On a cool spring morning, a mother black bear and her two young cubs wander through a thick stand of Douglas fir. Having recently emerged from their winter den, they are hungry and eagerly search for cambium, the sugary, energy-rich sap found beneath tree bark.
Suddenly, a pungent odor catches the mother bear’s attention, and she follows the scent. Just as she reaches the source of the smell, she steps on a metal device that shoots a wire coil around her paw. Panicked and unable to free herself, she struggles against the wire; but the harder she fights, the tighter it becomes. She has been baited and snared.
For two long days, the bear works fruitlessly to free herself, her cubs staying close by her side. On the third day, a federal trapper arrives and kills the bear with a gunshot to the head. Following agency policy, he shoots the frightened cubs, as well.
Outrage in Oregon
While this sad story may sound like a relic from a bygone era when predators were considered to be “vermin” by many people, black bears and other native carnivores are being killed in Oregon and other western states where federally subsidized predator control continues unabated.
In this particular situation, the bear’s only “crime” was to wander through a corporate timber plantation in search of food. These plantations, with their large, monoculture stands of trees, attract bears by offering easy access to the sap the animals need after their long hibernation. Some timber companies, claiming that bears damage trees by peeling bark to get to the sap, have demanded that the U.S. government kill “offending” bears. As a result, federal trappers lure, snare, and kill more than 100 black bears each year in Oregon alone, even though non-lethal techniques are available to address the problem.
Few people are aware that their tax dollars help pay for lethal predator control on corporate-owned lands. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services (WS) program, which conducts the killing, has worked hard to keep the carnage hidden from the public eye.
Animal advocates are working diligently to expose the truth and stop the killing. In conjunction with other advocacy organizations and with legal assistance from the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and the Siskiyou Project, API filed suit against WS and took the story to the media. Although our legal effort failed because the judge ruled that our organizations did not have standing to sue, the coalition was able to shine a spotlight on the shameful bear-killing secrets, including how the bodies of some bears are labeled “unsalvageable” and are simply left in the woods to rot. API was also able to publicize some of its other concerns about the WS predator control program, such as the high numbers of “non-target” species killed, the agency’s apparent lack of interest in applying nonlethal methods in the field, and the practice of killing thousands of animals for the benefit of ranchers and corporations.
A Shameful Tradition
Luring, trapping, and killing black bears to protect timber profits is just a small part of WS’s work. The bulk of WS lethal predator control programs are designed to benefit a small number of vocal ranchers who graze livestock on public and private lands throughout the West. Each year the agency kills close to 100,000 native carnivores, including coyotes, bears, bobcats, foxes, wolves, and badgers (see Predator Kill Chart).
The killing of native carnivores has been a common practice in North America since European colonists arrived nearly four centuries ago. When the early settlers encountered wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions along the eastern seaboard, they viewed these animals as a threat to livestock and competition for game species and endeavored to exterminate them. The Massachusetts Bay Colony offered the first bounty on wolves as early as 1630.
Pushing westward in the early to mid-1800s, settlers killed native carnivores as well as bison, elk, and other large grazing animals to clear the land for domestic livestock and farming. Ranchers, bounty hunters, and professional hunters and trappers killed millions of coyotes, wolves, bears, and mountain lions. Large-scale cattle grazing resulted in the widespread depletion of vegetation and the wildlife that consumed it. Without natural prey, the remaining predators were forced to prey on livestock to survive, which only bolstered predator eradication campaigns. In 1891, Congress passed a law setting aside federal forest reserves, a move that led to the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. The newly implemented albeit minimal fees charged by the Forest Service to ranchers for grazing livestock on public land engendered the expectation that the federal government would also help protect livestock from predators.
The federal government officially became involved in lethal predator control efforts in 1915. Agricultural interests pressured Congress to appropriate $125,000 for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Bureau of Biological Survey to conduct systematic strychnine poisoning campaigns targeting wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, bears, and eagles on the public domain lands of the West. The Bureau hired hundreds of hunters and trappers to kill predators.
In 1931, livestock operators lobbied Congress to pass the Animal Damage Control Act, formalizing and expanding predator eradication efforts. The Act, which remains virtually unchanged to this day, authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to “promulgate the best methods of eradication [and] suppression [of] mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, prairie dogs, [and] gophers ... for the protection of stock and other domestic animals ... and to conduct campaigns for the destruction or control of such animals.”
Under this Act, the federal government killed approximately 26,000 bears, 500,000 bobcats, 50,000 red wolves, 1,600 gray wolves, 8,000 mountain lions, and millions of coyotes throughout the United States between 1937 and 1983. In 2001, according to the USDA, WS killed 98,073 predators. This figure, however, should only be considered a minimum number; in his book Waste of the West, author Lynn Jacobs reports that WS agents have been regularly pressured to underestimate the number of animals they killed and to disregard non-target kills.
Inhumane and Indiscriminate
Despite research demonstrating the effectiveness of a variety of non-lethal techniques for reducing predator conflicts, WS continues to use traps, poisons, and other lethal methods that have been shown to be both non-selective and inhumane. The most widely used methods of lethal control include:
- Aerial Gunning: The use of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to hunt coyote, wolves, foxes, badgers, ravens, and other species began in the early 1920s. Primarily employed as a preventive control measure, WS targets coyotes and other predators in areas in which livestock graze. Given the difficulty in aiming at an animal from a moving aircraft, it is likely that many animals are shot but not killed; however, WS has never analyzed wounding or crippling rates in its aerial-gunning program. Aerial gunning is also expensive, costing hundreds of dollars to kill each coyote. Moreover, the cost in human lives has been high. According to information the organization Sinapu obtained from the National Transportation Safety Board through the Freedom of Information Act, the dangerous mix of low-altitude, low-speed flying has resulted in at least 39 crashes and 17 fatalities since 1983. (For further information about aerial gunning, see www.goagro.org.)
- Trapping: WS also makes extensive use of traps; in 2001, the agency caught more than 25,000 native carnivores in snares or leghold traps. Neck snares are made of light wire cable designed to strangle animals as they struggle. Small animals may become unconscious in five to ten minutes, while larger animals may suffer for days. Leghold traps are trigger-activated, spring-loaded, steel-jawed devices designed to clamp down forcefully on an animal’s leg or foot. Research has demonstrated that animals caught in leghold traps can sustain significant injuries including broken bones, joint dislocations, lacerations, torn muscles, and broken teeth. Leghold traps have been banned or severely restricted by 88 countries and 8 U.S. states, and declared inhumane by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, and the National Animal Control Association.
- M-44s/Sodium Cyanide: M-44s are spring-loaded devices fitted with cyanide capsules that are baited and planted just above the ground’s surface. When an animal pulls at the bait, a spring-loaded plunger is released and sodium cyanide granules spew into the animal’s mouth and nose. M-44s have killed domestic animals, as well as at least three different species of threatened and endangered wildlife (California condors, gray wolves, and Mississippi sandhill cranes) and pose a serious hazard to others, including San Joaquin kit foxes, jaguarundis, and ocelots. In addition, WS reported 20 human injuries from M-44s between 1983 and 1993.
- Livestock Protection Collar/Compound 1080: Compound 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) is a highly toxic, slow-acting poison currently used as a predicide in Livestock Protection Collars (LPCs), which fit around the neck of domestic goats or sheep. The collars are designed to rupture and release the poison when bitten by a predator. Compound 1080 causes convulsions, frenetic running, vocalizations, excessive salivation, and, finally, death from respiratory failure 2 to 12 hours after the onset of symptoms. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, less than 1/20th of an ounce can kill a 150-pound human, and each LPC contains enough poison to kill six healthy human adults. There is no antidote for Compound 1080. In 2001, several reintroduced gray wolves in the Yellowstone area were illegally poisoned and killed with 1080.
- Denning: Denning is the practice of tracking down the den of a coyote or fox in order to kill a mother and her pups. Pups are generally killed either by suffocation with poisonous gas (sodium nitrate) and/or by clubbing. The mother is then shot or killed with any other available lethal method.
Public and scientific opposition to the federal animal damage control program dates back over 70 years. In 1930, the American Society of Mammalogists described the Bureau of Biological Survey as “the most destructive organized agency that has ever menaced so many species of our native fauna.” Public outrage erupted in 1963 after the parents of a boy who had lost an eye to an M-44 filed suit against the government. Unable to ignore increasing public concern for wildlife and opposition to the widespread use of lethal predator control, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall commissioned Dr. Starker Leopold (son of naturalist Aldo Leopold) to chair a committee to investigate and make recommendations on the Animal Damage Control program. The 1963 Leopold Report charged that the program practiced indiscriminate and excessive killing of predators and posed a significant threat to imperiled species. Despite this strong criticism, the report was largely ignored and the Animal Damage Control program remained virtually unchanged.
Just a few years later, Congressman John D. Dingell’s 1966 hearings on the federal predator control program strongly condemned the government's efforts to eradicate native carnivores and elicited the following criticism:
It is well known that over the years predator controls actually practiced by governmental and private organizations have been considerably in excess of the amount that can be justified, particularly when total public interest is considered. In fact, indiscriminate trapping, shooting, and poisoning programs against certain predators have been so effective that it has resulted in reducing their number to such an extent that their continued existence is now endangered. In some cases, methods of control, such as poisoning, are producing secondary killings of certain species that are already on the endangered list.
In 1971, Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton commissioned the Cain Report, named for Stanley Cain, chair of the six-person Advisory Committee on Predator Control committee The Cain Report stated that the predator control program:
... contains a high degree of built-in resistance to change ... the substantial monetary contribution by the livestock industry serves as a gyroscope to keep the bureaucratic machinery pointed towards the familiar goal of general reduction of predator populations, with little attention to the effects of this on the native wildlife fauna.
Guidelines and good intentions will no longer suffice. The federal-state predator control program must be effectively changed. It must take full account of the whole spectrum of public interests and values, not only in predators but in all wildlife. This will require substantial, even drastic, changes in control personnel and control methods, supported by new legislation, administrative changes, and methods of financing.
Among other recommendations, the Cain Report advocated an immediate prohibition of all existing toxic chemicals used in predator control.
Two decades later, in 1994, the Thoreau Institute released an economic audit of the USDA’s Animal Damage Control Program, which concluded that there was “little legal or economic justification for continuing a federal animal damage control program. Few benefit from such a program and those who do ought to pay for the program themselves. In any case the federal government should not be involved in what are essentially state and local problems.”
Even Congressional directives failed to change policy. A 1995 Government Accounting Office report entitled “Animal Damage Control Program: Efforts to Protect Livestock from Predators” concluded that “ADC personnel in western states use lethal methods to control livestock predators despite written USDA policies and procedures giving preference to the use of nonlethal control methods where practical and effective.”
Despite numerous investigations into WS practices and criticism from the scientific community and the public, the status quo remains little changed. Ranchers and other special interest groups continue to rely on costly government assistance and abuse public lands, while WS fails to promote non-lethal mitigation, instead perpetuating an endless cycle of conflict and killing, subsidized by unwitting taxpayers.
Decades of sustained lethal predator control have had a devastating impact on the environmental health of the North American continent. Biologists have found that many large native carnivores are “keystone species,” and play a pivotal role in maintaining ecological integrity and preserving species diversity. The disappearance of a keystone species triggers the loss of other local species, and the intricate connections among the remaining residents begin to unravel. Species losses cascade and multiply throughout the ecosystem in a “domino effect.” In the words of conservation biologist John Terborgh, “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.” Remarkably, but not surprisingly, WS has never attempted to calculate — and we may never know — the overall environmental costs of its predator control programs and its impacts on rangelands and species diversity.
We do know, however, that killing predators has not diminished livestock losses, largely because lethal control fails to address the underlying cause of livestock predation: the presence of attractive prey in the habitat of opportunistic carnivores. Due to their large size and relative defenselessness, domesticated livestock provide predators with a sizable meal for relatively little effort. This is especially true of animals left 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; when these species are reduced, predators may turn instead to livestock — leading to a vicious cycle of conflicts and lethal control.
Ironically, the loss of 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 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. They concluded that removing coyotes to protect livestock could actually be counterproductive for ranchers: “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.”
Attempts to reduce coyote populations — the primary emphasis of the WS predator control program — have failed because coyotes exhibit strong compensatory responses to lethal control. While lethal control results in short-term reductions in the number of coyotes, the vacuum is quickly filled by coyotes emigrating from surrounding areas and by shifts in neighboring packs. Lethal control also 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 of reduced competition for food and increased availability of unoccupied habitat. Further, lethal control selects for coyotes that are more successful, wary, nocturnal, and resilient — what some biologists call a “super coyote.”
Welfare for Ranchers
Despite widespread recognition of the critical ecological role of native carnivores and ample evidence of the flaws and failures of WS killing programs, predator management is still largely influenced by those with an economic investment in continuing the practice of lethal control.
Wildlife Services kills native carnivores primarily to subsidize a handful of wealthy, powerful, and vocal ranchers who dominate the western livestock industry. Congress allocates approximately $15-$20 million each year to WS’s “livestock protection” program, primarily in the West. According to a 1994 Thoreau Institute audit, for approximately every dollar of livestock lost to predators, three dollars were spent on predator control. Considering both state and local contributions, this report concluded that it generally costs WS over $100 to kill each predator, with costs sometimes exceeding $2,000 per animal.
Although Western livestock producers are the primary beneficiaries of WS predator control operations, they directly pay less than 1 percent of the program’s total costs. Even when indirect payments are included, such as those made to trade organizations and county governments (typically from a “head” tax on livestock), these producers pay less than 27 percent of the program's total costs. Federal taxpayers pay for nearly half of the program, with state taxpayers picking up the remaining 25 percent.
Many ranchers benefiting from WS’s predator control programs graze livestock on public land, where two-thirds of WS’s “livestock protection” money is spent. This subsidy creates incentives for ranchers to overgraze, use sub-marginal land, and protect their herds through lethal methods.
Money currently used to provide quick-fix lethal predator control would be better spent investing in improved animal husbandry practices and effective non-lethal techniques to reduce wildlife caused damage.
A wide array of practical and proven techniques for coexisting with wildlife exists. For example, an understanding of bear behavior and foraging preferences, coupled with the use of non-lethal preventive techniques and modified forestry practices, can help mitigate black bear conflicts on timber plantations. Effective alternative techniques that could be used by timber corporations include delayed thinning of forests, avoiding fertilization (which can attract bears), and maintaining uneven-aged and species-diverse stands.
On the range, traditional animal husbandry practices and the use of modern non-lethal methods can lead to significant reductions in livestock losses, thereby reducing or eliminating the demand for lethal methods. Animal husbandry practices with a long history of successful use include stationing livestock guard dogs, confining livestock at night and during the lambing season, employing herders to manage livestock on the range, removing livestock carcasses from pastures, mixing sheep and cattle, and synchronizing lambing in autumn to avoid overlap with coyote pup rearing season. Among the contemporary tools that have proven successful in deterring predation are electric fencing, guard llamas and donkeys, and frightening devices. The proper use of these methods can also provide other benefits to ranchers. Predators may learn that preying on livestock protected by guard dogs or enclosed by an electric fence is more difficult than hunting natural prey. These “educated” individuals help keep other predators out of the area, thus further reducing predation on livestock. Moreover, resident predators can help keep populations of rodents and smaller predators in check. While no single practice will prevent all conflicts, when used correctly and in combination, these methods can significantly reduce, if not eliminate, negative interactions.
The historical practice of eradicating native carnivores to serve livestock producers and other special interests has proven largely ineffective, ecologically harmful, inhumane, and costly. As research continues to demonstrate the vital role native predators play in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and as public demand for humane solutions to wildlife conflicts increases, wildlife “managers” will face greater pressure to stop supporting wasteful and destructive predator killing programs. As one former WS trapper told API, “The only chance that some of this wildlife has is public outcry. People need to get involved and demand some accountability.”
The federal government must not be allowed to continue its reckless slaughter of predators to benefit special interests, especially when many effective, cost-efficient, and ecologically sound non-lethal alternatives exist. It is indeed high time for the public to speak out against this wanton waste of wildlife and to call for the end of taxpayer-subsidized lethal predator control.
Public opposition to lethal control has led to greater demand for humane, socially acceptable, and ecologically sound responses to human-wildlife conflicts. Attempts to reform predator “management” policies have, to date, been most successful at the community level, through the dedication of local advocates.
In the U.S., the federal government carries out predator control programs through cooperative agreements with states and counties. Typically, counties that contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services (WS) program receive federal matching funds that help pay for salaries and equipment for trappers. These funds provide incentives for counties to contract with WS and to utilize lethal control methods.
In California, 37 of the state's 58 counties contracted with WS in 2002. Despite the enticement of federal dollars, however, Marin and San Benito counties have ended their contracts with the agency, largely in response to residents’ outcry over the killing of native wild animals.
In 2000, the Marin County Board of Supervisors voted to phase out county funding for the WS program. In place of subsidized lethal predator control, county officials implemented the “Strategic Plan for Protection of Livestock and Wildlife,” an innovative, non-lethal program that has garnered national attention.
API was a key member of the coalition of advocacy organizations that developed the strategic plan in conjunction with county officials. The $50,000 that the county had spent annually on its WS contract was redirected to assist qualified ranchers in implementing non-lethal techniques.
Through this plan, ranchers are eligible to receive reimbursement for approved non-lethal predator conflict mitigation measures they employ. Projects eligible for reimbursement are any material or property improvements that deter depredation, using methods such as fencing, barriers, and lambing sheds, as well as animal husbandry strategies including shepherding, penning, guard animals, and noisemakers.
Marin County’s non-lethal “livestock and wildlife protection program” offers a model that is effective, cost-efficient, and ecologically sound. The techniques supported by this community-based approach allow native carnivores to remain on the land, thus ensuring their important role as keystone predators.
Collaboration among government agencies, wildlife and conservation organizations, and local communities is essential to the long-term success of any wildlife conflict mitigation program. These efforts ensure that agencies, stakeholders, and the public are held accountable for their actions, and that wild animals are treated humanely. If you are interested in reforming predator control policies in your community, contact API for assistance.