Are Black Vultures Being Scapegoated for Livestock Deaths?

New bill would make it easier for ranchers to kill the protected birds, despite insufficient data on vulture predation.

It has been a tough couple of decades to be a vulture. Most of the world’s 22 species of vultures, spread over five continents, are in significant decline. Some are on the brink of extinction. In the United States, we have our own critically endangered vulture species, the California Condor, but we are lucky enough to have relatively strong populations of two other native species, the turkey vulture and black vulture. Though these birds are still often unappreciated, we benefit environmentally, economically, and in terms of public health from these skilled and efficient scavengers. In the US Midwest, however, this ecological success story has put vultures in direct conflict with a large and politically powerful group: the cattle industry.

black vulture

Black vultures are the most common vulture species in the world. While many others decline into endangered status, black vultures are expanding both their total population and their range. Photo by Dennis Church.

Black vultures are one of the few vulture species that commonly take live prey, in addition to scavenging. They are also the most common vulture species in the world. While many others decline into endangered status, black vultures are expanding both their total population and their range. Historically, they soared mostly through the skies of the Southeast, but in recent years, they have become much more common farther north. As they spread into states like Missouri, they started to encounter more and larger cattle operations, including significant numbers of newborn calves. Not surprisingly, when a resourceful, intelligent scavenger and predator meets a reliable and abundant source of food, they will often take advantage of it.

In response to what they claim is an explosion in vulture predation on livestock, cattle interests and supporters have introduced a bill in Congress called the Black Vulture Relief Act. The bill would make it significantly easier for ranchers and livestock farmers to kill vultures on their property. The bill has so far not advanced beyond the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries, where it got a preliminary hearing in July 2023. But industry pressure for a vote continues. Though it has primarily Republican support, Rep. Darren Soto (FL-9), a Democrat, has cosponsored the bill.

Supporters of the legislation say the bill is necessary to help ranchers deal with a growing threat to their operations. Opponents worry that a blank check for shooting vultures could endanger an ecologically important bird while not actually solving the root cause of the conflict.

One problem is data, or the lack thereof. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association claims that black vulture predation causes 2.1 million cattle losses per year, leading to $4 billion in damages to ranchers. That number has been cited by proponents of the bill, including Senate cosponsor Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. But this figure, like every estimate of vulture predation, is questionable at best. In 2015, the Department of Agriculture estimated cattle losses from vulture predation to be about 1 percent of the Cattlemen’s Association estimate (about 2,100). Black vulture predation has certainly risen since then, as the range of the species has grown. But for that estimate to be correct, it would have had to multiply nearly 80 times in a decade. And even the relatively low USDA estimate is based on self-reporting by ranchers, not controlled field studies.

“We can be very confident that there is predation going on,” says Purdue University PhD student Marian Wahl, whose work centers on vulture-livestock conflict. “How often that predation is actually occurring is much more difficult to ascertain.”

Even on an individual level, it can be hard to tell whether a cow was killed by a vulture, or just scavenged after death. Black vultures hunt and scavenge in large groups, and in a short time, a feeding flock can eat the evidence that could have exonerated them. A cow that dies of disease, but is found surrounded by vultures, is often noted as a vulture kill. The same goes for stillbirth, which claims over 5 percent of all US calves each year. Even if another predator, like a coyote or mountain lion, kills a cow, vultures often get the blame, because they are the ones present when ranchers find the body. As Wahl puts it: “Vultures do a fantastic job of making themselves look guilty.”

Scott Rush, associate professor at Mississippi State University, also questions the reliability of industry-reported cattle death data. “There may be errors in reporting. “There may be issues with why people are reporting things. I don’t even want to say it’s probably a liberal estimate. Because it may not even be an estimate.”

Black vultures are protected by one of the most sweeping and powerful environmental laws in the country, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. An agreement between the United States and Canada, the law protects over 1,000 bird species from hunting and harassment without a special permit. Right now, ranchers who believe that vultures are killing their cattle go through a process involving both the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which issues the permit, and the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division, a controversial agency responsible for dealing with wildlife conflicts. Under the new bill, ranchers would be allowed to shoot more vultures themselves and report it to the government, rather than having agency officials carry out the killing.

Many experts who work on this issue say that some minimal lethal control may be necessary. (Though there are yet others who disagree) Vultures sometimes gather in large numbers at a particular cattle ranch and are not always deterred by non-lethal methods like loud noise, lasers, and guardian dogs.

“It’s not that we want to stop or avoid necessarily using lethal control,” Wahl says. “It’s just that we want to make sure that we’re doing it in a very targeted manner. In the end, a blanket increase in the allowed take is not likely to really decrease predation any more than we would expect from these targeted lethal control efforts.”

According to Wildlife Services’ own data, the agency killed 13,196 black vultures in 2022, up from 9,300 in 2018. In that time, the range of these shootings has spread from 19 states to 22, tracking with the range expansion of the species. That number would certainly increase under the new bill, without addressing the lack of reliable data on vultures and livestock predation.

Wildlife Services has come under fire in recent years for what opponents call an overzealous and industry-driven approach to predator control, especially when it comes to wolves. But for all these issues, Wildlife Services does often choose non-lethal methods when it is called to a site. For every black vulture an agent shoots, seven are chased away that might be killed under a less regulated system.

There is, however, a possible compromise between the current, often-slow, state response to predation and the proposed open season on black vultures. Several states have begun using a master permit system to streamline the process. Under this system, rather than applying for permits one at a time, the state farm bureau receives a master permit, and the ability to create sub-permits for its members. This keeps the advantages of the current system, namely the reliable data collection and control over total number of vultures killed that comes from having one central permitting agency, while removing one of the complaints of ranchers, the long wait time and paperwork that comes with a request directly to the federal government.

At its core, vulture predation is an issue of priorities: rural versus urban, and environmental versus economic. Ranchers are losing some number of their cattle, although the exact number is unknown. For small operations, even occasional loss can mean real economic hardship. But vultures also provide an incredible and often unappreciated value, both economically and environmentally. By clearing carcasses of both livestock and wild animals, they control the spread of diseases among both animals and humans. They are also climate allies, with one recent study finding that their dietary habits help keep tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. In addition to their value to use and their ecosystems, they are also highly intelligent wild animals with their own intrinsic worth.

“The livestock producers are often very frustrated because they feel like not only do they not have a great way of dealing with it, but they feel like they’re being ignored about it,” Wahl says. “They’re being told it’s not a real issue that they’re facing, which is very easy for us to say when we just get our food at the supermarket. We really need to find a way to shift this so that we’re taking a much more collaborative approach.”

The issue also involves a battle of ideologies within the government’s wildlife agencies. Predator control was once the dominant national management strategy, and this remains so in some states and wildlife offices. But a more ecosystem-centered and predator-positive ethos has made some inroads, especially after the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and the cascading benefits to the ecosystem documented there by decades of scientific study. Like wolves, vultures can affect their wider environments, and may even be keystone species in certain places, structuring the ecosystem and playing an irreplaceable role in its health.

“It seems like we’ve never learned our lesson,” Rush says. “Maybe 100 years from now we’re going to try to repopulate a place because we’ve extirpated vultures, which is what we’re doing with wolves and bears in the West now.”

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