Like the prow of a ship, the Granite Mountains rise sharply from the creamy-white playa of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
Here, in rugged terrain owned by the American public, a little-known federal agency called Wildlife Services has waged an eight-year war against predators to try to help an iconic Western big-game species: mule deer.
With rifles, snares and aerial gunning, employees have killed 967 coyotes and 45 mountain lions at a cost of about $550,000. But like a mirage, the dream of protecting deer by killing predators has not materialized.
“It didn’t make a difference,” said Kelley Stewart, a large-mammal ecologist at the University of Nevada.
For decades, Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has specialized in trapping, poisoning and shooting predators in
large numbers, largely to protect livestock and, more recently, big game.
Now such killing is coming under fire from scientists, former employees and others who say it often doesn’t work and can set off a chain reaction of unintended, often negative consequences.
In biological shorthand: Kill too many coyotes and you open a Pandora’s box of disease-carrying rodents, meadow-munching rabbits, bird-eating feral cats, and, over time, smarter, more abundant coyotes. You also can sentence the deer you are trying to help to slow death by starvation.
“There is a widespread perception that predators are the root of all evil and I’m tired of it,” said Stewart. “More often than not, if you have predation on a mule deer population, you’re going to have a healthier population.”
Agency officials say controlling predators is a must, especially in the West where livestock graze large tracts of unfenced land. “The intent is not to prevent predation,” said William Clay, deputy administrator of Wildlife Services. “All we’re trying to do is remove the problem animals.”
Killing predators is part of Wildlife Services’ DNA, a mission it pursues — along with a wide range of other animal control work.
Some details can be gleaned from the agency’s web page, where it posts data showing the millions of birds and mammals its employees kill. About 560,000 predators were killed across America from 2006 to 2011, an average of 256 a day. The count includes more than 25,000 red and gray foxes, 10,700 bobcats, 2,800 black bears, 2,300 timber wolves and 2,100 mountain lions. But the vast majority — about 512,500 — were coyotes.
“They don’t know if it was a coyote that killed a sheep. It’s just a coyote, and it’s got to be killed.,” said Gary Strader, former Wildlife Services hunter in Nevada.
While fewer bobcats are killed today, the numbers of three other major predators shot, trapped and snared by the agency have risen. In 1970, agency employees killed 73,100 coyotes, 400 black bears, 120 mountain lions. By 2011, the tally had climbed to 83,200 coyotes (up 14 percent), 565 black bears (up 41 percent) and 400 mountain lions (up 230 percent).
Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, has worked with Wildlife Services employees to promote nonlethal control. “Unfortunately, in parts of the western United States it just seems like they are still in the Dark Ages. They go at this as a kill mission.”
Most surprising may be the fate of the agency’s longtime adversary, the coyote. After several decades of intense federal hunting, there are more coyotes in more places than ever.
“I call it the boomerang effect,” said Wendy Keefover, a carnivore specialist with WildEarth Guardians. “The more you kill, the more you get.”
In California, researchers have found that having coyotes in the neighborhood can be good for quail, towhees and other birds. The reason? They eat skunks, house cats and raccoons that feast on birds.
“The indirect effects (of predators) are often more important than the direct effects,” said Reg Barrett, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of California, Berkeley. “We just don’t know enough about what’s going on.”
The most dramatic example of how predators shape the land is playing out in Yellowstone National Park where wolves, after a 70-year absence, were returned in 1995 and began preying on one of North America’s densest populations of elk.
Soon aspen, willows and cottonwoods that had been overgrazed by elk began to thrive again, attracting beavers, migratory songbirds and other wildlife.
Ravens, magpies, eagles and grizzly bears benefited, too, from a smorgasbord of elk carcasses – although those benefits appear to be short-term. As the elk numbers decrease, fewer carcasses are available. Wolf numbers have declined as mange and other diseases began taking a toll on the predators.
Incidentally, coyotes took a beating when wolves took charge of Yellowstone. Wolves hunt and kill coyotes.
Tracking the ecological effects of predators is a fine art not widely practiced. “We could sure use more research,” Barrett said.
Last year, Stewart learned that a Nevada mule deer had tested positive for the plague — a disease sparked by rodent outbreaks and potentially deadly to humans — in an area where Wildlife Services was killing predators.
“It makes you wonder,” said Stewart. “In this area where we’ve been doing rampant predator control, we’re seeing a disease show up. Frankly, I’d rather see a deer get eaten by a coyote than show up symptomatic for a disease like plague.”
A few years back, Nevada rancher Marti Hoots noticed jack rabbits were out of control. While rounding up cattle on horseback, she spotted a Wildlife Services plane over her pasture. A man leaned out and began shooting coyotes.
“I was irate,” Hoots said. “I found no reason for them to be shooting because the coyotes weren’t bothering anything.
“Jack rabbits were everywhere,” Hoots said. “So the coyotes were doing some good, and they were shooting them.”
Aerial gunning is the agency’s most popular predator-killing tool. Since 2001, more than 340,000 coyotes have been shot from planes and helicopters across 16 Western states, agency records show.
“When they take that plane up, they kill every single coyote they can,” said Strader, the former Wildlife Services hunter who worked with aerial gunning crews in Nevada. “Some of the gunners are real good and kill coyotes every time. And other ones wound more than they kill. Who wants to see an animal get crippled and run around with its leg blown off? I saw that a lot.”
Clay, the agency’s deputy administrator, defended the practice, calling it is a valuable preventive strategy to clear swaths of land of predators in the winter before livestock arrive to graze in the spring.
But Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services district manager who scheduled coyote-killing flights in Montana, said the cost exceeds the value of livestock protected.
“It absolutely calls for a cost-benefit study,” said Niemeyer. “Aerial gunning is very, very expensive. You are talking $700 to $1,000 an hour to be hunting these coyotes.
“If private landowners want every coyote on their property shot, you got no bone to pick with me. But go hire your own helicopter at 700 bucks an hour and do it yourself.”
The practice remains popular, he said, because it keeps hunters busy during the slow winter months.
Wildlife Services officials defend aerial shooting as cost effective and selective, with no chance of killing non-target species.
Many believe killing coyotes en masse only makes them smarter, through natural selection. “I’m sure of it,” said Barrett, the UC Berkeley professor. “How can an animal like that be so successful if there wasn’t strong selection for individuals that take care of themselves under intense pressure? You’ve got to hand it to them.”
“We’ve raised a super race of coyotes,” said Bill Jensen, a sheep rancher in Marin County. “There is nothing more cunning than these things now.”
Wildlife Services spends about $30 million a year to protect livestock from predators — mostly coyotes. On its web page, it says losses to predators top more than $127 million a year.
But Niemeyer said those losses, which are based on unverified reports from ranchers, are exaggerated. “To paint this picture that the whole livestock industry is under siege by predators is grossly misrepresented,” he said. “There are individuals who sustain losses, but not everyone.”
Outdoors editor Rich Landers