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 (hcn.org). 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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]