Federal wilderness areas could be targets for sharpshooters in helicopters searching for coyotes and other predators under a proposal by the U.S. Forest Service.
The proposal would also allow the use of four-wheelers and poison bait in wilderness areas to search out and kill animals preying on nearby ranches and farms.
The Forest Service is proposing to allow federal employees to kill problem predators in wilderness areas using aircraft, motorized equipment and poison bait.
Forest Service officials say the proposal is just “internal housekeeping” to clarify a 1993 agreement with Wildlife Services, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that eradicates nuisance animals.
Conservation groups see the proposal as an opening to the systematic killing of wildlife in forest areas set aside for minimal human disturbance.
“It’s a disaster,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring, carnivore protection director for Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife protection group.
“We’ll move away from a case-by-case basis to a blanket, indiscriminate approach to predator control,” she said.
While Wildlife Services has used helicopters and trucks to shoot predators that kill livestock, the lethal measures have rarely been used in wilderness areas, which are usually off- limits to motorized vehicles.
The new proposal allows those activities under certain conditions while establishing policies requiring minimal disturbance to wilderness visitors and forest resources.
It also sets out objectives for predator management such as the protection of public health and the protection of endangered species.
The aim of the proposal is to strengthen the relationship between the Forest Service and Wildlife Services, said Debbie Pressman, the Forest Service’s national wildlife program director.
“It does not expand their authority,” Pressman said. “It just adds some nuances and in some cases changes their authority.”
In Colorado, Wildlife Services typically responds to more calls about wild pigeons at airports than any other animal, said Gayle Kirn, a spokeswoman for the program’s research center in Fort Collins.
“We’ve worked on all types of lands – private and public, including wilderness areas,” Kirn said.
Regional Forest Service officials, however, said they can recall only one instance in which a predator in an wilderness area caused a problem that warranted lethal control.
In that case, a coyote killed some sheep grazing in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in northwestern Colorado, said Ralph Swain, wilderness program manager for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region.
A decision was made to kill the animal, but it was never located.
In other Western states, predators – especially wolves – have caused controversy, pitting ranchers against conservation groups and frequently catching state wildlife officials in the middle.
Some national environmental groups say they aren’t sure what’s driving the Forest Service proposal but are concerned about how it might alter the recreational wilderness experience.
“Does this mean you could have private citizens driving around with guns on off-road vehicles?” said Cecilia Clavet, with the Wilderness Society’s national forest program. “We’re not sure, but we’re trying to find out.”
Predators killed 273,000 sheep and lambs in 1999, representing a $16.5 million loss to the industry, and 147,000 cattle were killed a year later, according the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Keefover-Ring says those number represent a fraction of the total number of livestock produced in the country.
“The notion that predators are a huge problem to livestock – that’s simply an overstatement,” she said.
Livestock industry officials, however, say predators cost ranchers millions of dollars each year and controlling them is vital, even on federal lands.
“Coyotes and other wild animals don’t care about boundaries,” said Peter Orwick, director of the Centennial-based American Sheep Industry Association. “They’re just as apt to get in trouble on federal land as they are private land.”
Under the Forest Service proposal, a regional forester has the authority to determine what kind of lethal measures may be deployed to kill an animal in a wilderness area.
In 2004, Wildlife Services shot more than 37,000 animals from aircraft, according to agency documents. The vast majority were coyotes, but bobcats, foxes and wolves also were killed.
Kirn said Wildlife Services has a number of nonlethal measures it can use such as the use of fences, or dogs and noisemakers to ward off predators
In Colorado, voters in 1996 passed legislation banning leg-hold and body-hold traps, snares and poison to kill wild animals.
Kirn said she thought the state law would prohibit the use of poisons, though the proposal would permit using pesticides.
Keefover-Ring said allowing the use of pesticides in wilderness areas would permit Wildlife Services to use M-44 cyanide guns, which shoot toxic gas into an animal’s mouth.
“It’s a horrible death,” she said.
Staff writer Kim McGuire can be reached at 303-820-1240 or email@example.com.