Lethal Predator Control Courtesy of Wildlife Services

Wildlife Services, a program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), uses millions of taxpayer dollars to kill nearly 100,000 wild carnivores annually. This publicly funded campaign continues to destroy wild predators, in vast numbers and inhumane ways, despite the development of non-lethal methods and evidence that lethal control is ineffective.

Formerly known as Animal Damage Control, Wildlife Services spent $31.9 million ($13 million of which was federal funding) in fiscal year 2000 to protect agriculture (crops and livestock) and natural resources from damage by wildlife.

In the Name of Livestock Protection

The program's "protection" of livestock consisted largely of killing native predators (e.g., coyotes and foxes). In 1999, Wildlife Services killed 96,592 coyotes, foxes, badgers, and other predators—about 85,000 of whom were coyotes. That's a 10% increase over the number of coyotes that Wildlife Services killed the previous year. Generally, the number of coyotes killed annually has remained the same over the past ten years.

The methods used to kill these animals include shooting from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, trapping, poisoning, and denning (killing pups in their dens with a fumigant). Used extensively at the behest of ranchers in some western states, aerial gunning accounts for the greatest percentage of predator "take" by Wildlife Services (33% of deaths in 1999). This method is often used as a "preventative" to reduce local coyote populations before any livestock losses occur; as a result, however, coyotes who would never attack sheep are killed along with those who might actually cause problems.

Trapping is used almost as much (28%), generally in the form of leghold traps and neck snares—both of which can cause significant suffering to trapped animals. In addition, both types of traps routinely injure or kill "non-target" animals such as deer, birds, and pets.

Whatever method used, lethal control is not effective over the long term in reducing predator-caused livestock losses. After intensive lethal control, surviving coyotes experience reduced competition for food. This means the coyote population will reproduce and rebound quickly. What's more, not all coyotes attack livestock, even when no other prey is available. Killing a coyote who has no interest in attacking livestock creates a vacant territory that will quickly be filled by a nearby coyote or dispersing younger animals. This new coyote may cause problems that would have been averted by allowing the original resident to remain and defend its territory.

A careful assessment of livestock husbandry practices, as well as the use of a variety of non-lethal methods, can go a long way toward reducing or eliminating predator-caused livestock losses over the long term. Husbandry practices include bringing sheep into a barn during lambing (when they are especially vulnerable); corralling livestock at night; and removing livestock carcasses before they attract coyotes, bears, or other predators. Non-lethal means of reducing livestock depredations include the use of livestock-guarding animals, electric fencing, and aversive conditioning of attacking predators. Overall, predators account for a small percentage of livestock losses: a combined total of 9.1%. (Sheep and lambs are far more vulnerable than cattle to predation, but the number lost to predators is far smaller than the number lost to other causes.) The vast majority of livestock loss is due to disease, severe weather, and difficulty during calving or lambing. However, coyotes and other predators provide easy scapegoats for the many difficulties faced by ranchers, and an easy target for Wildlife Services.

In the Name of Wild Birds

Many of the same predator species are killed, using the same methods, in the name of protecting natural resources. Coyotes and foxes are once again Wildlife Services’ primary targets when populations of ground-nesting birds (such as plovers, grouse, and waterfowl) begin to decline. The birds species of concern are those valued either because they are endangered or threatened or because they are considered a “game” species and therefore important to hunters.

In most cases, bird population declines are caused by loss and/or fragmentation of habitat. Once imperiled as a result of habitat loss, these populations may be impacted more directly by predation. Predators provide an easy scapegoat—and lethal predator control appears to provide a simple solution—when ground-nesting birds or other prey species are in trouble. However, reductions in predator populations only occasionally result in bird population increases; when increases do occur under these circumstances, they are short-lived and require continued and widespread lethal predator control.

On the other hand, habitat improvements, coupled with fencing that excludes predators, provide an alternative solution that is more likely to produce positive results in the long term— not to mention a more peaceful coexistence with wildlife.
Sources: National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services, Annual Tables
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Last revised: Monday, January 17, 2005