Does the War Between Ranchers and Native Predators Need to Go On?
Wild Things makes a case against a federal agency that kills thousands of carnivores every year
Wild Things, an award-winning film produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council, explores the age-old battle between ranchers and wild predators and questions whether this battle really need go on. The film is basically a polemic against the United States Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program that kills tens of thousands of native carnivores, including coyotes and wolves, by brutal means such as poisoning, aerial gunning, and trapping.
The program is given millions of taxpayer dollars each year to kill animals at the request of ranchers and state wildlife management agencies. The film shows how the actions taken to eradicate these wild predators are not cost-effective and certainly not humane.
According to the Humane Society: “During the last five years (FY2009-FY 2013), Wildlife Services has spent nearly $300 million killing the public’s wildlife on behalf of private interests. However, Wildlife Services data show that only a small percentage of cattle or sheep die from predators. For instance, of the 93.9 million cattle in the US in 2010, less that 1 percent were killed by predators.”
Besides, killing predators may not always help control their population. As a recent report in All Animals magazine points out, Wildlife Services kills approximately 80,000 coyotes each year, but that their ruthless actions do not decimate the coyote population as much as one may think. That’s because of the way these animals reproduce. In a stable pack, only the alpha pair reproduces and its litters are small, subsequently the pack itself is small. But as soon as the pack is disrupted by lethal control, the survivors, not only the alpha pair as before, will start to reproduce. Which means the pack size increases and consequently so does the predation on ranchers’ livestock.
Using the evidence of science to back its claim, Wild Things makes the point that the brutality used to capture and kill these animals is unnecessary. While it's true that wild carnivores can be a threat to livestock, they also play an important role in keeping ecosystems healthy. And it is actually possible for us to coexist with wildlife.
To present its case against top predator killing, the documentary includes a spectrum of speakers, from scientists and conservationists to former Wildlife Services trappers, who support alternative means of protection against predators. It also introduces viewers to progressive ranchers who learning to use new technology and old animal husbandry practices in order to live more harmoniously with their traditional enemies.
Some of these suggested alternative measures of protection are being put to the test in California’s Marin County. In 2000, the county terminated its contract with Wildlife Services and implemented a non-lethal community-based program to address livestock-predator issues. This program, called the Marin County Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program, receives support from an array of stakeholders such as members of local wildlife protection organizations, ranchers, and scientists. It aids ranchers by sharing the cost of non-lethal protection measures such as fencing, night corrlaes, and livestock guard animals. Camilla Fox, founder of Project Coyote, an Earth Island Institute project, helped develop the program with the Marin County Department of Agriculture and other stakeholder groups.
Marin County sets a precedent for other counties to follow when it comes to sustainable ranching. A 2008 study comparing the Wildlife Services program to the Marin County program in terms of rancher satisfaction and preferences, livestock losses, use of non-lethal predator deterrent techniques, and costs found that the county’s program not only helped reduce livestock losses, it also lessened the number of predators killed to protect livestock.
Most ranchers are protective of their livestock. When your livestock is your livelihood you would do all that is in your power to shield it from harm. But many ranchers have abandoned the old ways of tending to their livestock, leaving the animals to graze the hills, not checking them for weeks at a time. This leaves the animals exposed and at a higher risk to be preyed on. Back in the day, cowboys were one with their animals. They spent their days watching over their livelihood, building a connection with them, and steering them away from harm. In fact, in the 1930s the Wildlife Services program was known as “USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC).” And a common nickname for ADC was “Aid to Dependent Cowboys!”
In the film, Keli Hendricks a California rancher speaks about her shift in rancher ideals. She now spends her time on horseback, maintaining surveillance of her area. Since her attempt to adopt a more sustainable method of defense, Hendricks has reported a decrease in predator-related issues. Becky Weed, a Montana sheep rancher speaks her mind about the predator problems saying, “If I was looking for predator-free ranching I would have settled down on a corn field in Illinois.”
Wild Things inspires us to learn to coexist with nature and the wildlife around us and strive for a more sustainable future.
If you wish to help the cause visit the NRDC’s website and send a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to stop government poisoning of wildlife.