Predator control changes proposed
Aerial gunning, motor vehicles would be allowed in wilderness

SideStory: Trappers group pushes for box traps

by Amy Maestas

Recent proposed changes by the U.S. Forest Service to deal with problem predators in wilderness areas are renewing a heated issue that has inflamed environmental groups and wildlife advocates for more than a decade.

The Forest Service is proposing to allow Wildlife Services, a federal division of the Animal and Health Plant Inspection Service, to kill predators in wilderness areas that are causing problems to livestock being grazed on public lands. The revisions would permit Wildlife Services to use aircraft, motorized equipment and poison bait. Until now, dealing with problem predators in wilderness areas has been carried out on a case-by-case basis, with regional foresters of a wilderness area approving predator control practices at the end of a process. The proposed changes would alter the process by having the Forest Service and Wildlife Services work together from the get go, eliminating the need for the regional forester approval at the end. Regional foresters would still have to approve the use of motor vehicles or aircraft landing used for aerial gunning.

Essentially, the new proposal opens the door for Wildlife Services to use helicopters and other motorized vehicles to go into wilderness areas and shoot predators that kill livestock. The proposal indicates that certain conditions must be in place for these activities, and policies have to be established requiring minimal disturbance to the wilderness – both its resources and users.

Forest Service officials call the changes “internal housekeeping.” Katie Armstrong, press information office for the Forest Service, says the agency is simply updating the Forest Service manual. For the past few years, she explains, the Forest Service and Wildlife Services have been operating together based on a 1993 memorandum of understanding. The MOU lays out the responsibilities of the agencies in managing problem predators.

But conservation groups and citizens are decrying the proposed changes. They don’t see it simply as “internal housekeeping” but rather a move toward the systematic killing of predators in pristine wilderness areas that for years have been protected to minimize the destruction of nature and resources.

“Under this proposal, the Forest Service is giving away its authority to Wildlife Services,” says Wendy Keefover-Ring, carnivore protection director for wildlife protection group Sinapu, based in Boulder.

Keefover-Ring is appalled at how the proposed changes violate the Wilderness Act, which was put in place in 1964 and prevents the use of vehicles or other mechanical equipment in wilderness areas.

“You can’t even ride a bicycle in wilderness areas, and now they are opening the way for motorized equipment to be used in a hugely indiscriminate way in poisoning animals,” she says. “It is an outrage.”

Armstrong says the public won’t notice any differences in wilderness areas under the proposed changes. She explains that the Forest Service has always had the discretion to allow use of motorized equipment in wilderness areas in cases of emergencies or for other special reasons. Under the current Forest Service proposal, regional foresters determine the kind of lethal measures Wildlife Services can use when killing animals in wilderness areas. Armstrong argues that it clarifies roles, rather than expanding their authority.

A shift in responsibility

The Forest Service’s proposed changes carry heavy weight among groups and citizens who advocate for wildlife protection. Reactions are rooted in the longstanding disapproval of Wildlife Services, a U. S. Department of Agriculture program that destroys animals that are threatening or killing livestock. In 1993, the Forest Service signed an agreement that handed off predator problems to Wildlife Services, then known as Animal Damage Control.

At the time, critics argued that the agreement would create conflicting goals of the agencies, with Wildlife Services killing animals in ways that were contradictory to the nature of the Forest Service. Environmentalists sued in an attempt to block the agreement, but failed. Passion about the agreement ignited again about four years later when Wildlife Services put forth a plan for the San Juan-Rio Grande National Forest that would allow the agency to track and shoot by helicopter coyotes – even if they weren’t causing trouble to livestock.

Forest Service officials were somewhat blindsided by the plan and spoke to its lack of concern for their own goals. Critics feared it would set a dangerous precedent for public-lands management, giving Wildlife Services too much authority over what goes on in the forests. Wildlife Services plans for aerial gunning extended beyond the San Juan National Forest and into several other Western states.

A key difference between the Forest Service and Wildlife Services is that the latter doesn’t allow the public to appeal its decisions. Opponents of the agency’s plans have to take up their fight in court, which is a much costlier and less-transparent option.

So when the recent proposed changes of the agencies’ 1994 MOU came up a few weeks ago, Wildlife Services watchdogs cringed at the apparent step toward giving it more authority.

“The Wildlife Service program should be abolished, not enhanced,” says Sinapu’s Keefover-Ring.

A vociferous opponent of the agency, Keefover-Ring says Wildlife Services continues to operate in a vacuum, leaving the public at its doorstep waiting for it to be held accountable.

“They obfuscate what they are doing by using smoke and mirrors,” she adds. “What they are doing is repugnant.”

Adding it all up

According to Wildlife Services reports, the agency killed 2.7 million animals during the 2004 fiscal year. Of the 11 mammalian carnivores that pose most damage in Western states, Wildlife Services killed 83,000 in 2004. The agency has not yet released its numbers for fiscal year 2005, which should have been available in June. Agency officials did not return phone calls for this story.

Numbers are an important aspect of this issue, says Keefover-Ring, because when drilling down the costs and scale of the federal program, it becomes apparent how little of a threat predators are to livestock. “The underlying issue here is the fact that livestock losses are over-exaggerated,” she says.

According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, producers raised 104.5 million head of cattle in 2005. Of those cattle, only 0.18 percent (190,000) was killed by predators. More – 3.69 percent – were killed by other factors, including diseases, health problems, calving and weather. Sheep production and losses show a similar picture. Of the 7.6 million sheep and lambs produced in 2004, 3 percent died from predators and 5 percent from other factors.

The cost of the predator-management activities shows the impact on taxpayers. Last year the federal government spent nearly $100 million on predator control – $40 million was spent on safeguarding agriculture, with $15 million of that going toward protecting livestock from predators by aerial gunning, poison or other means.

The relatively small loss of livestock to predation may prove how the Wildlife Services is doing more harm than good when looking at a recent study about sheep ranching, says Kim Murray Berger, conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York. Berger recently published a study concluding that economic conditions, not predators, are causing the decline of sheep production in the United States.

Berger’s study showed that the most important factor in sheep production over time is the price of hay, the animals’ main food source. According to Berger, the food factor contributes a 56 percent variation of production year to year, yet the amount of money spent on predator control affects the overall production numbers by only 6 percent. Berger says the predator-control program has been successful in killing carnivores, but not in helping sheep ranchers earn a living and stay in business.

Too soon to tell

According to the San Juan Public Lands Center, 22 percent of the San Juan National Forest, which encompasses 1.9 million acres, is designated as wilderness areas. About 106,000 acres are grazed by livestock in the Weminuche, South San Juan and Lizard Head wilderness areas. There are nine active sheep allotments and 17 active cattle allotments.

Mark Ball, wildlife program leader for the center, says the San Juan National Forest officials are still digesting the proposed changes.

“It’s too preliminary to speak to it,” says Ball. “It’s hard to react to anything until we get details on exactly what will happen.”

Ball says Wildlife Services makes rare appearances in the San Juan forest area to do animal-damage control work. Consequently, he doesn’t expect the proposed changes to carry much impact.

“From what I’ve seen, the (changes) are minimal.”

The Forest Service is accepting public comments on the proposed revisions until Aug. 7. •

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