Predators in Peril: The Federal Government’s War on Wildlife

By Camilla H. Fox

Each year, more than 120,000 native carnivores are killed by the federal government on public and private lands across the U.S., primarily to benefit private livestock operators. Killing native carnivores has been a common practice since European colonists arrived in North America nearly four centuries ago. The colonists viewed native carnivores as a threat to livestock and as competition for game species. So prevalent was this view that a bounty on wolves was enacted shortly after the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony in Massachusetts in 1630.

As settlers pushed west into the Great Plains in the 1800s, they slaughtered native carnivores to open the land to livestock and farming. The federal government officially became involved in predator control 1915 when Congress allocated $125,000 to create the Branch of Predator and Rodent Control within the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Biological Survey. Their mission was to carry out official strychnine poisoning campaigns targeting wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, bears and eagles on the public domain lands of the West. Later, during the Hoover Administration, livestock operators and hunters pressured Congress to pass the Animal Damage Control Act in 1931. This Act, still in effect today and largely unchanged, authorized the “suppression, eradication, and control” of wild animals that caused injury to agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and animal husbandry.

Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program, (formerly called Animal Damage Control) kills more than 2.4 million animals each year, including more than 120,000 native carnivores at an annual cost to taxpayers of over $115 million. The methods employed include poisons, steel-jaw leghold traps, strangulation neck snares, denning (the killing of coyote pups in their dens), hounding, shooting, and aerial gunning. Many of these methods are coming under increasing public and scientific scrutiny as a growing body of literature challenges the ethics and effectiveness of methods that are inherently indiscriminate and often inhumane.

The Ineffectiveness &Amp; Ecological Impacts Of Lethal Predator Control
While a century of sustained lethal predator control has done little to mitigate conflicts between ranchers and native carnivores, the ecological effects of removing large carnivores from the landscape may have long-term consequences that scientists are only just starting to fully comprehend. By studying the effects of their removal on ecosystems, biologists have found that many large native carnivores are “keystone species” that play a pivotal role in maintaining ecological integrity and preserving species diversity. The disappearance of a keystone species can trigger the loss of other resident species, and the intricate connections among the remaining residents begin to unravel, dramatically changing the habitat. In a "domino effect," species losses cascade through the ecosystem, as the disappearance of one species prompts the loss of still others. As argued by conservation biologists, “Our current knowledge about the natural processes that maintain biodiversity suggests a crucial and irreplaceable role of top predators. The absence of top predators appears to lead inexorably to ecosystem simplification accompanied by a rush of extinctions.”1

Remarkably, though not surprisingly, WS has never attempted to calculate the overall environmental costs of its predator control programs and its impacts on rangelands, agricultural crops and species diversity. Indeed, we may never be able to accurately catalogue the extent of its impact.

One thing we do know is that more than a century of killing predators has not diminished livestock losses. This is largely because lethal control does not address the underlying cause of livestock predation, which is the presence of an attractive prey (e.g., domestic sheep) in the habitat of opportunistic carnivores. The large size of livestock and their lack of anti-predator behavior provide a sizable meal for relatively little effort, especially domestic sheep unaccompanied on open range far from human activity, as occurs on public lands throughout the West. Further, livestock consume and trample the vegetation needed by most of the predators’ natural prey to survive.2 When these species are depleted, other predators may turn to livestock, leading to increased lethal control efforts and an endless and ultimately futile killing cycle.

A recent study by wildlife biologist and economist Dr. Kimberley Murray Berger that examined predator control in the U.S. in relation to sheep production suggests that the decline of the sheep industry is more closely associated with unfavorable market conditions than predation and raises serious questions about the effectiveness of lethal predator control programs.3 While Wildlife Services killed 5 approximately million native carnivores from 1939 to 1998 at a cost of $1.6 billion, Berger found that the effort had little effect on sheep industry trends. Even though the agency has been killing carnivores for nearly a century, she points out, 85 percent of U.S. sheep producers have gone bankrupt.

Ironically, the loss in species diversity that results from killing predators to protect livestock can lead to increased problems for ranchers. Researchers at Texas Tech University reported in 1999 that removing nearly all of the coyotes in a 5,000-hectare area caused a severe decline in the diversity of rodent species and a significant increase in the numbers of jackrabbits, badgers, gray foxes and bobcats.4 They concluded that removing coyotes to protect livestock could actually be counterproductive: “Increased jackrabbit density caused by a lack of predation could cause increased competition for forage between jackrabbits and livestock…consequently, a reduced stocking rate [of livestock] may be required to offset competition, which may financially negate the number of livestock saved from predation.”5

Attempts to reduce coyote populations — the main emphasis of WS’s predator control program (more than 90,000 coyotes were killed by the agency in 2007) — have failed because coyote populations exhibit strong compensatory responses to lethal control. While lethal control may result in short-term reductions in the number of coyotes in a specific area, the vacuum is soon filled by coyotes emigrating from surrounding areas and by shifts in neighboring packs. Lethal control disrupts the social hierarchy of coyote packs, causing pack members to disperse and allowing more females to breed. Females in exploited populations tend to have larger litters because competition for food is reduced and more unoccupied habitat is available. Lethal control also selects for coyotes that are more successful, wary, nocturnal, and resilient — what some biologists call a “super coyote.”6

Despite the biological understanding of the critical ecological role of coyotes and other native carnivores, management is still largely controlled by those with an economic investment in continuing the practice of lethal control.7

Tools Of The Trade
Many of the lethal methods used to kill native carnivores, are inhumane, indiscriminate, and a threat to public safety. The primary killing tools employed by Wildlife Services include leghold traps, strangulation neck snares, poisons, denning (the killing of coyote and fox pups in their dens) and aerial gunning. Increased public, scientific and Congressional scrutiny has led to greater awareness and widespread condemnation of prophylactic lethal predator control (see sidebar: Federal Bill to Ban Predator Poisons). In 1995, as a result of public outcry, Congress directed the General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate Wildlife Services’ predator control activities in the field. The GAO found that: "ADC [Wildlife Services] personnel in western states use lethal methods to control livestock predators despite written USDA policies and procedures giving preference to the use of non-lethal control methods where practical and effective."8

Paradigm Shift
Despite clear scientific evidence demonstrating the futility and counter productiveness of indiscriminate lethal coyote control, many state and federal wildlife managers continue to promote prophylactic killing as the best method to address conflicts. An increasing number of scientists, however, have begun to speak out against lethal control. Their studies show that coyotes, and other large carnivores play a vital ecological role and their removal can have a devastating impact on species diversity and the health and integrity of native ecosystems.

But scientific evidence is not enough. What is needed is a new paradigm for the way we treat native carnivores - indeed all wildlife - one that recognizes the ecological importance of these species as well as their intrinsic value as individuals. If the money and efforts used to kill coyotes, and other predators, were redirected toward cost-effective, non-lethal methods, such as public education, better landscape development, improved fencing, and guard animals, conflicts could be significantly reduced without the need to kill indiscriminately.9 Ultimately, it will be the public that pressures wildlife managers to make this ethical shift as communities across North America demand that wildlife conflicts be addressed with humane solutions that recognize the importance and value of native carnivores, not merely based on their utility to humans but on their own vitality and intrinsic worth.

Side Bar 1: An Alternative To Subsidized Lethal Predator Control: The Marin County Model
In 1996, in the bucolic northern California county of Marin, community-wide controversy arose when wildlife advocates learned that Marin was to be one of three counties where the deadly poison Compound 1080 would be pilot tested to kill coyotes. The proposed plan led to a rancorous debate about management of native carnivores in a community known for its environmental consciousness and strong support of agriculture.10 On one side were animal advocates and conservation groups who questioned the ethics of using taxpayer dollars to employ a federal (USDA-WS) trapper to kill native wildlife with predator poisons, denning, and body-gripping traps. On the other side were sheep ranchers who argued that federal assistance with predator management was necessary and that loss of such assistance would put them over the edge in a market that was already being undermined with cheap imports from overseas.

After a series of roundtable discussions organized by the Marin County Agricultural Commissioner that included ranchers, animal advocates, conservationists, and local public officials, the Marin County Board of Supervisors attempted to reach a compromise with the WS. The Supervisors said they would renew the contract with the federal agency but stipulated that neck snares and other lethal methods could only be used a last resort after non-lethal methods had been tried and proven unsuccessful.11 When WS refused to operate under the county’s guidelines, the Marin County Board of Supervisors decided it was in the county’s best interest to cease contracting with the agency. The decision, however, did not prevent ranchers from shooting predators on their own land to protect their livestock.

In place of the traditional WS program, the Supervisors approved of a program put forth by a coalition of animal and conservation organizations and later more fully developed by the Marin County Agricultural Commissioner’s office with input from the ranching community. The plan, called the “Strategic Plan for Protection of Livestock and Wildlife,” redirected the county’s $30,000 annual cost for WS to assist qualified ranchers in implementing non-lethal techniques including livestock guard dogs, llamas, improved fencing, and lambing sheds, and shepherding.

To date more than 80% of all Marin sheep ranchers participate in the program and initial data indicates livestock losses have declined since implementation of the program.12 Importantly, the program provides a model that has successfully addressed and embraced ethical concerns as well as differing values expressed by both the animal protection and ranching communities.13

Sidebar 2: Federal Bill To Ban Predator Poisons
Last year Representative Peter DeFazio (OR-D) authored HR 4775- the Compound 1080 and M-44 Elimination Act – a federal bill that would prohibit use of Compound 1080 (sodium monofluoroacetate) and M-44s (sodium cyanide), two deadly poisons used to kill coyotes and other predators. The bill garnered 35 co-sponsors. Representative DeFazio is expected to re-introduce the same or a similar bill in the 111th Congress. Letters of support will be needed to encourage other members of Congress to co-sponsor and support this important legislation. Visit Project Coyote’s website for more information and updates on the bill in the coming months: www.ProjectCoyote.org

Camilla H. Fox is a wildlife consultant and ecologist and author of numerous publications about coyotes and wildlife including Coyotes in our Midst: Coexisting with an Adaptable and Resilient Carnivore. She is the founding director of Project Coyote, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating innovative solutions to help people and coyotes coexist. Visit www.ProjectCoyote.org for more information.

1 Terborgh, J., et al. “The role of top carnivores in regulating terrestrial ecosystems,” Chapter 3 in Soule, M.E., and J. Terborgh (eds.) Continental Conservation: scientific foundations of regional reserve networks, (Washington: Island Press, 1999).

2 Crabtree, R. L., and J. W. Sheldon. “Coyotes and canid coexistence.” In Carnivores in ecosystems: The Yellowstone experience, ed. T. W. Clark et al., 127–163. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

3 Berger, K.M. 2006. Carnivore-Livestock Conflicts: Affects of Subsidized Predator Control and Economic Correlates on the Sheep Industry. Conservation Biology 20:751-761.

4 Henke, S.E., and F.C. Bryant, “Effects of coyote removal on the faunal community in Western Texas,” Journal of Wildlife Management 63 (1999), 1066–1081.

5 Ibid.

6 Fox, C.H. and C.M. Papouchis. 2005. Coyotes in our Midst: Coexisting with an Adaptable and Resilient Carnivore. Animal Protection Institute, Sacramento, California. 64 pp

7 Ibid.

8 General Accounting Office (GAO). 1995. “Animal Damage Control Program — Efforts to protect livestock from predators.” GAO Report B-261796, October 1995.

9 Fox, C.H. 2006. Coyotes and humans: can we coexist? Proceedings of the Vertebrate Pest Conference 22: 287-293.

10 Fox, C.H. 2001. Taxpayers say no to killing predators. Animal Issues 31:26-27.

11 Ibid.

12 Fox, C.H. 2008. Analysis of The Marin County Strategic Plan for Protection of Livestock & Wildlife: An Alternative to Traditional Predator Control. Master’s thesis. Prescott College, Prescott, AZ. 112 p.

13 Ibid.

Reprinted with permission from Indiana Coyote Rescue Center’s Winter 2009 Newsletter

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