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Montana may offer wolf compensation

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana moved one step closer Saturday to establishing a long-awaited board to compensate ranchers who lose livestock to wolves.

The House gave preliminary approval, 79-21, to a bill that would create such a board, although its funding was slashed from $1 million to $50,000 by the House Appropriations Committee last week.

"We'll take what we got, and we'll see what we can do with it," said bill sponsor Rep. Bruce Malcolm, R-Emigrant.

Montana is required to establish a livestock compensation board under its wolf management plan approved in 2004 by the federal government.

Wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains a decade ago after being hunted to near-extinction. They now number more than 1,200 in the region, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has started the process of removing federal protections from wolves in Idaho and Montana within a year.

Defenders of Wildlife, a private environmental group, already compensates ranchers for livestock killed by wolves or grizzly bears but has not yet decided whether to continue that program once wolves are delisted.

Under the state program, ranchers would file claims with the seven-member Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board appointed by the governor. Board members would decide whether to pay them the value of animals lost to confirmed or probable wolf kills, and ranchers could appeal board decisions.

Like Defenders of Wildlife, the board would also help ranchers pay for preventive projects.