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COYOTE UGLY: Wyoming’s legacy of brutality
Part 2 in a series:
Wildlife Services was known as Animal Damage Control from 1895 to 1997. Its primary statutory authorities now stem mainly from the 1931 Animal Damage Control Act. In 1995, President Clinton moved the agency from the Department of the Interior back to its current nesting as part of the United States Department of Agriculture, where it had been prior to 1939.
In addition to wolf and coyote mitigation, Wildlife Services is the agency usually called in by big city mayors with pigeon problems, farmers with flooding issues caused by busy beavers, or airport managers who are plagued with bird strikes. Numerous pest-control companies have questioned why government is so involved with problems that could be handled best by the private sector.
He hate me
Wildlife Services, a division of APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), seems to be spinning its wheels when it comes to its all-out assault on coyotes. Between 2000 and 2010, the agency killed nearly a million coyotes in protecting the powerful wool industry.
A National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) found that coyotes nationwide killed an estimated 135,600 sheep in 2010. WS removed 90,000 coyotes that same year. Wildlife biologist Franz Camenzind and wolf expert Carter Niemeyer are not alone in believing sheep and cattle depredation attributed to coyotes and wolves is blown out of proportion.
“I don’t think there is much question it is over-reported,” Camenzind said. “Look, there’s no question some coyotes will kill sheep and they need to be removed. And I feel for these ranchers. They have no control over the market and have a hard time finding help. It’s tough for them and their back is up against the barb wire fence. They can’t shoot the weather and the bank. The one thing they can put their crosshairs on is the coyote.”
For years, cattle ranchers were compensated by Defenders of Wildlife for confirmed wolf kills (the government now reimburses ranchers) – an arrangement that virtually guaranteed the wolf would be blamed for nearly every livestock loss.
“Early in my career I noticed there was a casualness about investigating suspected wolf kills. There was no oversight and no major concern if someone made a mistake,” Niemeyer said. “I noticed a real change with the [wolf reintroduction]. More accountability followed. It was my commitment to do these depredation investigations very, very carefully because the wolf issue had a lot of sensitivity. You had ranchers on one side, worried you were protecting the wolves and others who thought you were just trying to kill off all the wolves. I learned early on that I had to do complete, detailed, necropsy investigations with photos and be prepared to defend my results.”
Sheep depredation numbers continue to trend down – mostly because the industry is in decline – while the coyote population is larger than it was when man arrived on the continent.
In one instance, WS spent approximately $550,000 to kill 967 coyotes and 45 mountain lions on an eight-year project in northwest Nevada aimed at protecting the mule deer herd. No improvement in the mule deer population was noted. Estimates of the coyote population showed their numbers as strong as ever.
In FY2011, Wyoming WS killed a total of 15,651 animals ranging from bats and starlings to porcupines and raccoons – 8,069 of the carcasses were coyotes. They were exterminated by any means available including trapping, poisoning, and aerial gunning. Hostilities were waged often with no instance of predation or science-based ecological methodology.
Live and let live
“There are numerous studies that show that not only does hunting the coyote have no effect on their numbers but they thrive under pressure, and populations rebound to fill the vacuum whenever the coyote is persecuted. It’s well-ensconced in science,” said Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote, a nonprofit concerned for the welfare of coyotes.
Study after study shows the harder the coyote is hit, the more it bounces back. Under heavy pressure, coyotes will mate at an earlier age and have larger, healthier litters. By most estimates, reducing the population would require killing 75 percent of the population for years. Even WS admits it whacks only 18 to 29 percent on a good year.
In fact, Camenzind says the indiscriminate slaughter of coyotes throws the ecosystem into disorder and creates more problem dogs.
“Leave them alone when they are behaving themselves, especially if there is something else for them to eat. Quite often, coyotes near sheep herds will ignore them when they have plenty of rabbits and other small game,” Camenzind said. “Killing just to kill will get you another coyote moving into that space who may not know the rules.”
Research shows violent disruption to coyote populations causes packs to splinter, allowing younger males to breed, a charge usually reserved for the alpha male only. The absence of a hierarchical structure results in an increase in population. These new coyote packs require new territory and the expansion creates even more problems down the road.
“When I was working for them there was this obsession with killing coyotes,” Niemeyer said. “A majority of coyote kills made by Wildlife Services are preventative in nature, not in response to any predation. There are huge tracts of public lands nowhere near sheep where Wildlife Services flies simply because they have access to that land. I don’t see the sense of it. It’s not harmful to the coyote population. It stimulates reproduction. What is the taxpayer getting for all this? You can have coyotes that live around sheep that won’t kill them. They find rabbits and mice. You absolutely don’t want to keep the environment in chaos.”
Camenzind said, “A study done by Bob Cranford in a remote area of Oregon where there was no human interference at all because it was near a nuclear facility closed to the public showed coyotes were not even reproducing some years because the population was so stable. In other years, the litter size was real low and density held steady. The coyotes there had met their carrying capacity and were self-regulating their population.”
The bill for its war on wildlife runs WS about $160 million, budgeted annually. Approximately half is taxpayer money and half is cooperative funds coming from cattle and sheep associations and private ranches.
In FY2011, Wildlife Services shot (1,409), snared (690), trapped (232), gassed (192), and poisoned (172), coyotes in Wyoming. By far, its favorite method of extermination was aerial shooting. Wyoming WS gunned down 4,762 ‘yotes from fixed wing aircraft and 177 more from helicopter.
Aerial gunning is projected to cost the agency in the range of $700 to $1,000 an hour. Defenders of Wildlife estimated the average cost of killing one coyote is approximately $1,000. Strader says aerial gunning, while an effective way to kill, is wasteful and dangerous. Since 1979, 10 hunters have been killed in crashes.
While the widespread use of poisons was banned in 1972, Wildlife Services is exempt. It continues to use controversial M-44s (sodium cyanide) and Compound 1080 (sodium monofluoroacetate) to help wipe out coyotes. M-44s (once marketed under the name “Coyote Getters”) are baited cyanide capsules that are fired into a coyote’s mouth when it pulls on a trip trigger. As with traps, M-44s don’t know what’s pulling on them. A 1997 study of their use in Utah by APHIS found M-44s attracted 94 deer, 44 raccoons, and a total of nine coyotes.
Wildlife Services insists poisoned carcasses fed upon by other birds and mammals will not normally harm scavengers.
Compound 1080 has no known antidote. It is lethal enough that Homeland Security had to sign off on its use by WS. The liquid cyanide is loaded into collars worn by sheep so that when a coyote bites the neck of the stock it poisons itself. The delivery method is a smart way to target only problem coyotes and wolves but, again, some ecologists worry about toxic carcasses.
Century-old agency brutal and secretive
Wildlife Services’ stated mission is science-based predator control activities. Niemeyer, who once worked for the department, said that’s a load of bunk. “They’re in the killing business, period,” he said.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, has long accused Wildlife Services of using a mostly lethal approach to “managing” wildlife. He is joined by dozens of wildlife activists, including WildEarth Guardians, which believe there is a better way to mitigate rancher-carnivore conflicts.
In addition to its heavy-handed approach, WS has also been accused of being less than transparent. Much of the agency’s day-to-day operations are tightly guarded. In response to the Olson incident, Congressmen John Campbell (California), and Peter DeFazio (Oregon), drafted a letter to Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, asking for a top-to-bottom review of the rogue agency. Issa denied the request.
Calls to the WS Wyoming office in Casper were fruitless. The state director, Rod Krischke, said he could not comment on the disposition of the Olson case – now five months old – and the decision was out of his hands. Olson, meanwhile, has changed his cell phone number and could not be reached.
Carol Bannerman, national spokesperson for APHIS/WS, confirmed the investigation is ongoing and in the meantime Olson is still working as a Wildlife Services employee. She said the investigation is being conducted internally. That means Investigative and Enforcement Services (IES) is working the case. Administrator Greg Parham admitted his department has such a backlog (more than 2,000 cases) that it “cannot swiftly address even serious violations.”
Rep. Campbell said his office will not let WS off the hook and continues to pressure the department. “They are unbelievable. We are not getting anything out of them,” Campbell said. “It’s amazing how closed this agency is. The military is way easier than this; they will at least tell you what they are doing and why. It furthers my suspicion that this is a group that covers for one another and has something to hide.”
Campbell remains undeterred. “We haven’t given up, I can tell you that. We will continue to press them. We got a few tricks up our sleeves yet. We aren’t going away.”