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for people who care about the West

Predator control looks a lot different on the ground

 

The extremists who are on a mission to eliminate the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services would do well to spend time with ranchers who live and work on our Western landscape. There, they might gain an on-the-ground perspective other than their narrowly defined agenda. As the old Greek shepherds -- echoing the ancient Greek philosophers -- say, “Everything in moderation.” Yet the campaign to end Wildlife Services is anything but moderate; it’s fraught with melodrama and spin-doctoring.

Since biblical times, domestic livestock and crops have needed protection from predators and scavengers. Domestic livestock and agriculture have enabled mankind to explore and establish settlements, and have played a major role in providing the comforts we expect today. These days, though, most Americans are several generations removed from production agriculture, and most don’t realize what’s required to put a meal on their table. Wildlife Services fulfills a critical role in protecting American agriculture, yet it is portrayed by extremists as “slaughtering and persecuting” wildlife.

It’s true that Wildlife Services kills over a million animals a year, but the vast majority are birds that cause crop and feedlot damage. Is this an unpleasant thought? Of course, but is it necessary? Yes. Does Wildlife Services kill native carnivores? Yes, but is it necessary? Yes. Does it harm the viability of the overall wildlife population? Biologists will tell you it absolutely does not.

Do you want your home occupied by mice, or it is all right to kill them? Prairie dogs might be considered cute, unless they destroy your property and pose the risk of bubonic plague to your family. Wolves are wild and beautiful, but less so if they kill your horse, a beloved family pet or take a significant bite out of your paycheck by killing your livestock.

As with all situations in life, there are many sides to an issue. Defining the predator-control issue in a one-sided campaign is an insult to everyone who doesn’t know the facts. It implies that the average American is not smart enough to make the “right” decision when presented with a comprehensive overview of the issue. On the other hand, I believe that when presented with all the facts, most Americans understand that managing wildlife is necessary if we are to maintain viable farms and ranches.

Leading the charge to eliminate Wildlife Services are groups such as WildEarth Guardians. They charge that the federal agency’s job is “to eradicate and bring down wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bears, prairie dogs, and other animals. Help stop the slaughter today.” This statement is false. It has been decades since there was a federal policy aimed at eradicating wolves, and nowhere in the current Wildlife Services program is there language directing the agency to eradicate any of the species listed above.

It is true that Wildlife Services does occasionally kill entire packs of wolves that have repeatedly caused damage to livestock; that was part of the federal tradeoff that got wolves restored to the West. Wildlife Services also spends money to target the removal of depredating coyotes, bears, and lions. However, the agency is not engaged in the wholesale slaughter of predators or other wildlife; its mission is to protect agriculture. Wildlife Services is a major component of predator control for the livestock industry, and livestock losses would be significantly higher without an agency constantly removing depredating animals.

The campaign to eliminate Wildlife Services includes a recent petition to the EPA to ban M44s, devices used to kill coyotes. The petition -- filed by Sinapu and Forest Guardians, now known as WildEarth Guardians -- is riddled with inconsistencies and omissions. For instance, the petition states that from 1996-2006, Wildlife Services violated federal regulations 17 times when setting M44s. Yet it fails to mention that during the same time frame, 244,000 M44s were set, and 33,000 of the M44s were fired. Statistically speaking, this means that only .0000696 violations occurred as a percentage of overall M44s set in the field; and only .000515 violations occurred as a percentage of M44s actually fired in the field.

Americans enjoy the luxury of spending only approximately 10 percent of their income on food, compared to the up to 45 percent that people in other countries must pay. Stripping away management tools that assist agriculture undermines the U.S. economy and heads us down the road to rapid dependency on foreign countries for our food. As the rhetoric to eliminate Wildlife Services escalates, remember the Greek shepherds’ philosophy of “Everything in moderation.”

Bonnie Kline is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association in Denver, Colorado.