Animals & Money: Blowing big money on blowing away predators

Now that Obama is in control of the government, one of the big priorities of animal advocates -- even bigger than getting the Obama family a shelter dog -- is the elimination of the USDA's Wildlife Services Department, which spends $117 million a year in a Sisyphean quest to exterminate predators.

They kill about 1.5 million birds (mainly starlings) and 150,000 animals (mainly coyotes). All of this is in the name of protecting livestock -- or, in the case of the starlings, grain -- and ironically, often grain farmers are growing for birdseed. The beef and sheep producers say they lose $125 million a year to predators and claim the number would be much higher without the federal help.

The current agency, the Wildlife Services Department, stems from a 1931 law -- condemned by biologists -- that aimed to get rid of, or at least dramatically reduce, wolves, coyotes, gophers, prairie dogs, bobcats and mountain lions. Alston Chase, in his meticulous and widely-read history of wildlife management, Playing God in Yellowstone, traces it back further. In 1885 Congress created the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammology to protect wildlife, in particular ducks. But in 1907, the agency was subverted when western cattlemen and ranchers asked the federal government to step in and kill anything that might threaten livestock.

Remarkably, we're still paying for that kind of discredited management a century later. As Chase documented, the policies never quite worked. Managers would pick out good animals to protect and kill bad species -- often in national parks and while denying the work to the public. But that would produce too many of the "good" species, which would overproduce and destroy the land they grazed on. That's the story of elk in Yellowstone and deer all around the country.

While the Agriculture Department has been on a century-long coyote-killing spree, the number of coyotes has flourished. Their populations have expanded, pushing east and north. Hunters have a reflexive suspicion of anything involving animal welfare, but they don't like the proposal either. Instead of wasting tax money on eliminating predators, they'd rather have governments charge for hunting licenses and go shoot the animals themselves. Certainly if we agreed the animals needed to be eliminated, that would be a smarter way to do it. Though, I have a hard time imagining anybody relishing a weekend of shooting starlings.

Biologists also question whether killing off predators actually protects cattle. Some prefer non-lethal methods --anything from sheepdogs to tainting sheep carcasses with foul-tasting chemicals. The broad poisonings and killings go way beyond the targeted species. I could not find a list of killed animals anywhere on the Department of Agriculture's website, so I'll have to go by these numbers from WildEarth Guardians, one of 115 environmental groups petitioning the federal government to stop the program.

In 2007 the agency killed 526 dogs, 1,130 cats, 240 gray wolves and four Mexican gray wolves -- which are critically endangered and something we're spending money to painstakingly restore. Their entire population is estimated at 52 and in the last four years Wildlife Services has killed off nine of them. From 2004 to 2007, we also paid to kill about 2,000 badgers, 8,000 bobcats, a couple fishers, 23 ringtails, 17,000 foxes including about 90 swift foxes. In 2005 to 2007 we averaged killing 294 endangered animals a year through this ham-fisted program. In 2007 we also killed off 41 osprey, 524 herons and 15,739 cormorants.

The program isn't just a huge waste of tax dollars. It's another example of mismanaging wildlife for a narrow set of interests. Let's believe everything the ranchers say for a minute and imagine a world where they had losses of $500 million a year. I'm a big meat eater, so I'd be paying more. But not much. It works out to about $1 or $2 in higher meat prices per American for an entire year. Predator control program assumes ranchers have the right to control the wilderness that belongs to all of us. It forgets the booming wildlife watching hobby and business. About 71 million Americans go wildlife watching and spend $46 billion a year doing it. How excited would you have been to have seen an osprey or fisher or heard a wolf on your last trip to a park? We're now a nation willing to pay money to see animals--yet we're still paying federal workers to go kill them.

Photo by Terry Ross
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