at the county meeting on Tuesday, the commissioners will discuss whether to explore allowing livestock owners to tax themselves and use the money as a reward for killing wolves and mountain lions.
"We found a statute that allows a bounty on large predators," Wortman said on Monday. "It says the livestock owners would have to petition the county to place a bounty on them, up to $100 for a wolf or mountain lion and $20 on pups and kittens."
The problem is that mountain lions and gray wolves, which only recently were taken off the list of endangered species, are managed as game animals by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
That state agency sets quotas and hunting seasons. As its regulations stand, shooting game animals like wolves and lions outside of the seasons, taking them without the required permits or killing more than the quota are illegal.
But the bounty statutes authorize that, and officials at multiple state agencies added that it appears a couple of statutes may be conflicting.
Becky Jakes-Dockter, FWP chief legal counsel, said there is a bounty program, but, in her reading, any harvested animals would have to be taken legally and be paid for by taxes levied in the county.
She added that she doesn't see where such a bounty would provide incentive to people hunting wolves.
"They would still have to have a permit, and the county law couldn't supersede FWP," she said.
The state pays bounty claims on some animals, such as coyotes, through the Board of Livestock, mainly using a predator assessment tax that some counties put on livestock at the request of the majority of livestock owners in the county.
George Edwards, the DOL's livestock loss mitigation coordinator, said counties in Montana also have a per-capita tax already on livestock. Along with the predator assessment tax, those funds typically pay for federal agents with Wildlife Services to hunt wild animals, such as wolves, mountain lions and coyotes, that have preyed on livestock.
But Wildlife Services doesn't pay bounties for a private party to kill problem wolves.
Mike Foster, a Wildlife Services supervisor in Montana, said they respond to complaints on wolves and are authorized by FWP to remove them. He also was puzzled about putting bounties on wolves.
"I think, if you're talking bounty, you're talking way out of turn. That's something we don't have authority to do," Foster said. "A bounty on wolves doesn't exist in this state."
Edwards added that statutes that he's seen still authorize a bounty, at least on mountain lions.
"The bounty state still exists, but I don't know what that means when it comes to legal standing because things have changed, times have changed and the law has been changed," Edwards said. "I'm curious to see how this shakes out, since it's still on the books."
Jefferson County's move toward instituting bounties comes as Ravalli County Commissioners consider becoming the first county in Montana to adopt a predator policy. That policy also includes conflicts between state laws and what the county is proposing.