On May 27, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) announced that four wolves held responsible for the death of three calves in the Madison Valley had been killed by the federal Wildlife Services agency. Just one more press release dealing with a long string of conflicts spurred by wolf recovery in the state. And while the details of this most recent clash between wolves and humans don’t stand out, they do offer a window into Wildlife Services, the little-known federal agency tasked with exterminating animals that stir up trouble for humans.
Since Montana’s wolf recovery efforts began more than a decade ago, Wildlife Services has played a key role in managing problem wolves in Montana. But that work constitutes a mere fraction of Wildlife Services’ endeavors. Recently released statistics reveal an agency that keeps plenty busy. In 2005, the most recent year for which agency data is available, Wildlife Services killed 1.7 million animals nationally, including 252 gray wolves, 72,816 coyotes, 1.2 million starlings, 6,832 skunks, 330 mountain lions, 2,172 red foxes, 33,469 beavers, 356 black bears, three bald eagles and two grizzly bears. The year before that, it killed a record 2.7 million animals, including 10,304 in Montana. Here, as in most rural Western states, the vast majority of Wildlife Services’ efforts go toward killing predators to help private ranchers counter and prevent livestock depredation. Using techniques including helicopter gunning, snares, poison and shooting, Wildlife Services targets specific animals that harass or kill livestock, but it also kills preemptively—coyotes in particular—to reduce populations before they have a chance to become a nuisance.
Unless you’re a rancher, you’ve likely never interacted with Wildlife Services. And unless you’re an environmental watchdog, you probably know next to nothing about the agency. Depending on whom you ask, you’ll either hear that Wildlife Services provides an indispensable, if under-funded, service that helps keep Montana’s livestock industry afloat, or is a rogue agency with a penchant for killing that’s flown under the radar far too long. Specifically, critics argue Wildlife Services desperately needs reforming in the arenas of transparency and cost-effectiveness.
In some circles, debate over Wildlife Services has been fierce for decades, and today it may be heightening as traditional ranching economies and practices increasingly bump up against a changed West. The same places where predators were once annihilated as pests now play host to the reintroduction of these same creatures as critical parts of the ecosystem and valuable symbols of wildness. As such, the age-old conflict between humans and predators has evolved into a more complex clash between humans beleaguered by predators and those working to protect them. And as the federal agency holding the hired gun, Wildlife Services sits squarely at the crux of it.
John Steuber, Montana state director of Wildlife Services, says the agency relies on about 20 staff members who work out of their homes to prevent and respond to wildlife conflicts throughout the state. Depending on the species and the site, Wildlife Services works directly with ranchers or with a variety of other agencies, including the Montana Department of Livestock, FWP and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
Beyond a series of phone conversations with Steuber in Billings or agency spokeswomen stationed out of state, it’s not easy to get to know this agency. A request to meet in person with Wildlife Services employees or observe them at work in the field was promptly rebuffed with a range of explanations, including government liability, the privacy rights of ranchers and the fact that spring is the agency’s busy season. Nonetheless, the statistics are illuminating.
In fiscal year 2006, Steuber says, Wildlife Services assisted more than 1,600 Montana ranches with coyote and wolf problems. They also help people deal with other wildlife problems ranging from bothersome skunks to chicken-stealing foxes, and research nonlethal methods of preventing wildlife conflicts. One such example in Montana is ongoing research into “turbo fladery,” electrified flagging that can be hung around pastures to deter wolves. Although Steuber also touts agency efforts to keep airport runways clean of wildlife and study wildlife diseases like avian influenza or rabies, agency data show that more than 90 percent of its efforts in Montana are dedicated to agriculture, which mainly means killing predators to protect livestock.
“[Predator control] is the largest priority with the livestock producers in Montana because they suffer a good deal of losses from a number of wildlife species,” says Steuber.
The main such predator is the coyote, he says, though wolves, mountain lions, black bears and grizzlies may also be targeted for harassing, injuring or killing sheep and cattle. In 2006, according to statewide statistics, the sheep industry suffered a $1 million loss due to predators; the cattle industry lost an estimated $1.6 million to predators in 2005, the latest statistics available. While livestock producers typically employ a variety of nonlethal predator deterrents like guard dogs, fencing and hired herders, Wildlife Services specializes in lethality. Their killing methods include aerial gunning, foot snares, neck snares, calling and shooting, and poisons, including M-44s (spring-loaded cartridges that shoot sodium cyanide gas into animals’ mouths).
Wildlife Services hunts coyotes on a “preventative” basis, which means that field workers shoot and trap hundreds of the animals each spring in anticipation of problems they might cause down the road for livestock producers. Wolves, still federally protected as an endangered animal, are targeted only when they’re confirmed to have predated on livestock. Carolyn Sime, coordinator of Montana’s wolf management program, says FWP has an agreement with Wildlife Services that authorizes Wildlife Services to investigate all suspected wolf kills. If field workers confirm that a death was caused by wolves, they consult with FWP on whether to kill the wolf or use nonlethal control like relocation or fitting the animal with a radio collar to monitor future predation.
Other species in Montana come under Wildlife Services’ gun too: In 2005, the agency killed eight badgers, 14 black bears, two grizzly bears, 337 red foxes and seven mountain lions, along with 6,483 coyotes and 20 wolves.
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepares to remove Northern Rockies wolves from the endangered species list, Sime says that Wildlife Services’ role won’t change. What could change is the impact average Montanans have on wolf populations; once delisted, annual public hunts managed by the state will likely begin in an effort to keep wolf populations from growing too large for any given territory.
Wildlife Services’ role in helping to manage wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies is a far cry from its historic function as an agency charged with culling wolves and other species from the Western landscape. The agency got its start in 1931, when Congress passed the Animal Damage Control Act, ordering the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to “determine the best methods of eradication, suppression, or bringing under control mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, prairie dogs, gophers, ground squirrels, jack rabbits, brown tree snakes, and other animals injurious to agriculture, horticulture, forestry, animal husbandry, wild game animals, fur-bearing animals and birds.” Massive poisoning and trapping campaigns immediately began decimating populations of wolves, grizzly bears and many other species. Now housed under the USDA in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Wildlife Services has been known variously through the years as the Predatory Animals and Rodent Control agency, Animal Damage Control, and, since 1997, the pleasantly euphemistic “Wildlife Services.”
In 2005, the agency’s national budget was about $100 million, $39 million of which went to protecting agriculture, with another $35 million dedicated to researching wildlife diseases and other human safety efforts. Montana’s 2006 budget was about $3.2 million, with nearly equal shares coming from the federal government and cooperating agencies and ranchers. Montana Wildlife Services spent 93 percent of its total resources protecting agriculture.
John Helle, a rancher with a sizable sheep operation near Dillon, says he couldn’t stay afloat if it weren’t for Wildlife Services’ help.
“They’re critical for the survival of the sheep industry—they perform an enormous role by protecting us from predators,” he says.
He says hundreds of coyotes are killed each year on his ranch thanks to Wildlife Services’ helicopter hunting, M-44s and snares, but he says he still loses hundreds of sheep each year. So far this year, he says, he’s lost a few dozen, though he expects that number to balloon as summer advances. Wildlife Services is hardly the only protection standing between Helle’s herds and predators; he also employs six herders, several guard dogs, fencing, and even llamas and a burro that help guard the herds. He and other ranchers pay 60 cents per livestock animal to the Department of Livestock to help fund Wildlife Services work each year, and that funding amounts to nearly half of Wildlife Services’ Montana budget.
Though coyotes have long been the biggest threat facing Helle’s sheep, he says wolves have also targeted his herds since 1996, when they were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park.
Because of regulations on endangered animals like wolves and government restriction of toxic chemicals that can kill unprotected species like coyotes, Helle says, he and many other ranchers are forced to rely on Wildlife Services’ expertise.
“With most farming or cropping operations, if they’ve got a pest in their field like an aphid or a weevil, they just go and spray the whole field. We don’t have that option…that’s why we use the government trapper as opposed to handling it on our own,” he says. “We’d love to handle it on our own—give us 1080 [a heavily restricted poison] back and the authorization to use some chemicals and some toxins and we’ll just poison the whole damn ranch and we won’t have these problems, but that’s not acceptable in the eyes of the public. That’s why Wildlife Services is there to help us.”
Those who criticize Wildlife Services, particularly its predator control efforts, say it’s an unaccountable, ineffective and cruel program that’s killing heaps of wildlife to benefit relatively few ranchers.
“This is a public agency killing the public’s wildlife indiscriminately and they’re unaccountable to the public,” says Wendy Keefover-Ring. “I just think it’s amazing that this agency still persists. We’re in the 21st century and yet they’re still using 19th-century methods to kill as many animals as they can to benefit a few people at the risk of everyone else and all the animals.”
Keefover-Ring is the carnivore protection program director for Sinapu, a Colorado group that’s tracked Wildlife Services for years. Her two main beefs with the agency concern its lack of transparency and accountability to the public and its targeting of predators using poisons.
In March, after months of pressure, including a legal demand letter from Sinapu, Wildlife Services published information about its 2005 activities, but has yet to post any data from 2006. Carol Bannerman, public affairs specialist for Wildlife Services, explains the delays are due to a changeover in data collection systems. But Keefover-Ring says getting information about Wildlife Services’ activities has been a long-standing challenge. Over the course of several years she’s struggled to access agency information, such as where it places predator poisons; she says she still has a handful of information requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act dating back to 2000 that have yet to garner any response.
“They don’t want the public to know what they’re doing,” she says.
Jay Tutchton, who runs an environmental law clinic at the University of Denver School of Law, says he’s found Wildlife Services to be largely unresponsive and unaccountable to anyone interested in its activities. He’s repeatedly helped clients try to obtain information about Wildlife Services, but says it’s a drawn-out, difficult and often unsuccessful process.
“I’ve frequently had to sue Wildlife Services under the Freedom of Information Act to get them to produce documents,” he says. “They have abysmal turnaround—if you send [a request] in, it will take them two to three years to process it…the CIA—an agency that has real secrets—has a quicker turnaround time.”
He believes the delays, which Bannerman explains as innocent bureaucratic hindrances, are intentional.
“Everyone who’s seeking the information wants to show they’re a rogue and illegal agency, so it’s an understandable response, but it’s illegal under FOIA and it’s incredibly bad government,” he says.
One field of information being sought, and Keefover-Ring’s main interest, relates to Wildlife Services’ use of poisons, particularly M-44s, spring-loaded devises placed on the ground that shoot sodium cyanide gas into a predator’s mouth when triggered. Besides her concern that endangered predators like wolves and grizzly bears might fall unwitting victims to traps intended for coyotes, she says other collateral animals like pet dogs are at risk. She cites a 2006 case in which a dog out hiking with its owner on public land in Utah triggered an M-44 and died within minutes, along with a handful of other recent cases of pet deaths caused by M-44s. In 2005, Montana records show, two “non-target” dogs were killed by M-44s, though Steuber says reports suggest they were feral dogs. He says M-44s in Montana are primarily placed on private land that’s fenced, gated and marked, though he says they’re sometimes placed on Bureau of Land Management turf that’s used for livestock grazing in eastern Montana.
In January, Sinapu and 10 other groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban the use of M-44s, although the agency has no obligation to respond to the request, and has yet to do so.
In its petition, the groups also cited a trio of audits of Wildlife Services performed by the federal Office of Inspector General. Following Sept. 11, 2001, federal agencies using toxins that could hypothetically be employed in bio-terrorism attacks came under increased scrutiny as rules for securing poisonous agents were tightened. Audits of Wildlife Services’ facilities found they were not properly maintaining accurate toxin inventories, restricting access to dangerous chemicals, or adequately training those authorized to possess or use the toxins. Ten of Wildlife Services’ 75 facilities around the nation were inspected and none complied with security regulations. Chemicals were sometimes unaccounted for or not stored safely, which caused OIG to conclude that “hazardous materials remain vulnerable to undetected theft and unauthorized use, and may pose a threat to human and animal safety.”
Bannerman says Wildlife Services has worked over the last few years to improve its security measures, and now believes it’s in compliance with the OIG’s recommendations and rules.
Besides transparency, critics assail the cost-effectiveness of Wildlife Services’ strategies. Essentially, they contend that resources spent on killing predators amount to more than the costs of predator depredation in the first place.
In 2005, Montana’s cattle producers reported losing 600 cattle and 2,400 calves to predators, mainly coyotes, at a cost of $1.6 million. The same year, cattlemen lost 19,400 cattle and 43,600 calves to non-predator deaths such as weather and disease, according to records kept by the National Agriculture Statistics Service. Non-predator deaths cost the cattle industry $18.1 million.
Sheep producers face higher rates of predator-caused deaths in their herds. Of the 51,000 sheep and lambs lost to predators, weather, disease and other causes in 2006, predators killed 14,100 of the animals—or 28 percent of all deaths—at a cost estimated at $1 million. As with cattle, coyotes do most of the predating on sheep, accounting for more than 70 percent of sheep killed by predators.
What ranchers such as Helle see in these numbers is predators’ impact on his bottom line. He says he’s watched many of his neighbors sell out their ranches in recent years on account of wolves’ and coyotes’ eating into their profit margins, and that it’s the biggest issue he faces on a daily basis. Besides direct losses of livestock to predators, he says their presence also has a rippling effect.
“Indirectly, the predator issue has caused a lot of other issues that we deal with,” he says. Helle explains that coyotes’ and wolves’ presence has forced him to switch from birthing sheep on the range to lambing in protective sheds. This encourages the spread of disease, he says, and raises mortality rates.
Jay Bodner, natural resource director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, says predator harassment of livestock causes decreased pregnancy rates and lower weights because animals eat less when stressed.
“A lot of those costs are hard to document…they occur, but the only thing that gets reported is how many animals they lose and at what value,” he says. “But that doesn’t really account for everything going on in the full picture.”
But agency critics point out that even if not all costs are accounted for in the statistics, the hard numbers reveal that predators are hardly the make-or-break factor that ranchers and Wildlife Services make them out to be.
“Predator losses are a small portion of the losses that agricultural producers sustain,” says Janelle Holden, director of Bozeman’s Predator Conservation Alliance. “They have much more of an issue with disease, drought or accidents than they do with predators, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for taxpayers to put this much money into a program that only addresses predators.”
Opinions aside, there are scientific studies that address the efficacy of Wildlife Services’ efforts, and whether shooting coyotes and other predators actually helps cut down on predation.
Helle, who says he’s relieved to see the Wildlife Services helicopter flying overhead today to target coyotes on his ranch, thinks periodically killing coyotes helps keep them at bay and minimizes the harm they do.
“I don’t think people realize just how many coyotes are out there. There’s just literally thousands of them around us,” he says.
But research conducted by biologist Bob Crabtree, who’s studied coyote populations for decades, finds that when coyotes are subjected to population control, they compensate by rapidly reproducing, actually increasing their presence.
“Although removal of offending individuals can temporarily alleviate predation rates on the protected species, the alleviation is usually short-term and likely has long-term side effects that make control activities ineffective,” he wrote in a 1997 scientific opinion.
A 2006 study by Kim Murray Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Study examined the relationship between the steady decline of the U.S. sheep industry and steady or growing efforts by the U.S. government to control predators. Since 1942 the size of the sheep industry has dropped dramatically, Berger reports, from a peak of 56 million animals. By studying the 60-year decline of the industry in places that don’t face coyote threats in comparison to places that have killed coyotes for decades, she found little difference in sheep industry long-term trends. Other factors, like the increasing cost of hay and wages and plummeting prices for wool and lamb, had much more impact.
“That control efforts have had little effect on trends in the sheep industry is remarkable given the enduring nature of the program, [and] the considerable resources devoted to carnivore removal (about $1.6 billion in real dollars between 1939 and 1998),” her study reads.
What people such as Keefover-Ring and Tutchton take away from those studies is proof that for all its years of effort, and for all the money spent, predator control isn’t even helping the very ranchers who claim they depend on it.
“They aren’t solving the problem—they’re just keeping themselves in business,” Keefover-Ring says.
Tutchton is more blunt in his assessment.
“It’s just a subsidy to agriculture,” he says. “Somehow we’ve decided as a culture that agriculture should be subsidized through the death of animals, and this agency is particularly destructive because it robs the public of wildlife and doesn’t even do that much good.”
He wonders whether it might make more sense to take the money that Wildlife Services spends on killing predators and instead use it to compensate ranchers for losses to coyotes. (Defenders of Wildlife already compensates ranchers nationally for wolf losses at an average rate of about $300 per animal.)
Take the case of a farmer whose sheep is killed, he says. It could prove more cost-effective to give him a few hundred dollars to replace the sheep, but “instead they hire a guy to fly around in an airplane for a couple of days and shoot out the window and they spend thousands of taxpayer dollars to do it. As a subsidy it’s dumb, and when you start to figure in the other impacts of the program, it gets even dumber.”
Caroline Kennedy, senior director of field conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, says she thinks Wildlife Services’ approach has remained unchanged through the decades because it’s largely unknown to the public.
“I think it slips under the radar,” Kennedy says. “If most Americans were aware of it, I don’t think they’d approve of their tax dollars going toward essentially providing ranchers with pest control.”
Steuber knows that Wildlife Services’ lethal control efforts aren’t and will never be popular among the likes of Keefover-Ring and Holden. But he defends them as valuable tools for ranchers struggling to survive and suggests that killing trouble-making animals among populations such as wolves may help improve relationships between humans and the species as a whole.
“If you don’t remove animals that are causing problems, then all the wolves kind of get a black eye and they’re looked at like all the wolves are predating on livestock,” he says.
Holden agrees that some lethal management is necessary and inevitable, but says Wildlife Services’ preventative campaigns on species such as coyotes should be re-evaluated.
“I think they need to change their mindset to include a whole host of tools that would serve the public and interests of wildlife rather than just focusing on managing predator populations and lethal control of endangered species,” she says.
“If they’re going to persist into the next century, they need to get away from this attitude that they just hammer populations of animals they don’t like and start looking at non-lethal solutions,” Keefover-Ring adds.
She believes an upsurge in public understanding of Wildlife Services’ actions and approach are needed to force that evolution.
“Most people don’t even know this agency exists, and yet it’s been around since the ’30s for the purpose of killing wildlife,” she says.
But the West’s past experience with predators’ decimation and resurgence may serve as a reverse role model for change. Recovery of endangered predators began only once awareness of their plight became widespread. As public awareness of Wildlife Services increases, the agency may well be forced to change, or die.