The paw of a grizzly caught after killing stock. (provided by Josh Longwell)

A Hot Springs County rancher who lost dozens of sheep and numerous cattle to grizzly bears in 2018 asked a judge Wednesday to honor an arbitration panel’s award the state says is more than $200,000 too much.

Josh Longwell’s Cheyenne attorney Drake Hill asked District Judge Bill Simpson not to vacate or modify an arbitration panel’s award, saying the three members were justified when they arrived at $339,730 for stock lost to grizzlies and other predators. Attorneys representing the state and the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission claim the Hot Springs County panel in 2020 exceeded its authority and awarded Longwell $215,286 more than laws and regulations allow.

The arbitration panel in essence said, “we … don’t think it’s appropriate that the Game and Fish be able to limit the damages … we are going to fashion a remedy,” Hill argued.

That remedy, however, can’t exceed the formula designed by the Game and Fish Commission under state law, Deputy Attorney General James Kaste told Simpson. The Legislature empowered the commission to set rules for damage claims, rules that have the effect of law and must be followed as such, Kaste argued.

“The arbitrators’ error here was in disregarding the rules of law,” he said, describing the panelists’ 2-1 decision as “a manifest mistake.”

“Animals can be lost on the range for many reasons, other than being killed by a trophy game,” Kaste said. “And the money used to pay these claims is public money, and the Legislature and the commission have a responsibility to make sure that these public funds are not handed out [without] checks to ensure that the damages have actually … incurred, and that they actually relate to the actions of trophy game.”

Game and Fish investigates killings

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Commission compensate landowners for verified damage caused by game, including carnivores classified as trophy game, and according to formulae adopted over years of study and documentation. Game and Fish had agreed Longwell should get money for cattle that agency personnel verified as being killed by a grizzly bear, plus a 3.5-times multiplier to account for missing stock that was also probably killed by trophy game.

Game and Fish won’t pay for more stock than a rancher is missing, so regulations require stockmen and women to sign affidavits certifying their total stock losses at the end of a grazing season. That’s then compared to losses verified by the agency, adjusted by the 3.5 multiplier, to ensure public money isn’t being spent to compensate for stock that never existed in the first place.

Game and Fish biologist Zach Turnbull probes a dead cow near Union Pass in 2020 as he searches for evidence of carnivore bites necessary to substantiate a compensation claim. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

When it deliberated in Thermopolis in 2020, the arbitration panel considered two sets of figures regarding missing stock that were at the center of Wednesday’s hearing. One was a list of losses to carnivores verified or certified by Game and Fish investigators — plus the 3.5 multiplier. The other was the total season losses tallied by Longwell.

Because Longwell signed an affidavit swearing to the number of missing animals, Hill called that figure “verified.”

Game and Fish arbitration regulations shouldn’t stop the panel from making “an independent determination,” Hill said. That determination was “we’re going to go [with] the number that the landowner verified,” Hill said, paraphrasing the panel’s decision.

Wyoming appealed the panel’s award in June 2020, seeking to modify it or to vacate the decision and allow a new panel to reconsider the case.

Simpson, a Cody judge who presided over the case after it was transferred from Thermopolis, took the issue under advisement and will rule sometime after he closes the record in a month, he told the litigants Wednesday.

He heard more than an hour of arguments. Longwell’s attorney Hill cited U.S. and Wyoming Supreme Court decisions and other precedent that set a high bar for overturning an arbitration panel’s decision.

“The issue is whether the Game and Fish can broadly constrain the arbitrators and control arbitration awards, whether the Game and Fish has that authority over matters placed before arbitration panels,” Hill said.

“Why would we have an arbitration panel at all, if the final word was with the Game and Fish?” he asked. “There [would] be no need.”

Instead, lawmakers sought independent decision-makers when they set up the system and stipulated they be qualified electors in the county where the damage occurred, Hill argued. Lawmakers essentially said, “we don’t want these decisions simply made in Cheyenne,” he said. “They wanted these decisions made locally.”

Panel can adjust, somewhat …

Kaste said the arbitration panel could legally make numerous adjustments from a Game and Fish Commission damage award. In Longwell’s case, it did that in several instances and the state did not contest some of those adjustments.

Longwell’s claim included requests for compensation for sheep, lambs and cattle allegedly killed by a variety of carnivores in a variety of settings. Each situation triggers different reimbursement calculations under Game and Fish regulations.

HD ranch manager Josh Longwell and his wife Holli. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Longwell claimed $422,971 in damages. The agency awarded $89,498. The panel increased that to $339,730.

The state agreed to some of the panel’s adjustments, bringing their compensation offer to $134,444. That left a difference of more than $200,000 between the panel’s award and what the state believes is legal.

In his appeals to the Game and Fish Commission and the arbitration panel, Longwell made arguments for more money based on everything from common sense to the U.S. Constitution and a 20x multiplier that he said was fair. The record includes numerous photographs of mauled, dead stock, including one of a pile of dead lambs. Longwell characterized the depredations as a taking of private property for public use — Longwell cattle sustaining grizzly bears.

The arbitrators “simply took all the calves Mr. Longwell claimed were missing or lost during 2018 in addition to the losses confirmed by the Department, and compensated him for that,” the state complained in its written appeal. Instead, laws limit compensation to up to 3.5 times the value of losses verified or certified by Game and Fish investigators, the state contends.

“The court can and should correct such errors,” Kaste said in Cody, “because the arbitrators awarded on a matter not submitted to them.”

Not so, Hill argued.

Support independent reporting — donate to WyoFile today

“The United States Supreme Court has drawn a nice test surrounding this issue,” Hill said. The Supreme Court says “that the arbitrators’ actions must draw their essence from the statute.

“The essence here are the landowners’ or the livestock owners’ … losses of livestock and that’s exactly what was placed before the arbitration panel.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

Join the Conversation

13 Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. This is a bit of a surprise to me. Not the money end of it, that certainly is no surprise. It’s the fact the grizzles are doing this much damage to livestock. I would have guessed wolves do far more damage. It appears they are well fed on our big game animals.

  2. So the “rancher” claims he has lost dozens with no proof of any kind so he wants to be paid hundreds of thousand dollars. That’s pure Wyoming socialism there at it’s worst.
    I had a porcupine at my place a couple of days ago, I’m expecting to get at least a million from the game and fish on that one.

  3. I’m dreaming of having a few cows, a few sheep, a neighbor grizzly, and an anti government justice in my retirement portfolio.

  4. Just Google “Frank Robbins – Wyoming” …you’ll have more than enough reading material to see what the heck’s been going on up the Owl and Cottonwood drainages…

    1. You are spot on. And for those of us who also value bighorn sheep, Longwell and Robbins are wildlife terrorists, taking advantage of the system.

  5. The ranchers should get any amount of money their cattle or sheep or horses are worth. The game dept. and polititions don’t have a clue what anything is worth except their wages and what they can get from doing stupid things. The ranchers have to put up with losing their livlihood and the game and fish don’t give a dam what so ever except that the poor wolves and bears are suppose to kill all livestock and elk and deer besides. If the game and fish had a backbone their would be a lot more elk and deer to hunt in the state. I have hunted in Wyoming for 40 years and it is a fright what is happening to the wildlife because of the game dept. stupidity about the taking care of the bears and wolves.

    1. What if we’re tired of subsidizing the high plains welfare queens? I know for a fact that I am!

  6. The Longwell/Robbins ranch is adjacent to designated habitat for grizzly bear and wolves as per their recovery plans which is primarily the Shoshone National Forest boundary including wilderness areas. The large predators migrate and roam outside of their designated habitat onto private and BLM land in the western part of Hot Springs County. The Absaroka Front in this area is unspoiled and is one of the last remaining segments of the front that hasn’t been subdivided and exploited only because the ranchers are good stewards of the land. It is the responsibility of the State and Federal agencies to control the predators when they stray, migrate and roam. It is not unusual for wolves to be removed when they cause livestock damage outside of their recovery area. Compensating for livestock loss is just part of the overall cost of recovering these species. Please don’t criticize the ranchers who are protecting the Absaroka front from development – thank God they haven’t sold out to developers!!!

  7. Amazing and unbelievable.
    More facts are necessary, to make a rational judgement. How many head? Percent of herd? History? And a host of others.
    Too many folks think they are smarter than the professional.
    In my opinion, if a rancher is not taking steps to limit or ameliorate his losses, normal rules should not apply.

  8. This is State Exhibit D on why you really do not want the State managing grizzly bears or wolves. That 3.5X multiplier is preposterous, and violates the verymost foundational tenet of these sorts of crimes … habeus corpus, which literally translates to ” do you have a corpse ? ” . Which is self evident . Bt the whole compensation framework is badly flawed IMHO.

    There is an interesting sidebar on the other side of the coin to this whole compensation for livestock and wanton killing of wildlife scheme. There are established dollar values for reimbursement purposes for trophy game animals taken by poachers. Game Wardens and/or Wyo G&F counsel can ask the Court to award the state actual compensatory damages for wanton talking of wildlife when giuilt is found. Believe it or not, a common Cottontail rabbit is worth $ 200 by the State schedule. Nearer the top of the list, a Grizzly bear is worth up to $ 50,000 while trophy Elk and Moose can be $ 15,000. A Mule deer is worth $ 10,000 if the State asks to be compensated on behalf of the legal ” owners” of said wildlife, the People of Wyoming towards which G&F are the stewards of those resources. *

    Yet do we see those compensation penalties applied very often in the punishment phase of poaching cases ?
    I do know forom over 50 years of observation that higher profile poacher cases were notorious for receiving very light sentences proportional to the crime. This was likely due to the unspoken truth that every Judge, County Attorney , Game Warden all the way down to the bailiff and the courthouse janitor- or their brother in law – was likely complicit to some degree of taking wildlife out of season. I used to know a compassionate warden who would look the other way is a guy was feeding his family from hayfield doe deer in February

    However, in the case discussed here of notorious Owl Creek activist rancher Frank Rhoads and his son-in law Longwell is a scathing example of the corruption inherent to the current legal foofawrah going back decades in that particular drainage . It’s prevalent in all of Wyoming, but has been pandemic in Hot Springs and Washakie Counties. Wildlife Justice is not served with hides tacked to the cabin wall while a serial offendor perp cashes a high 6-figure check for phantom fauna and faux property disp[utes. Wyoming seems to keep two sets of law books on the shelf … one for the Stockgrowers sole propriety, the other for the rest of us. Time to throw out the former and reinforce the latter.

    1. Correction : my 70 year old memory is corroding. I misnamed Frank Robbins as Frank Rhoads. Sorry . Jack Rhoads was a famous cowboy from the Pitchfork Ranch west of Meeteetse who appeared in many iconic photos from Charles belden and I conflated the two names. My bad

    2. As always, I appreciate your excellent “institutional memory” (institute being Wyoming citizenry especially in the Big Horn Basin), Mr. Vanderhoff. Your willingness to take the time to connect the dots is helpful and always interesting!