In 1993, without much fanfare, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management turned their predator problems over to the experts. The agencies signed an agreement allowing the federal Animal Damage Control agency, now known as Wildlife Services, to plan for the extermination of coyotes, mountain lions and other "problem" animals that kill livestock on public lands.
The agreement offered the agencies an
escape from the contentious business of predator control, which a
growing cadre of critics sees as an outright subsidy for the
"The Forest Service was
dealing with a public-relations nightmare," says Dave Gaillard of
the Bozeman, Mont.-based Predator Project. "They were happy to pass
off the responsibility."
Critics argued that
agreement was an open door for one agency to kill animals without
regard to the goals of other agencies, but a lawsuit from
environmentalists failed to block the deal.
a new plan in southwestern Colorado for the San Juan-Rio Grande
National Forest has critics, and even some local Forest Service
staffers, wondering if their worst fears are coming true. This
year, Wildlife Services will allow coyotes to be tracked and shot
by helicopters - even if they haven't caused any trouble for
The state office of Wildlife Services
isn't saying much. Aerial gunning is only one option in the
agency's plan for the year, says state director Craig Coolahan.
"People keep asking us, "What are you going to do?" , and we just
don't know," he says.
For San Juan-Rio Grande
National Forest Supervisor Jim Webb, the real problem is that
Wildlife Services has been making decisions without regard for his
"The Forest Service was taken
out of the loop," he says. "We've told (Wildlife Services) we don't
agree with their plan, but they've decided to ignore our counsel."
And even if Wildlife Services doesn't go
airborne to shoot coyotes, say critics, the shift in authority sets
a dangerous precedent for public-lands management. "What I'm seeing
here is a power grab," says Pati Temple of the San Juan Audubon
In the past, the San Juan forest killed
predators only if they had attacked sheep or cows, says Webb.
"We've limited pre-emptive strikes, and we haven't allowed aerial
gunning," he says. Wildlife Services' 1998 plan for western
Colorado includes "preventative control" of coyotes, and that means
shooting or trapping predators before ranchers put livestock out to
pasture for the summer.
Even though local
officials don't like the loss of control, they don't plan to
actively fight Wildlife Services' plan. "We have so many other
things on our agenda that we haven't spent much time opposing it,"
says Webb. "Besides, only one coyote was killed last year and we
don't expect an increase this year. It's not as if it's going to be
a wholesale slaughter."
But the controversy goes
beyond the San Juan National Forest. Wildlife Services is
developing predator control plans that include aerial gunning for
several Western states. "Forest Service headquarters decided that
if predator control was needed, Wildlife Services had the
expertise," says Patricia Lane, an attorney for the Washington,
D.C.-based Humane Society. The agreement wasn't meant to hand over
total control of the programs to Wildlife Services, she says, "but
that's what's starting to happen."
The shift is
particularly worrisome because, unlike the Forest Service and
Bureau of Land Management, Wildlife Services does not allow the
public to appeal its decisions. Opponents of Wildlife Services'
plans must challenge the agency in court, a much costlier
And in the past, agencies considered
predator control measures on a case-by-case basis. Now, Wildlife
Services will write a statewide plan - or sometimes two plans in a
state, as in Colorado - for its programs on federal lands, a change
that further reduces local participation.
are no lawsuits in the works, but the Humane Society has filed a
formal complaint against Wildlife Services with the Federal
Aviation Administration, charging that the agency has been
operating planes and helicopters in a "careless and reckless
manner," says Lane. Five Wildlife Services employees have died in
helicopter accidents during the past 18
And the policy may change in the future,
since Forest Service administrators in Washington are supportive of
the San Juan forest's position. Chris Wood, senior aide to Forest
Service Chief Mike Dombeck, says, "The Forest Service is on the
right side of the issue here. We have a basic difference of opinion
with (Wildlife Services), and we're going to work it out at the
The regional forester, Lyle
Laverty, could not be reached for comment, but Andy Stahl of Forest
Service Employees for Environmental Ethics says the regional
administration is likely to rein in Wildlife Services once it
realizes what's happening.
"The job is to get the
issue on the administration's radar screen," he says. "Once it's
there, I don't think there's any question they'll do the right
thing. All they have to do is say, "We have confidence in our
people on the ground, and we trust them to make decisions about
predator control-not some gun-happy yahoos from Wildlife Services."
Michelle Nijhuis is an
You can call
* San Juan-Rio Grande National Forest at
* Wildlife Services, Colorado state
* Pati Temple, San Juan
Audubon Society, 970/247-7860.