The forever war 

Wildlife Services has been researching nonlethal means to protect livestock for decades. So why is the federal agency still killing so many carnivores?

The verb that people most often associate with coyotes is "howl," though it fails to capture Canis latrans' vocal spectrum. Wolves howl. Coyotes also yip, squawk, whine, bray, bark, wail and croon. First one starts—motivated by changing barometric pressure or its neighbor's insolent gaze or who knows what—and another joins in, and another, and soon a discordant chorus hollers skyward, voices melding into an eerie drone. And then one coyote drops out, and another, and the aural tapestry unravels to a single thread until the original soloist, too, tapers off. And then it's silent on the steppe.

So it sounds at the Predator Research Facility in Millville, Utah, when I visit Julie Young, the wildlife biologist who directs the station. The 165-acre compound, which houses 100 coyotes in fenced enclosures, is operated by the National Wildlife Research Center, the scientific arm of an agency called Wildlife Services. If you're well acquainted with Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you're likely a rancher who relies on the agency, or a conservationist who despises it. Otherwise, you may have only a vague idea that an army of trappers has used your tax dollars to kill millions of animals every year for most of the past century.

Wildlife Services overwhelmingly targets invasive species and nuisance birds: Over 40 percent of its 2.7 million kills in 2014 were European starlings. But it's the slaughter of native predators—mostly to defend livestock and revenue-generating game animals like deer, often on public land—that outrages environmentalists. In 2014, Wildlife Services exterminated 796 bobcats, 322 wolves, 580 black bears, 305 cougars and 1,186 red foxes. And that's nothing compared to coyotes. That year, the agency killed 61,702, one coyote every eight and a half minutes.

That bloody reputation notwithstanding, scientists at the agency's Predator Research Facility have spent decades considering more peaceful deterrents: guard dogs, electric fencing, motion-activated alarms and strings of flags, called fladry, that confuse carnivores. Researchers also study coyote behavior—how dominants and submissives interact, how individuals learn from neighbors, how they defend territory. Young and I talk inside an observation tower that stands, panopticon-like, near the facility's center. Below us, pairs of coyotes pace wedge-shaped pens. No two animals look alike—we see rust-tinged foxy ones, robust wolfish ones, scrawny piebalds. One lopes clockwise around its pen; two more jog along a fence line, like mirror images. A coyote trots to the tower's base and stares up, watching the watchers.

click to enlarge 1-i11cover.jpg

The coyotes have proven too smart to let humans observe them.

"They know when you're in here, and no matter how long you sit, some never behave normally," says Young. "We've tried having three people walk in and two walk out. But coyotes can count."

Now Young uses the room to set up video cameras. The coyotes haven't figured out they're being recorded, yet.

A canid starts to yip, and soon the whole research center is singing again. I ask Young what the nearby town thinks of the ruckus. Nobody seems to mind, she says. One neighbor was stunned to learn that he lived near coyotes at all. He thought he'd been hearing cheers from a football stadium.

That the Predator Research Facility evades detection without being altogether hidden seems fitting. Wildlife Services annually publishes voluminous charts tallying its kills, but other information—why it killed which creatures, at whose behest and after attempting what alternatives—remains elusive. Activists and journalists have long sought to drag the agency's lethal activities into the public glare. Wildlife Services has weathered exposés, multiple federal investigations, scathing environmental group reports and countless angry petitions.

"This is an agency whose time has passed," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Wildlife Services' most vocal congressional assailant, told the Los Angeles Times in 2014.

In response to criticism and evolving science, Wildlife Services claims it's changing course. Agency scientists and officials have spoken at Humane Society conferences, launched new nonlethal research projects and held workshops on deterrence techniques. Even 2014's eye-popping coyote kill total represented the agency's lowest figure in more than 20 years, though whether that's a one-year aberration or an emerging trend remains to be seen.

"We've always had nonlethal methods, but we're getting more proactive in recommending them," says John Steuber, Wildlife Services' Montana state director. "We're evolving with the rest of wildlife management."

Still, 100 years of tradition can breed inertia in any organization. Though biologists at the Utah field station have studied nonlethal techniques since 1972, body counts have mostly stayed level.

"The National Wildlife Research Center does good work, and their scientists collaborate with all sorts of non-agency people," says biologist Bradley Bergstrom, who chairs the Conservation Committee of the American Society of Mammalogists. "But they don't seem to influence field operations."

All the science in the world means nothing, in other words, unless it sways the agency's field trappers—and the states, counties, municipalities, private businesses and ranchers whose contracts supply half of Wildlife Services' funding. Antipathy toward predators often runs bone-deep among those partners. Reform, therefore, may require transforming attitudes at the agency's grassroots, rather than merely assailing it through courts and Congress.

"Until Wildlife Services is told differently by the people who pay the bills, it's hard to imagine real change," says former agency biologist John Shivik. "Managing animals is easy. Managing people is really hard."

Westerners have been battling carnivores since before Meriwether Lewis shot a grizzly along a Montana creek in 1805. But Wildlife Services' story doesn't truly begin until 1915, when Congress allocated $125,000 to exterminate wolves, coyotes and other predators. Sixteen years later, President Herbert Hoover created the Division of Predator and Rodent Control to remove irksome wildlife. PARC, Wildlife Services' progenitor, took plenty of fire: In 1964, a committee of scientists led by A. Starker Leopold—son of Aldo Leopold, America's most famous carnivore-killer-turned-defender—published a report concluding the agency was slaughtering far more animals than could be "justified in terms of total public interest."

A handful of name changes notwithstanding, Wildlife Services' predator playbook has changed little since. Operations, one former trapper told me, tend to be "very professional, not just driving through the desert with our guns out." Yet as reporter Tom Knudson documented in a 2012 Sacramento Bee series, the agency's specialists, as its trappers are called, have been implicated in various ugly imbroglios, including taking eagles, wolverines and family pets as collateral damage. Whistleblowers have described fellow specialists siccing hunting dogs on defenseless coyotes and leaving traps unchecked for months.

click to enlarge A coyote attacks a sheep. In 2014, Wildlife Services killed 61,702 coyotes, or one every eight and a half minutes. The agency slaughters native predators mostly to defend livestock and revenue-generating animals. - PHOTO COURTESY OF USDA
  • photo courtesy of USDA
  • A coyote attacks a sheep. In 2014, Wildlife Services killed 61,702 coyotes, or one every eight and a half minutes. The agency slaughters native predators mostly to defend livestock and revenue-generating animals.

"These individuals have such deeply entrenched mindsets that it's hard to imagine how the agency can ever be reformed," argues Brooks Fahy, director of the nonprofit Predator Defense.

Wildlife Services nearly lost its predator control funding to a 1998 House bill, but was saved by eleventh-hour lobbying from ranching-state lawmakers.

To be sure, combating carnivores is just one task among many, and killing animals that damage crops and livestock occupies a smaller proportion of Wildlife Services' attention than it once did. These days, the agency also eradicates harmful feral pigs, fights rabies, protects endangered sea turtles and drives birds off runways.

"We help keep people safe and healthy and strive to do it in a way that won't impact wildlife populations," says agency biologist Buck Jolley. "You don't think about it when you're flying, but there are people nationwide relocating thousands of raptors to keep planes in the air."

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