The ugly economy of killing wildlife


Most Americans have never heard of the federal agency euphemistically known as Wildlife Services. Yet it was a major force in eliminating wolf and grizzly bear populations in the early 20th century, and today spends over $100 million each year using mostly taxpayer dollars to kill more than a million animals -- primarily birds -- but also bears, bobcats, badgers, coyotes, mountain lions and foxes. Over the past several years, Wildlife Services has killed an increasing number of endangered species -- 2,137 animals, most of them wolves -- between 1996 and 2006.

The agency’s killing methods are often cruel and include shooting wildlife from aircraft (“aerial gunning”) and using poisons, traps and gas cartridges to asphyxiate pups in dens. In 2006, to kill thousands of coyotes, Wildlife Services in Texas used aerial gunning, neck snares, gas cartridges, steel-jaw traps, M-44 poison-ejector devices, and Compound 1080, a poison so lethal it’s been banned in several states and countries.

Why such a slaughter? Wildlife Services’ activities are a taxpayer handout to the livestock industry. In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, for example, Wildlife Services spends more than 80 percent of its mostly public funding as a political favor to agribusiness. The underlying claim for the predator-killing program is that it’s a cost-effective way to reduce livestock losses. But large-scale predator eradication does little to help agribusiness grow its bottom line. The most recent data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, for example, show that only 2.9 percent of total U.S. sheep production was lost to predators, while 4.9 percent was lost to other causes such as illness or disease, lambing and weather.

Cattle statistics reveal an even wider gap: In 2005, 0.18 percent of the cattle produced in the U.S. were killed by predators; in comparison, 3.7 percent died from other causes, including respiratory illness, weather and theft. In other words: Predators cause less than 1 percent of total cattle losses, and only 3 percent of total sheep losses.

True, the U.S. General Accounting Office has found a small proportion of producers absorb high losses from predators, but the vast majority sustain no or negligible economic consequences. Effective, appropriate and humane deterrents exist, including guard animals, lambing sheds and electronic scaring devices.

Producers have more to fear from free trade than free predators. In her 2006 study, biological economist Kim Murray Berger established that the most important factors to sheep production are the price of hay, farmhand wages and lamb prices, which represent 77 percent of production variations from year to year.

Berger also found that despite Wildlife Services’ killing of 5 million predators at a cost of $1.6 billion from 1939 to 1998, the effort had little effect on sheep industry trends. Even though the agency has been killing predators for nearly a century, she points out, 85 percent of U.S. sheep producers have gone bankrupt.

Some sheep growers argue that the program isn’t effective because not enough predators are killed. But Berger found identical trends in geographic areas where coyotes existed as in areas where they were absent. Berger concluded that the decline of the sheep industry has been caused primarily by unfavorable market conditions, not losses to predation.

Because predators are wrongly targeted as the problem, their value is too often overlooked. Predators regulate the densities of other predator – as well as prey – species. Wolf reintroduction in Greater Yellowstone, for example, has helped plant and animal systems come back into balance. Elk are naturally vigilant again and, as a result, willows, aspen, cold-water streams and ponds, fish, beavers, and riparian bird species are again thriving.

At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that wildlife-watching activities are booming. For 2006, wildlife-watching generated a whopping $46 billion in expenditures -- higher than hunting or fishing, both which are on the decline. While Americans scan the landscape for critters, Wildlife Services kills them.

After nearly a century of senseless wildlife extermination, some are working for reform. Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, D, has introduced a bill banning the use of Compound 1080 and M-44s. Additional reforms are needed as well, including a shift in Wildlife Services’ funding priorities. Imagine $100 million spent each year on real solutions such as non-lethal practices, compensation programs and recovery of the very species Wildlife Services contributed to making endangered. The American public should no longer be forced to pay for this agency’s inhumane and indiscriminate annual slaughter.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( Lisa Upson, is a wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Bozeman, Montana. Wendy Keefover-Ring is the carnivore protection director for WildEarth Guardians in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

May 07, 2008 10:37 AM

I agree that tax payers should not be paying for a federal agency to slaughter wildlife.  Hasn't anybody noticed the decline in wildlife numbers and ecosystem health over the last four or five decades?  The problem is the deep-rooted anthropocentric prejudices of livestock growers, whose only concern is their own economic interests, not ecosystem health.  It's old, fixated thinking that is blind to the interdependence of humans within the larger life systems of our planet.  The Earth is withering under human onslaught and we are paying for it, but future generations of humans will pay much more as they struggle to survive on a depleted planet.  Wake up, people!

May 09, 2008 07:36 PM

I agree. It's time we start putting our money toward solutions that will help our farms and ranchers that don't result in cruel and inhumane slaughter. Certainly we have the ability to develop meaningful and non-lethal programs -- but you get what you pay for. Unless the money is diverted to supporting good solutions, we'll always be stuck in this situation of prejudice and unable to fix our problems before it's too late. 

I was excited to see a petition on this issue recently, supporting Rep. DeFazio's bill to ban the use of Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide. I hope everyone who agrees that we can find better ways to manage wildlife and end the senseless slaughter signs this petition to ban this poison and injector-devices:

May 12, 2008 11:52 AM

Evidently none of you have seen a group of lambs with their throats ripped out, or a new born calf being eaten alive by  coyotes.  Possibly you are not aware that they are now attacking children in California, where trapping them has been outlawed and they have lost their fear of man.

Any resource needs to be managed.  Please get your heads out of the sand.

May 12, 2008 12:07 PM

I think we should all have somewhat of a choice in what we specifically want our personal tax dollars to go to. I know some tax dollars go to animal testing as well and that makes me mad.

May 12, 2008 12:07 PM

Only 1% of total cattle loss is to predators and only 3% of sheep. Sounds like Wildlife Services is doing a pretty good job. If only the whole country could live and let live like California; then we could worry not only about livestock, but our own children and pets being preyed upon by coyotes as they play in their own front yards, or worry for your own safety, for fear of mountain lions, as you ride bike or walk in the woods. Predators do have their place in nature, but large numbers of them cannot coexist with people and domestic animals.

May 12, 2008 12:09 PM

How come you are not posting any apposing views and comments


Just like a liberal, shut the other side up



May 12, 2008 12:11 PM

This is utterly appalling.  Let's spread the word, as even taxpayers who don't care about wildlife can see the waste of their money and speak up.

May 12, 2008 12:12 PM

This article if very jaded and full of prejudice.

How do you feel about insect extermination? Ants, roaches, spiders and various other insects are killed for merely doing what they do.

 You leave out the incredible amount of damage that the ever growing "Yuppie" additions in our rural areas are doing to all wildlife habitat.  People for the sake of their own egos, are clearing woodlots and fields for the mere purpose of building their "trophy" home to house their "trophy wife" and 2.1 kids, a place where they will have incredible amounts of insecticides and herbicides used in order to have the perfect lawn and keep the vermin out of their new home.

 Make you wonder if your climbing the wrong mountain? 




May 12, 2008 12:12 PM

I would like to see you back up this statement of 46 Billion spent on wildlife watching

Thats more then all the "ear mark" or "pork" spending by our politicians last year.

I find that figure very hard to believe, thus making every other statement of yours in this article suspect.



May 12, 2008 12:12 PM

Yes, we need to completely quit killing anything because nature will take care of the animals itself. Even though man has to eat, we can just allow the animals to do any damage they want because people are evil and have no right to evolve into their place at the top of the food chain. 

Even though we know that by not removing these animals will result in massive deaths of the animals by disease, that is ok because it is better for an animal to die from starvation or disease than to let man interfere and kill them faster.

We need to keep exagerating the issue because if the regular contributers figure us out, we will not recieve the funding we need. 



May 12, 2008 12:13 PM

tell us then how your going to kill predators in a humane way then? 


because last time i checked watching a robin doesnt help sheep populations, and animals are going down not because of hunters but because the human population is expanding and takin away habitat

May 12, 2008 12:15 PM

On a cattle ranch here in Mendocino County Ca. our biggest predator problem by far is the neighbor's dogs.  We ranch amongst abandant coyotes and mountain lions with out a confirmed propblem in years.

May 12, 2008 12:18 PM

I would favor an IPM-style approach to predator issues. For most of the time, it really would be much cheaper to just pay the livestock owners for animals that are documented as killed by wildlife. This pay, however, would not be allowed on federal grazing leases, where the stock animals are "trespassing" on the turf of the wildlife. In some cases, an animal or pack may occasionally become extremely habituated to predation on stock animals, and it would be best to eliminate them.

I believe that the unjustified killing of Yellowstone bison on the asinine premise that they will pass brucellosis to cattle also needs to be stopped. I would rather the Feds offer free insurance for all cattle in the states around the park. If there is really a concern that cattle will come into contact with afterbirth of calving bison, and catch the disease there, then why not just monitor where calving is taking place. Anyone who has viewed the the gruesome "snuff movies" of bison can see that they are not exactly running and hiding.... not a hard to locate animal! 

May 12, 2008 12:19 PM

i'm not fully up on all these methods mentioned here, but i can see a bunch of AR nuts are behind this article. the way this was written i would almost say Ingrid Newkirk (peta) wrote it herself. predators need to be thinned out plain and simple. just look at CA, in the past week there have been at least 2, maybe more attacks by coyotes on toddlers. if you didn't know CA banned trappping quite a few years ago. the coyote and mt lion population there is way out of hand, and people are getting hurt because of the feel good policies of the whack jobs making the laws there.

May 12, 2008 12:22 PM

These statistics are misleading.  

" Cattle statistics reveal an even wider gap: In 2005, 0.18 percent of the cattle produced in the U.S. were killed by predators; in comparison, 3.7 percent died from other causes, including respiratory illness, weather and theft. In other words: Predators cause less than 1 percent of total cattle losses, and only 3 percent of total sheep losses."

These statistics say that predators are responsible for the death of 0.18% of ALL cattle produced.  That means of the entire population of cattle, 0.18% were killed by predators, but speaks nothing for the actual percentage of cattle losses that predators are to be held responsible for.  

I could spend all day arguing why predators need to be controlled, but I find it of the utmost importance for statistics to be analyzed for what they actually are.  As far as I am concerned, this article is lying to everyone who is reading it.

May 12, 2008 12:22 PM

""""Hasn't anybody noticed the decline in wildlife numbers and ecosystem health over the last four or five decades? """

What freeking rock do you live under ?? The animal numbers are high. You people need to get off your butts and look in places besides city parks and dont expect to see animals that come out at night during they day. Ask them folks in calli that had thier kids attached by coyotes if they thing the numbers are low and what should be done

May 12, 2008 12:25 PM

you folks are dillusinal.. get a clue... Maybe you should stop breeding, if you are worried about mother earth and animals.. You should remove your self from this earth if you truly care actually, think of the animals you would save by doing this..

May 12, 2008 01:09 PM

Predators are be killed because of the very people who are defending them. They don't need to be exterminated in the Midwest because they don't interfere with overcrowded areas and expanding populations. They pose a risk to people who are taking away their habitat. So to defend this article. Yes, let the predators roam free in California, hopefully they drag some of the yuppies up into the mountains. Back here in the Midwest, we'll do our part to maintain a healthy predator habitat by hunting them.

May 12, 2008 07:24 PM

"The problem is the deep-rooted anthropocentric prejudices of livestock growers . . ."

No, the problem is that some people believe in magic, as in food magically appearing in supermarkets as if it was produced by one of those cafeteria thingies in Star Trek.  Food comes from farms, which operate on notoriously small budgets.  This is of course not true for Clinton contributor Archer Daniels Midland, but it is for most others.

The idea that one can analyze the number of farm animals killed, deduct the number of predators killed, and conclude that predator control does no good is more magical thinking.  Five million predators were killed.  Imagine the effect five million additional hungry predators would have on three percent of the sheep herd and .18 precent of the cattle herd.

Someone will say that the predator population will take care of itself by selection.  Of course it will.  But selection is starvation, and a rifle bullet is downright hospitable compared to that form of death.

May 13, 2008 12:54 PM

"Predators cause less than 1 percent of total cattle losses, and only 3 percent of total sheep losses."

Sounds like the predator control concept is effective.

May 13, 2008 01:46 PM

A long time ago, I worked for the Rocky Mountain News (and wrote occasionally for HCN). I wrote a story in the 1990 about this program, which then was called the Animal Damage Control Program.  The story was based on an Environmental Impact Statement they had to do, and they had to list, species-by-species, how many animals they had killed in one year, 1988.  It was in the millions. About 3.4 million blackbirds, 76,000 coyotes, 9,000 beavers, 124,000 prairie dogs, etc., etc. All killing was performed for the benefit of farmers and ranchers who paid not one dime for the service. Truly amazing. And I see nothing much has changed, although the agency has a new and euphimistic name.

John Brinkley




Jul 08, 2008 01:42 PM

Wow! What a bunch of cowards have added their thoughts to this discussion. If you are going to put in your two cents worth, then at least be brave enough to post your name too.

Penelope M. Blair

Dec 10, 2008 09:08 AM
why are people okay with killing inosent animals! shame on you