Contract Killing: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Wildlife Services’ killing campaigns are not only brutal, costly, and ineffective—they may actually contribute to an increase in the population of the coyotes targeted by the agency.


In the second part of The Sacramento Bee’s three-part series investigating Wildlife Services, published Tuesday, reporter Tom Knudson sheds some light on the dubious rationale behind the agency’s methods. [I discussed the first installment in my previous post.]

“For decades,” writes Knudson, “Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has specialized in trapping, poisoning and shooting predators in large numbers, largely to protect livestock and, more recently, big game.”

“Now such killing is coming under fire from scientists, former employees and others who say it often doesn’t work and can set off a chain reaction of unintended, often negative consequences.” [1]

(Many readers will recall that I made a similar argument in my February 2011 letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—no “relation” to Wildlife Services, though they seem to share the same penchant for lethal control methods and secrecy—regarding their ill-conceived Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex Integrated Predator Management Plan.)

“With rifles, snares and aerial gunning,” writes Knudson, “employees have killed 967 coyotes and 45 mountain lions at a cost of about $550,000. But like a mirage, the dream of protecting deer by killing predators has not materialized.” [1]

This despite a significant increase in the killing.

Citing reports from the Wildlife Services website, Knudson notes that “about 560,000 predators were killed across America from 2006 to 2011, an average of 256 a day.”

“While fewer bobcats are killed today, the numbers of three other major predators shot, trapped and snared by the agency have risen. In 1970, agency employees killed 73,100 coyotes, 400 black bears, 120 mountain lions. By 2011, the tally had climbed to 83,200 coyotes (up 14 percent), 565 black bears (up 41 percent) and 400 mountain lions (up 230 percent).” [1]

Much of Knudson’s reporting focuses on the effect—much of it unintended, and even unacknowledged—of Wildlife Services’ ongoing coyote killing.

“Kill too many coyotes,” he explains, “and you open a Pandora’s box of disease-carrying rodents, meadow-munching rabbits, bird-eating feral cats, and, over time, smarter, more abundant coyotes… In California, researchers have found that having coyotes in the neighborhood can be good for quail, towhees and other birds. The reason? They eat skunks, house cats and raccoons that feast on birds.” [1]

Here, Knudson simply failed to dig into the story deeply enough.

The researchers he’s referring to are, I’m sure, Kevin Crooks and Michael Soulé, who, during the 1990s, investigated the relationship between the presence of coyotes and the presence of cats in San Diego canyon country. “It appears,” they concluded, “that the decline and disappearance of the coyote, in conjunction with the effects of habitat fragmentation, affect the distribution and abundance of smaller carnivores and the persistence of their avian prey.” [2]

Ah, but appearances can be deceiving; the study—often cited by TNR opponents—raises many more questions than it answers.

Indeed, the very premise of Crooks and Soulé’s research—that coyote populations are on the decline—is refuted by several scientists with whom Knudson spoke. “After several decades of intense federal hunting,” he reports, “there are more coyotes in more places than ever.”

“In Nevada, scientists found that when Wildlife Services began killing coyotes to protect deer south of Ely in 2004, the average coyote litter size jumped from one pup to 3.5. In 2007, one coyote killed by a Wildlife Services hunter in Nevada had 13 fetuses in its uterus.” [1]

Sound familiar?

Animal People’s Merritt Clifton made a similar observation nine years ago, referring to impact of Wildlife Services’ (the agency was called Animal Damage Control at the time) “coyote-killing campaigns of the 1950s through the 1970s”:

“…biologists found that the average coyote litter size in Texas grew from four pups to seven. This occurred because the intense ADC hunting pressure on coyotes shifted the odds of pup survival from favoring the pups who got the most maternal care to favoring the offspring of the coyote mothers who could produce the greatest abundance of pups, among whom some might elude the killers.” [3]

For Clifton, the parallel between coyotes and feral cats is striking: “Responding to the intensified mortality,” he argues, “Felis catus now bears an average litter of four. Nearly seven centuries of killing cats doubled the fecundity of the species.” [3]

But back to Wildlife Services…

Despite the compelling evidence that the agency’s efforts are largely ineffective—not to mention the often brutal, indiscriminate nature of their methods—the killing continues. Like USFWS, Wildlife Services has simply been able to get away with it.

Until now, anyhow.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Wildlife Services is being sued by WildEarth Guardians.

“‘We want the court to ban its poisons, silence its guns, and pull up its traps because it’s a horrendous misuse of our tax dollars to slaughter the nation’s bears, wolves, coyotes, and myriad other species,’ said Wendy Keefover, the group’s director of carnivore protection.”

Among those other species, of course, are domestic cats—1,277 of them in FY 2011 alone.

•     •     •

According to The Bee, Sunday’s third and final installment will focus of the recommendations of Wildlife Services’ various critics: “solutions that include nonlethal control; curtailing aerial gunning; a ban on leg-hold traps, neck snares and cyanide poison; more transparency; cutting its budget; and perhaps eliminating the agency altogether.”

Literature Cited
1. Knudson, T. (2012, May 1). Wildlife Services’ deadly force brings environmental problems. The Sacramento Bee, from http://www.sacbee.com/2012/05/01/4455512/wildlife-services-deadly-force.html

2. Crooks, K.R. and Soulé, M.E., “Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system.” Nature. 1999. 400(6744): p. 563–566. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v400/n6744/abs/400563a0.html

3. Clifton, M. (2003, June). Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People, from http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/6/wherecatsBelong6.03.html

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