February 21, 2012
Coyotes Under Fire: Government Program Slaughters Coyotes by the Tens of Thousands
Unfairly accused of widespread sheep deaths, coyotes are among the most persecuted predators in North America
About This Series: This is the first story in a two-part series about the targeting of coyotes in rural and urban environments. Writer Karen E. Lange interviewed dozens of sources, including HSUS experts and other coyote advocates, ranchers, scientists, and former and current government officials.
The lucky ones hide when the helicopters and planes appear overhead. Most coyotes, though, take off running for their lives. And this is just what the men from Wildlife Services want. Armed with Benelli shotguns modified to fire six or seven times in quick succession, they shoot and shoot again at the animals flushed from cover. They’re flying so low—sometimes as little as 20 to 100 feet off the ground—it feels like they’re shooting sideways. It’s easy to hit the coyotes: Some take a shot to the chest and die instantly. Others are merely wounded and crawl off to lingering deaths. Any the gunners miss, they can get on the next pass. Or the next. They stop only when they’ve shot every single coyote—when they’ve knocked down all the predators on the ground.
“They kill them as fast as they can and in as big a volume as they can,” says Rex Shaddox, who was certified as an aerial gunner by Wildlife Services, the incongruously named animal killing program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sickened by the indiscriminate slaughter, Shaddox later quit the agency and helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigate his former employer. He’s watched many coyote culls. “[They kill] coyotes, mountain lions, anything they can see. … A lot of times they’ll shoot [a coyote] and roll it and shoot it through the hindquarters. [It’ll] be jumping around, screaming and hollering and barking … dragging its rear end on the ground.”
Each year, Wildlife Services kills around 32,000 coyotes like this, en masse, on public lands and private ranches, usually before the spring lambing season. On a “good” day, a gunner can shoot 50 to 100 coyotes. These aren’t problem animals preying on flocks. Many coyotes never eat a sheep; their natural diet consists of rabbits, rodents, fruit, and fawns. These are animals killed merely for being coyotes. Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services district supervisor, describes the reasoning: “They can’t kill sheep if they’re dead.”
Add to the aerial gunning victims the casualties of the agency’s other killing methods—the coyotes called from hiding and then shot by agents on the ground; the ones strangled in snares, caught in painful leghold traps, or poisoned; and the pups gassed or dug out of dens and bludgeoned to death—and the federal government takes the lives of more than 80,000 coyotes annually.
The more you kill, the more are born. It's a never-ending cycle of slaughter...that costs taxpayers millions of federal dollars annually.
For ranchers, the proposition can seem like a good deal: Pick up the phone if you’re worried about coyotes, and call Wildlife Services to come and kill the animals. It often costs ranchers nothing. For counties and states, too, it seems like a bargain. Under “cooperative agreements,” they pay only around half the cost, while the federal government picks up the rest of the tab.
But the thing about coyotes is, the more you kill, the more are born. So the drop in population never lasts long. The next year, Wildlife Services must return and kill all over again. It’s a never-ending cycle of slaughter that keeps the program in business and costs taxpayers millions of federal dollars annually (plus what Wildlife Services gets from local governments and other partners). The agency won’t release exact figures but has said it spends $13 million a year on livestock protection. A 1995 Government Accountability Office report found that most of Wildlife Services’ livestock protection spending went for lethal control. The agency’s own stats show that coyotes represent more than two-thirds of the mammalian predators it kills. You might call it a war on coyotes, except that it’s so ineffective and the hunters and trappers waging it know they can’t possibly win. They’re a little like the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, endlessly stalking the Road Runner and ending up with a 250-pound anvil on his head.
The justification for all this violence is dubious; far more sheep die from disease and bad weather than are killed by coyotes. And there are proven, humane ways of keeping sheep safe, which some ranchers are already using. Wildlife Services says it invests $12–13.7 million, or 75 percent of its research budget, into developing nonlethal methods. But the good work the agency is doing in research and development isn’t being applied by its agents in the field. They kill the same number of coyotes year after year, says Stephanie Boyles, an HSUS scientist who works to reform the agency. “You’d think by now we’d get it. Instead of giving a rancher money to hire USDA to do aerial gunning, wouldn’t it be better to use that money to hire human shepherds?”