Few Americans have heard of Wildlife Services, a little-known agency of the US Department of Agriculture charged with managing wildlife, largely at the behest of ranchers and agribusiness. Since 1931, this agency has been waging war against wildlife with a lethal arsenal of traps, snares, poisons, and guns. As detailed in a recent Washington Post article, the total carnage in 2013 alone included 75,326 coyotes, 866 bobcats, 528 river otters, 3,700 foxes, 12,186 prairie dogs, 973 red-tailed hawks, 419 black bears, and at least three eagles, golden and bald.
This doesn’t include the collateral damage. According to Sacramento Bee investigative reporter Tom Knudson, since 2000 Wildlife Services has mistakenly killed more than 50,000 non-target animals, including several federally protected species and more than 1,100 dogs.
Seeking to press for agency reform and greater transparency and accountability, 12 nongovernmental organizations, led by Project Coyote, met with USDA officials in Washington, DC last year. Project Coyote hand-delivered a petition with about 90,000 signatures calling for an investigation into reports of animal cruelty by the agency.
After the meeting, Project Coyote and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal petition with the USDA demanding the Wildlife Services Agency develop a regulatory code – something that every other federal agency maintains. Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and John Campbell (R-CA) then requested a formal investigation to determine whether the agency’s “wildlife damage management activities were justified and effective.” The USDA Inspector General is currently investigating this matter.
Like most Western counties, Marin County, CA contracted with Wildlife Services to provide federally subsidized predator removal services for ranchers. But in 2000, public outcry over the agency’s proposed testing of the deadly poison Compound 1080 – used in toxic collars worn by livestock, which can poison predators attempting to take down an animal – as well as its use of snares, “denning” (killing pups in their dens), and other inhumane methods to kill wildlife, led to a vote by the Marin County Board of Supervisors to terminate its contract with Wildlife Services.
The board proceeded to approve a much more humane solution to the problem – a community-based program that assists ranchers to more effectively control livestock-predator conflicts. The resulting Marin County Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program is a collaborative effort involving local wildlife protection organizations ranchers, scientists, and county officials.
To achieve significant reductions in livestock-predator conflicts, the program introduced a number of economic and technological incentives through a cost-share program, including improved animal husbandry practices, livestock guard animals, and better fencing.
To learn more visit: www.projectcoyote.org
The results have been eye-opening. In 2012, 26 Marin County ranchers participated in the county program. Utilizing 37 guard dogs, 31 llamas, and more than 30 miles of fences, the ranchers were able to protect 7,630 sheep that were pastured on 14,176 acres of grazing land. Coyote depredation on sheep in the county declined steadily – from about 236 in the 12-month period starting October 2002 through September 2003, to 90 in during the same period in 2010-2011. That’s a 62 percent reduction! The following year, 14 ranchers had no predation losses at all, and only three ranchers lost more than 10 sheep.
“Losses fell from 5.0 to 2.2 percent while program costs fell by over $50,000,” says Marin Agricultural Commissioner Stacy Carlsen. “The success of our county model has set the trend for the rest of the nation.”
The Marin program provides a successful model to address livestock-predator conflicts by integrating modern science, ethics, economics, as well as community concerns and values. The innovative program provides a template for other communities seeking alternatives to traditional lethal predator control strategies. Project Coyote is raising funds to produce a film about Marin County’s program with the aim of scaling up the model and promoting coexistence with wildlife nationwide.
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