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Range insurance rates rise, caps shrink

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

The insurance provider that covers rangeland has capped its coverage at $2.50 per acre on public land, or large tracts of private land adjacent to public land, in Idaho due to the fire risk.

MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho — Rancher Bob Howard believes recent changes in his wildfire range insurance policy show that private owners manage their land better than federal agencies.

Howard used to insure both his public and private land — located in a fire-prone region of south central Idaho — for the cost of raising cattle on feed. However, increasing claims have prompted his insurance carrier to cap his coverage on public land at $2.50 per acre.

The insurance provider is also limiting coverage to $2.50 on any Idaho private pasture larger than 5,000 acres that is adjacent to public land, provided there’s no road or other protective barrier.

Howard estimates coverage at $2.50 is sufficient to buy feed for a single month.

He blames federal agencies for not managing the land to reduce fuels for wildfires.

“With the current status of the Bureau of Land Management and their inability to be able to manage and get rid of these fuels, it’s got us in this situation,” Howard said.

Howard’s neighbor, Steve Damele, is facing the same insurance challenge, and most of his private pasture is adjacent to BLM land.

“We’ve been insuring it for $8-$10 per acre. Now we’re stuck at $2.50,” Damele said. “All of these fires are racing across BLM onto private (land). We’re going to have some sleepless nights when the dry lightning storms come through and really try to jump on those fires.”

Kal Schank, an insurance agent with Northwest Farm Credit in Twin Falls, Idaho, said three companies once wrote rangeland insurance policies. Now, a single company is willing to provide the coverage in Idaho, Oregon and Nevada.

“Most of my guys in the last three or four years have had losses,” said Schank, who provides rangeland insurance to about a dozen customers. “The company said they’ve had 300 percent more losses than revenue over the last five years.”

To prepare for wildfires, Howard’s ranch has hired a worker to drive a tractor and disc fire breaks all summer, and his daughter is taking firefighting classes.

Both Howard and Damele participate in a demonstration project, in which ranchers have used management-intensive grazing to show federal land managers how public land health can be improved by accommodating more cattle. Using the technique, ranchers graze large numbers of cattle in small paddocks for short periods of time, thus reducing weeds and fuel for wildfires.

They believe they’ve already reduced annual weed populations on their pasture and enhanced perennial grasses.

Mountain Home rancher Charlie Lyons believes he’s paid a steep price because of flaws with current federal land management. The massive Pony Complex and Elk Complex fires burned about 90 percent of his public land last summer. He also lost many of his cattle.

Unable to find replacement private pasture for the lost grazing land, Lyons had to sell half of his remaining herd.

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