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 

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On the Net:

U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/

Sinapu: http://www.sinapu.org/

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