Monthly Archives: June 2007

Prey not hard-wired to fear predators

Wolf packAre Asian elk hard-wired to fear the Siberian tigers who stalk them” When wolves disappear from the forest, are moose still afraid of them?

No, according to a study by Wildlife Conservation Society scientist Dr. Joel Berger, who says that several large prey species, including moose, caribou and elk, only fear predators they regularly encounter. If you take away wolves, you take away fear. That is a critical piece of knowledge as biologists and public agencies increase efforts to re-introduce large carnivores to places where they have been exterminated. Berger’s study is published in the latest issue of the journal Conservation Biology.

The goal of re-introduction isn’t simply to save a species; it is to restore the natural functions of wild places. When the predator-prey relationship comes back into balance, impacts ripple through the system. For example, when wolves returned to the Yellowstone region, they caused a cascade of events including a change in elk distribution, more wariness in moose, and a change in coyote densities. By contrast , where wolves and grizzly bears were lost, migratory birds including warblers and hummingbirds were less abundant because moose over-browsed vegetation used by these migrants. “It is not just changes in climate or disease may alter our big remote wild landscapes, but so do the actions of conservationists and public agencies by restoring ecosystems to bring native carnivores back to where they once thrived.” said Dr. Berger.

Berger’s study, which looked at 19 areas including the Russian Far East, Greenland, Canada, and the U.S., demonstrated that caribou, elk, and moose are all affected by both the loss and return of their predators in ways that are important for conservation and ecosystem integrity.

These findings come at a time when, after more than $23 million was spent to re-establish wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains, the animals are to be down-listed from federal protection. The states of Wyoming and Idaho have already proposed plans that would allow for as much as 85 percent of these once-protected wolves to be killed. So even as the goal of re-instilling fear of predators in prey species has been successful, the question remains whether enough wolves will be left to maintain the larger goals of natural function and balance, according to Dr. Berger.

Notes on the Study

The study compared the behaviors of four species of prey animals in three different prey situations:

* Locations were native predators still exist. (Eastern Siberia, Boreal Canada and Alaska)

* Locations where the top predators no longer exist. (the polar islands of Greenland and Svalbard, Norway)

* Locations where native predators have been re-established after once being extinguished. (Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks )

To test reactions of animals living without their traditional predators, Berger played recordings of wolves and tigers and chronicled their reactions. As expected, in the absence of predators, the elk, moose, bison and caribou did not show the kind of vigilance, clustering behavior and flight observed in the same species living with wolves, bears or tigers. For example, elk in the mountains of Siberia—who subsist alongside tigers, wolves and bears– responded five times faster to the recordings than did elk in Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) where major predators have been absent for some 90 years.

JOHN DELANEY 1-718-220-3275;
BEBE CROUSE (BOZEMAN, MT): 1-406-522-9333;


Environmentalists call for end to aerial gunning program

DENVER—In the wake of a plane crash that killed two people, environmental groups say the federal government should stop its aerial gunning program targeting coyotes and other animals that prey on livestock.

Federal officials are investigating the cause of a June 1 crash in south-central Utah of a single-engine plane carrying two federal Wildlife Services employees who were hunting down coyotes.

Twenty-seven conservation groups have sent a petition to William Clay, deputy director of Wildlife Services, asking that aerial gunning be stopped, calling it “excessively dangerous, demonstrably wasteful and biologically counterproductive.”

Wildlife Services spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said Wednesday that aerial predator control has been halted in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Washington and Utah as the agency assesses the use of fixed-wing aircraft. She said aerial gunning was due to stop this week in those states anyway because the livestock birthing seasons are finished.

Only helicopters are being used in other states.

“Our goal is always toward zero accidents,” Bannerman. “We want to review operations for the protection of our employees within the inherent risks.”

The toll is too high, said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife advocacy group. She said an analysis of the agency’s data shows 10 people have died and more than 20 have been injured in 25 crashes of planes and helicopters gunning for animals since 1979.

“This program is inherently unsafe. Flying really close to the ground doesn’t give them much maneuverability,” Keefover-Ring said.

She questioned why the accidents haven’t received the kind of scrutiny given to the fatal accidents of firefighting air tankers. Two fatal crashes in 2002 triggered an independent investigation of the safety of air tankers.

Keefover-Ring also contended aerial gunning isn’t effective. She said coyotes reproduce more when they’re under stress and have spread beyond their historic range despite predator control programs.

Aerial gunning killed 34,056 animals in fiscal 2005, the latest data available, and 27,033 were coyotes. They target predators that prey on livestock and other wildlife. Wildlife Services killed a total of 1.7 million animals, the majority of them birds, and dispersed about 29 animals without killing them.

Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spent nearly $100 million in 2005: about $50 million of it in federal funds and nearly $49 million from states, independent agencies and other sources.

Bannerman said aerial gunning is used mostly in the West.

Pilot Joseph Harris and passenger Glen Stevenson were looking for coyotes that were attacking lambs when their plane crashed on a high plateau in Wayne County, Utah. A witness told investigators the wind was calm.

The plane, owned by Utah’s Department of Agriculture and Food, was destroyed by a fire after the crash.

Three accidents that killed four people in the late 1990s prompted an investigation by USDA employees and outside specialists. Bannerman said a report was issued in 1998 and improvements were made, including more rigorous training for pilots and shooters and more stringent aircraft maintenance standards.

The latest crash should make the USDA rethink the entire program, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“As a wildlife management tool, aerial gunning makes as much sense as using tactical nuclear weapons to root out prairie dogs,” Ruch said.

Chugwater, Wyo., rancher Tom McDonnell, a consultant to the Colorado-based American Sheep Industry Association, called the program’s safety record “remarkable” considering that employees fly about 20,000 hours a year, much of that lower than 500 feet above the ground.

“Aerial gunning is the most selective tool out there that we have. You can identify the animal and then take it out,” McDonnell said. “If we didn’t have aerial hunting, a lot of this country you wouldn’t be able to lamb in because of the predators.”

By JUDITH KOHLER Associated Press Writer

Denver Post 


On the Net:

U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service:


Call to End Aerial Gunning of Wildlife

Aerial gunning (from a helicopter)Two More Federal Agents Killed in Questionable Program

Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Agriculture should stop sending its people up in aircraft to shoot coyotes, according to a petition filed with the agency by 27 conservation organizations. Pointing to two more deaths this month, the organizations argue that aerial gunning, as the practice is known, is excessively dangerous, demonstrably wasteful and biologically counterproductive.

On June 1, 2007, two federal agriculture agents died when their plane crashed during an aerial gunning trip in Wayne County, Utah. Pilot Joseph Harris and gunner Glen Stevenson routinely flew on aerial hunts. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

This brings the death total to 10, as well as 26 injuries, from aerial gunning accidents.

The groups contend that aerial gunning is inherently risky because pilots are often distracted, flying at low altitudes with little margin for error. In the 27 recorded plane or helicopter crashes, pilots have flown into power lines, trees and land formations.

“As a wildlife management tool, aerial gunning makes as much sense as using tactical nuclear weapons to root out prairie dogs,” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “USDA needs to take this latest tragedy to heart and rethink the wisdom of this entire program.”

Aerial gunning is part of a $100 million a year USDA program called Wildlife Services that kills more than 1.5 million animals a year. In 2005, Wildlife Services claims to have killed 34,056 animals by aerial gunning, including badgers, bobcats, red foxes, grey wolves and even domestic housecats.

The groups also argue that the coyote hunts do not provide relief to ranchers as studies show that the coyotes compensate by either bearing larger litters or permitting more animals in the pack to breed.

“Killing coyotes ironically results in more of them – they’ve figured out how to adapt to over 100 years of extermination campaigns thrown at them,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu noting that the strafing operations are supposed to protect livestock from predation. “There are a whole range of less dangerous, less expensive and more effective means for controlling coyotes than calling in the Air Force.”

The groups signing the petition to USDA include: AGRO: A Coalition to End Aerial Gunning of Wildlife; Alaska Wildlife Alliance; Animal Defense League of Arizona; Animal Welfare Institute; Big Wildlife; Biodiversity Conservation Associates; Center for Biological Diversity; Center for Native Ecosystems; Cougar Fund; Forest Guardians; Great Old Broads for Wilderness; Great Plains Restoration Council; Humane Society of the United States; In Defense of Animals; The Larch Company; Mountain Cats Trust; Oregon Natural Desert Association; Prairie Preservation Alliance; Predator Conservation Alliance; Predator Defense Institute; PEER; Sagebrush Sea Campaign; Sierra Club; Sinapu; Southern Rockies Ecosystems Project; Western Watersheds Project; Wildlife Damage Review

Wendy Keefover-Ring | Sinapu | (303) 447-8655 ext. 1#
Nicole Rosmarino | Forest Guardians | (505) 988-9126, Ext. 156
Kirk Robinson | Western Wildlife Conservancy | (801) 468-1535
Carol Goldberg | PEER | (202) 265-7337


Read the petition to end aerial gunning


Look at an analysis of aerial gunning accidents


View TV footage of downed plane


See the annual kill totals for USDA Wildlife Services

Sinapu to the USDA & Congress: No More Aerial Gunning!

End this Senseless Program, No More Deaths, Please

On June 1, 2007, two federal employees died when their plane crashed during aerial gunning operations in Wayne County, Utah. A television news story stated that the pilot and gunner were professionals that flew “almost daily” on aerial hunts, and that the flight community was shocked by their deaths. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – Wildlife Services’ employees, friends, and families of the two men are reeling from the tragic loss of pilot Joseph Harris and gunner Glen Stevenson. Sinapu extends its condolences to the families.

Crashed airplane.  Hopefully the coyote got away.USDA-Wildlife Services calls these deaths heroism in the line of duty. Instead, these deaths represent are the unnecessary result of an antiquated and failed federal program by the USDA to kill native carnivores on behalf of a few dozen Western livestock producers. Why does the federal government promote the act of shooting coyotes and other animals by federal employees and contractors from low-flying planes and helicopters given the accident rate in this business?

Since 1989, the USDA-Wildlife Services has crashed at least 25 helicopters or planes while aerial gunning, resulting in at least 10 fatalities and 26 injuries. Read Sinapu’s report.

• In March 2000, Quinton Van Cleve and Steve Pfeil died in Del Rio, Texas while aerial gunning. No witnesses saw the accident, but the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the helicopter experienced a “in-flight collision with terrain.”

• In March 1998, Lawana Clark died while training as an aerial gunning pilot in Lebec, California (photo above). Her plane’s wing struck the ground during a turn. According to government records, her shoulder harness had been altered—likely contributing to her fatality. (Her trainer, Andy Williams, was seriously injured when he was involved in a second accident in 2000 in Rio Vista, California when his plane struck a powerline and plunged 120 feet. In a third incident, in 1997, Williams was named in a crime report for allegedly shooting bullets from a USDA aircraft near a couple in Sierra County, California.)

• In 1998, aerial gunner Shane Cornwall died in Spanish Fork, Utah when his helicopter struck a tree after apparent engine failure.

• In 1996, Jeff Yates and Darwin Mabbutt’s plane in Holden, Utah crashed because the vehicle was 75 pounds overweight.

• In 1979, Robert Evans and Gary Lambert plane crashed in Artesia, New Mexico while hunting predators.

Obviously, flying close to the ground while chasing coyotes, foxes, or bobcats can lead to trouble, including collisions with powerlines, trees, or land formations. Many aerial gunning accidents occur because of unexpected wind shears. Flying low to the ground leaves little maneuvering room. In South Dakota, state agent Kevin Hoult caused his plane to crash after he fired a shot that lodged in the plane’s controls.

When people are dying while killing wildlife, then predator control has gotten out of hand. If the USDA-Wildlife Services won’t stop this foolishness, then Congress should. Far better methods to prevent livestock depredation (including non-lethal ones such as fencing, guard animals, and strobe lights) are far safer and more cost effective. Learn more about aerial gunning and the costs involved.