May 17, 2006 – Thereâ€™s a war being waged out West with poison, aerial guns and traps. The enemy: Americaâ€™s wildlife.
Although the conflict has raged since ranchers first staked out land, constructed fences and declared native wildlife a nuisance, the campaign to exterminate native predators from ranching areas has increased both in scale and cost, with taxpayers footing part of the bill.
Of the nearly $100 million the federal government spent on all "predator control" in 2005, $40 million was earmarked for safeguarding agriculture; $15 million of that went to specifically protect livestock from predators by hunting them from aircraft, poisoning them or slaying them in other ways. Farmers and ranchers have spent almost $200 million more on non-lethal predator controls.
But while taxpayers shell out money for predator control, US Department of Agriculture records show that in 2005, coyotes, wolves, bears and other non-human predators accounted for the deaths of only 190,000, or about one-fifth of one percent of cattle, out of a total population of 104.5 million.
Conversely, non-predator causes â€“ aside from slaughter by humans â€“ accounted for 3.86 million cattle lost during 2005. Respiratory problems were the leading cause of death, claiming over 1 million cattle, followed by digestive problems, which killed almost 650,000. Other causes of pre-slaughter losses include disease, illness, weather, theft and calving complications.
The campaign to exterminate native predators has increased both in scale and cost.
Despite the relatively small loss due to predation, Wildlife Services â€“ the branch of the USDA responsible for predator control â€“ killed 82,891 coyotes, wolves, bears, mountain lions and other mammalian cattle predators in 2004. Wildlife Services killed a record total 2.7 million "nuisance" animals in the same time period, including birds, squirrels and raccoons.
The lethal controls employed by Wildlife Services include shooting wildlife from small planes or helicopters â€“ a practice known as aerial gunning â€“ as well as more conventional hunting, trapping and poisoning.
"The public is unwittingly funding the slaughter of millions of animals in a way thatâ€™s not particularly productive," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In fact, many wildlife advocates argue that the lethal predator-control program is doing more harm than good for ranchers.
"It certainly solves the immediate problem," conceded David Gaillard of the Predator Conservation Alliance. "If you kill the coyote that just killed a sheep, then you donâ€™t have to worry about that coyote for a few months. So itâ€™s no question that it has an effect, and thatâ€™s why itâ€™s supported. But itâ€™s really not a long-term solution."
Gaillard and others point out that coyotes have an adaptive ability to heighten reproduction when their numbers are threatened, causing the local population to burgeon.
Lethal predator controls cause a disruption to ecosystems, wildlife advocates say.
"Itâ€™s like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket," Ruch said. "The more that are killed, the more pups are born. Itâ€™s almost this carnage treadmill."
A fundamental problem with lethal predator controls, advocates say, is that the practice leads to a loss of biodiversity and disruption to ecosystems.
"Thereâ€™s certainly been big changes to the West due to agriculture, and predators have been hit particularly hard," Gaillard said. "When you pull predators out of a natural system, thatâ€™s the first step to the whole system unraveling."
As predator populations are eliminated, some other animal populations explode, including natural prey like deer and mice.
According to a 1994 study published in Conservation Biology, farming and ranching have increasingly encroached on the habitats of native wildlife. Currently, livestock graze on approximately 70 percent of the territory of eleven Western states. One 1998 study published in the journal BioScience found that grazing has contributed to the demise of 22 percent of native threatened and endangered species in the United States.
Cattle-grazing also decreases the amount of forage available to wildlife, thereby reducing the food available to predatorsâ€™ natural prey.
"Itâ€™s kind of a double-whammy for predators," Gaillard said, "because their natural prey has taken a setback, because the forage that used to feed them is now going to domestic livestock."
Gaillard continued, "What we have is a homogenization of the landscape. Instead of diverse native species of plants and vegetation that was important for sustaining wildlife, itâ€™s all become a homogenous crop of forage for livestock."
â€œThe wildlife are our treasure and the government is squandering it."
Killing wildlife on behalf of the agriculture and livestock industries, coupled with the indiscriminate and often cruel exterminating techniques, has some people calling the system "inhumane."
"The wildlife are our treasure and the government is squandering it. What theyâ€™re doing is so horrible," said Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of the Carnivore Protection Program at the wildlife-conservation group Sinapu.
Many wildlife advocates question the governmentâ€™s practice of killing native species to protect ranchers whose cattle graze on public land. Wildlife Services operates by responding to kill-requests from farmers, ranchers and municipalities. Of the 264 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management, 164 million are authorized for livestock grazing.
"A handful of people with special interests are allowed to manage [wildlife] with impunity," Keefover-Ring told TNS. "Weâ€™re just saying, â€˜Is this in the common interest?â€™"
Keefover-Ring said agribusiness is driving the predator-control campaign. "Weâ€™re not talking mom and pop here," she said. "This is big business. That agriculture lobby is huge."
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks political contributions to officials, agribusiness donated a total of $52 million in 2004 to Republicans and Democrats.
Howard Lyman, an ex-rancher from Montana now devoted to food-safety activism, and author of the book No More Bull, told TNS that the practice of killing predators, rather than learning how to live with them, is part of a longstanding ranching ideology.
"Itâ€™s a knee-jerk reaction: â€˜By God, theyâ€™re out there. Theyâ€™re going to kill my animals or eat my grass. Letâ€™s get rid of them,â€™" he said. "This is a lifestyle that people of agriculture have grown up with. They just donâ€™t want to share their resources with anything in the wild. So itâ€™s really not an economic issue. Itâ€™s a mindset."
But Jeff Eisenberg, executive director of the Public Land Council, which represents the industry group National Cattlemanâ€™s Beef Association, said ranchers and farmers try to balance being conscientious of wildlife and preserving their own interests.
"Weâ€™re very supportive of wildlife, but when predators are taking out livestock, thatâ€™s where we want to draw the line," Eisenberg said. "There needs to be a balance. There needs to be consideration for the wildlife, certainly, but also for the people who live there and have made their lives there for multiple generations."
Asked about the discrepancy between the small number of predator-caused losses and the amount of money spent on predator control, Eisenberg declined to comment, saying, "I donâ€™t have those numbers." He maintained, however, that livestock loss "is a bigger problem than probably gets reported."
But many in the livestock sector say ranchers shouldnâ€™t rely on lethal controls.
"I happen to believe itâ€™s a privilege to be ranching, and itâ€™s our responsibility to ranch with out killing the native species," rancher Becky Weed of Montana said. She says her farm, 13 Mile Lamb and Wool, has respected predator populations for over ten years. "In many cases, itâ€™s possible to ranch without killing native species. I feel like the wildlife play an important role in the landscape, and I donâ€™t feel like I have a right to exterminate it, even if I wanted to."
Weed has adopted a "predator friendly" label for all of her products. While she says using non-lethal controls can be a challenge, she advocates a combination of strategies, including lamas, guard dogs, and fences. She also employs safer animal husbandry practices such as corralling livestock at night.
A handful of other farms and ranches share Weedâ€™s respect for local predators.
"We promote agriculture that protects and restores wild nature, and native predators are a part of nature," said Jo Ann Baumgartner of the Wild Farm Alliance, which promotes sustainable farming.
"It requires a real commitment," Weed said. "Sometimes it seems easiest to go out and shoot something, because then you feel like youâ€™ve done something."
Weed, however, said she hasnâ€™t seen a commitment from Wildlife Services to adopt more non-lethal controls. "While thereâ€™s lots and lots of grassroots activity of people finding alternative methods," she said, "I think the big squeaky wheel â€“ senators, county commissioners and the subset of the ranching community â€“ has been successful at keeping dollars flowing for lethal control."