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Know the West

Predator control gets out of control


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 livestock industry.

"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.

Now, 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 livestock.

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 agency's concerns.

"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 Society.

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 process.

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.

There 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 months.

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 regional level."

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 HCN intern.

You can call ...

* San Juan-Rio Grande National Forest at 719/852-5941;

* Wildlife Services, Colorado state office, 303/969-5775;

* Pati Temple, San Juan Audubon Society, 970/247-7860.