In part two of a three part series that the Sacramento Bee is rolling out on Wildlife Services, reporter Tom Knudson focuses on the ecological impact of the federal agency responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of predators each year. Specifically he looks at a project in Nevada where Wildlife Services has spent $500,000 over the last eight years killing nearly 1,000 coyotes and 45 mountain lions in an effort to boost mule deer populations. The result? “It didn’t make a difference,” says one of the biologists tracking the project.
In fact, the removal of coyotes may have had unintended consequences that actually harmed the mule deer. For example, removing coyotes tends to increase the number of smaller prey animals like rodents, which can carry disease and jackrabbits, which feed on some of the same plants as deer. Last year, a mule deer in the study site tested positive for the plague – a disease that is associated with rodent outbreaks. Also, one of the only factors that the scientists linked to lower mule deer numbers was ‘poor forage conditions’ (ie not enough food). On top of that, with fewer coyotes to compete with and plenty of small prey to eat, the remaining coyotes dedicate more resources to reproduction resulting in larger litter sizes and before long the coyote population has rebounded or even increased.
Knudson sums it up pretty easily:
“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.”
And those are just the results in this one project in Nevada, but Wildlife Services removes thousands of predators across our landscapes all the time without anyone measuring the results. In the past five years, they have killed an average of 256 predators a day. As the article points out, “The body 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.”
Predators play a number of important ecological roles in their ecosystem, and scientists have known for years that removing predators disrupts the food chain and leads to a shift in the composition of species. Recently, mounting evidence suggests that the removal of predators is one of humankind’s most pervasive influences on nature and has led to an overall ‘downgrading’ of our ecosystems.
At the same time, the main mission of Wildlife Services’ predator removal program – to protect livestock and boost big game populations – has shown itself to be largely ineffective, dangerous and expensive. And as a federal agency, much of that comes at the taxpayers’ expense.
It’s time to end this practice and support real and non-lethal solutions to livestock conflicts as well as build greater tolerance and appreciation for the complex role that predators play in maintaining diverse and resilient ecosystems that support all kinds of wildlife – big game included.
You can send Wildlife Services a message from our BioGems webpage. Then contact your representatives and let them know that you don’t want your tax dollars going to Wildlife Services’ predator removal program.
Photo credit: National Park Service