Predator control: more pain than gain

  • Cougar

    Dick Randall/Defenders of Wildlife

A lot of cows die every year in Montana, most often in a slaughterhouse on their way to a hamburger bun. Others succumb to weather, disease and calving problems.

Then there are predators - the lions and coyotes and bears so often scorned as the scourge of the range. The federal Animal Damage Control agency (ADC) spends millions of dollars killing predators all over the West, spurring loud and acrimonious debate.

But when the dead cows are counted, the tally of those killed by predators is small potatoes. Predators - mostly coyotes - killed 1,800 calves and 500 head of cattle in Montana in 1995, according to a survey conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, with the help of ADC. Those animals had an estimated worth of $900,000.

However, the predator victims amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Montana's 1995 calf crop of 1.54 million animals. They constitute an even smaller fraction of the state's overall herd of 2.7 million animals.

Predator losses accounted for just 2.2 percent of all cattle losses in 1995 and 3.1 percent of all calf losses in the state.

Bad weather killed seven times more animals than did predators. So did calving problems. Illness killed 11 times as many. Five times as many animals died for "unknown" reasons.

ADC, however, spends almost $1 million a year in federal tax money in Montana alone to protect livestock from predators and has greatly increased its cattle protection work.

"This raises the question of how much of a threat predators are to cattle," said Tom Skeele, director of Predator Project, a Bozeman-based environmental group. "How much of it is real and how much of it is political hot air?"

ADC state director Larry Handegard defended the program, arguing that cattle ranchers are seeing more coyote problems in recent years. "It's more of a cattle problem than it has been historically."

He also said looking at statistics for the entire state can give a skewed picture. Many in the beef industry see little or no predation on their herd, while some ranchers get hit hard, especially during calving season. That's when they call ADC, he said.

Predators can take a big bite out of a ranch's income, noted Jason Campbell, a natural resources specialist with the Montana Stockgrowers Association. And considering all the time and money spent to control predators, the death toll remains high, he maintained.

"What would the losses be without killing predators?" Campbell asked.

Sheep ranchers suffer much higher losses from predators - 42,900 animals in 1994, 8 percent of the statewide flock, and Skeele agreed some sheepmen have legitimate concerns.

But while predators have a minuscule effect on the cattle herd, federal officials have been increasingly busy killing coyotes, and the number of beef ranchers asking for their help has soared.

Skeele argues ranchers should tolerate a "threshold loss level" in their herd before ADC can step in with lethal control at taxpayer expense.

"It's public money, publicly owned wildlife and often on public land," Skeele said.

The number of coyotes killed by ADC trappers and shooters nearly doubled from 4,530 in 1987 to 8,720 in 1995 - an average of 24 coyotes daily.

And while the number of coyotes killed has grown, the number of calves killed by predators has not changed since 1991, the last year the survey was conducted. Two hundred more grown cattle were killed in 1995 than in 1991, but coyotes account for very few of those. Most fall to bears or mountain lions.

Skeele said that with the low percentage of cattle deaths by predators, tax money could be better spent on other livestock problems like disease.

Of nine categories for dead or missing beef, only poison and theft took a lower toll than predators. In all, 3 percent of the state's cattle died before going to market.

The numbers were compiled nationwide by surveys of ranchers. In Montana, 1,216 beef ranchers were surveyed in January, said Tom Hard, a statistician with National Agricultural Statistics Service in Helena. Statewide losses were calculated based on their responses. Wolves, the subject of heated debate in Montana, have killed only 24 cows and 12 sheep since 1987.

Montana's predator report for 1995 is available from the National Agricultural Statistics Service at 406/441-1240.

The writer works in Livingston, Montana, for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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