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For more information, visit the website of the Coalition to End Aerial Gunning of Wildlife.
The use of fixed-wing aircraft to hunt coyotes from the air began in the early 1920s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Wildlife Services (WS) agency (formerly Animal Damage Control (ADC)) uses fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in its attempts to protect livestock from predation and to boost populations of game species. Employed primarily as a “preventive control” measure to kill coyotes prior to lambing season, aerial gunning has been criticized as ineffective, ethically indefensible, and an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars. The human cost has also been severe, as the dangerous mix of high speed flying and low altitudes has seen at least 22 crashes during the past 16 years, with 7 human fatalities (all since 1996) and 25 injuries (information obtained by AGRO through the Freedom of Information Act).
Pursuit with low-flying aircraft, and the added intensity of loud gunfire, can physically and psychologically harm both coyotes and non-target species, resulting in injury (or death), anxiety, stress, and fear. Given how difficult it is to aim at a moving animal from the air, wounding and crippling rates are likely to be significant, although Wildlife Services has never analyzed wounding rates in its aerial-gunning program.
While Wildlife Services argues that aerial hunting is selective for offending coyotes, one of WS’s own studies found that only 6 of 11 coyotes killed from a helicopter in one study had recently attacked or fed on sheep. In the Rocky Mountain News of April 4, 2000, Craig Coolahan, WS’s Colorado State Director, attested to the inherently indiscriminate nature of aerial hunting, stating, “[w]e do the best job we can targeting coyotes that are guilty of predation. But the only way I can guarantee I have the right one is if it’s glommed onto the neck of the lamb when I shoot it.”
In 2004, WS used low-flying aircraft to kill 37,372 animals, including coyotes, bobcats, wolves, red fox, and ravens, on public and private lands in the west.
Aerial Gunning Is Dangerous and Costly
- Since 1989, Wildlife Services has crashed at least 22 helicopters or planes while aerial gunning, resulting in at least 7 fatalities and 25 injuries. The USDA’s aerial gunning accidents have occurred in California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming — although the program operates in all Western states.
- On March 13, 2000, a pilot in California was seriously injured and an observer sustained minor injuries when an ADC aerial hunting plane collided with wires. On March 27, 2000, a helicopter crashed in Texas with two fatalities.
- In March 1998, after a fourth fatality within 18 months, the USDA ordered an investigation of the aerial-gunning program. Despite the costs to the American taxpayer, the injuries and loss of human lives, the review team concluded that the aerial-gunning program is vital to WS and represented “the most efficient method available for protecting livestock.” The review team also determined that the program was underfunded and recommended that annual funding be increased from $2.7 million to about $6.4 million.
- Critics of the program believe that money is not the issue. Rather, aerial gunning is simply an inherently dangerous activity because it requires flying at low speeds and altitudes while in pursuit of the targeted animal.
- When a pilot in California crashed her plane in 1998, WS stopped the aerial gunning program for a few months and began an investigation. A “pilot safety initiative” — costing taxpayers $1.1 million — emerged from the investigation.
- Claims made to injured pilots or death benefits to the families of killed WS agents cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in workman’s compensation payments, social security payments, and tort claims in the courts. And the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration both spent untold amounts investigating these incidents.
Aerial Gunning Is Inhumane
- Wildlife Services’ Colorado Environmental Assessment (EA) clearly reveals that wounded animals may be left to die an agonizing death, “Because of the large expanses involved, it is rare for even WS ground crew personnel to actually observe coyotes being shot by aerial hunting operations” (Colorado WS EA at 4-21).
- Because WS uses snowfall to track coyotes in early spring, agents are probably killing pregnant or lactating females. Deaths of the latter leave young pups to starve in the den.
Wildlife Service’s Lethal Predator Control Is an Ineffective, Costly, and Unfair Use of Taxpayers’ Money
- Nationwide, nearly half (48%) of WS expenditures went to its livestock protection work. In four Wildlife Services state offices (CO, ID, NV, and WY), livestock protection work consumed 90% or more of expenditures. In the 17 western states, Congress allocates approximately $10 million each year to Wildlife Services’ livestock protection work.
- Many ranchers who make use of Wildlife Services’ predator control program raise livestock on publicly owned land. A full two-thirds of WS predator control money is spent on public lands. This free handout creates perverse incentives for ranchers, who learn to rely on taxpayers rather than take action to protect their herds.
- The National Agricultural Statistics Service found in 1995 that for cattle and calf deaths, coyotes caused 1.6% of all deaths and that predators overall only caused 2.7% of cattle and calf deaths. Other causes of death were far greater: digestive problems (19.7%), respiratory problems (27.5%), unknown causes (15.2%), birthing (14.8%), weather (9.5%), other (9.1), poison (1.1) and theft (.4%). Predators cause less than 3% of deaths to cattle, yet millions of dollars of taxpayer money is wasted each year to control coyotes and other predators.
- While the percentage of damage actually caused to livestock is relatively low, the cost of lethal wildlife control is high. When state and local contributions are added, WS kills coyotes at an average cost easily exceeding $100 per animal. Costs sometimes exceed $2,000 per animal.
- In every western state, the cost of Wildlife Services’ livestock protection work exceeds reported livestock losses.
Non-Lethal Predator Controls Are Cheaper and More Efficient in the Long Term
- Killing predators to reduce economic losses caused by livestock predation has proven to be ineffective. Ostensibly to protect livestock, livestock producers have waged war on predators for centuries, with marked lack of success in solving conflicts. Wildlife Services is no exception.
- Non-lethal predator control methods effectively and humanely ward off predators without disrupting ecosystems.
- Proven methods include the use of guard animals, mixing sheep with cattle, frightening devices, fencing, penning during lambing and calving season, and the prompt removal of carcasses from birthing areas. Using two or more of these techniques together dramatically reduces the need for lethal predator control.
- Non-lethal methods allow wild animals to maintain their important roles in the ecosystem. Since coyotes eat mostly rodents, not sheep, some farmers say that leaving the coyotes alone helps reduce rodent problems on their land.
Killing Predators to Protect Wild Ungulates Is Ineffective
- In many western states coyotes have been blamed for declines in wild ungulate populations, such as mule deer and pronghorn. However, a large body of scientific evidence disputes that predators force game animals into decline.
- Studies that investigated responses of entire mule deer herds to intensive coyote control have failed to demonstrate that mule deer numbers increased as a result of coyote control.
- Wild predators kill wild prey in the natural world. They provide the unique service of removing the weak, sick, diseased, and malnourished from the population. Predators, therefore, improve the overall health of the ungulate population and in turn prevent overgrazing and the resulting soil deterioration.
Killing Coyotes Increases Overall Coyote Populations
- In areas where coyote populations have been controlled, the ratio of females to males increases and animals from outside areas quickly fill the void. Research has shown that 75% of the local breeding coyote population must be reduced to significantly reduce local populations for more than a short period. They postulated that coyote control causes an increase in litter size (from 4 to 10 pups) and increases the number of yearling females breeding. Control measures result in otherwise “behaviorally sterile” females breeding when a void in territory opens up. Like wolves, coyotes allow only the alpha pair to breed. Disruptions to the pack cause all females within that pack to breed.
- Lethal control techniques have ensured that only the most resilient coyotes survive, resulting in the creation of what some scientists call a “super coyote.”