Suppose you are perusing the directory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, poised to find out about farm subsidies or grazing allotments. Your fingers scroll down to “Wildlife Services.” It sounds like the kind of happy place you might adopt a grizzly bear or rehabilitate a wild bird. But actually, this is where you’d call if you wanted a wild predator killed.
Possible euphemisms aside, the Department of Agriculture spends millions of dollars a year doing the bidding of ranchers and farmers, poisoning, trapping, and shooting a variety of mostly four-legged and fanged beasts. But perhaps not for long. Currently, an amendment to the House Agriculture Appropriations Bill on the would defund Wildlife Services, which was formerly known as Animal Damage Control. The amendment would take away the $7 million currently spent on killing some 100,000 bears, bobcats, coyotes and other animals in the habit of snacking on livestock.
A coalition of environmental and animal rights groups is pushing for passage of the amendment, including the Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Missoula.
Bob Clark of Alliance for the Wild Rockies notes that while cattle and sheep are not as prevalent in western Montana, those concerned about the management of public lands should unequivocally support the amendment.
“This is just another subsidized benefit for cattlemen,” commented Clark. “If I were to open a restaurant here in town, in would be ludicrous for me to demand that the federal government send in 50 customers a day at lunch if my business wasn’t doing well. That’s just what cattlemen have come to expect from this program.” Clark also is disturbed by the inhumane practices of Wildlife Services, an agency that, despite the kinder, gentler name, still poisons animals and conducts hunts from helicopters.
Oregon Democrat Pete Defazio sponsored the amendment, having included the same language once before with the same House of Representatives in 1999. The amendment was defeated then, 230-197. “It’s a measure of the power the livestock industry still has over Western politics,” commented Clark. “Things may be changing, but maybe not quick enough.”
Larry Handegard of the Wildlife Services office in Billings might disagree. Noting that Montana receives about a million dollars from the feds for this program, Handegard maintains the name change coincides with a shift in priorities. “We trap wolves, including the ones that were re-introduced in the Yellowstone program. We also are involved in the re-introduction of the black-footed ferret,” Handegard says. He adds that his agency provides mitigation for projects that benefit recreation, such as bird predation at hatchery sites, and management plans for airports with large birds that habitually camp out on runways.
Handegard’s Billings office has about 2,400 contracts in Montana to provide “predator control” in the state.