15-06-24 Coyote1 Roland.jpg

A coyote searches for prey near Sun Valley. Coyotes are one of the predators targeted by Wildlife Services.

By GREG MOORE

Express Staff Writer

    A recently completed draft environmental assessment of Wildlife Services’ predator-killing activities in Idaho proposes to continue its current program, while providing some additional help to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to reduce predation on wildlife that need special protection, such as sage grouse, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope.

    The 273-page draft EA rejected alternatives that would end Wildlife Services’ lethal-control activities in the state or that would require livestock producers to employ nonlethal deterrents before obtaining its help in killing predators.

    The EA does not address Wildlife Services’ activities regarding wolves. That was addressed in a separate document in 2011.

    The new EA, released Friday, is an update of a previous analysis conducted in 2002.

    Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, responds to requests from private citizens and land-management agencies to provide technical help in preventing damage caused by predators or to provide lethal control. The methods used by the agency include a variety of frightening devices, ground shooting, aerial shooting, gassing of canid pups in their dens, traps, snares, livestock protection collars and poisons.

    The vast majority of the predators killed by Wildlife Services in Idaho are coyotes. Between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2014, the agency killed an annual average of 3,080 coyotes, 4.25 black bears, 3.5 mountain lions, 27.5 red foxes, 21.5 raccoons and 16.25 badgers. In 2014, it killed 126 coyotes in Blaine County.

    According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, also an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, coyotes killed 5,200 sheep and lambs in Idaho in 2012, the last year that it has provided statistics. The losses were valued at just over $1 million. However, Wildlife Services’ figures show that verified incident reports made to the agency from livestock producers between 2012 and 2014 tallied an annual average coyote kill of 645 lambs and 143 sheep, and 92 calves and eight adult cattle, causing nearly $192,000 worth of damage per year.

    Idaho Wildlife Services Director Todd Grimm said the NASS figures are compiled from surveys sent to ranchers at the end of each year, and the claims are not verified.

    “The truth is probably somewhere in between,” he said of the vastly different figures.

    The draft EA states that most requests for assistance to protect sheep from predation come from producers who are already employing nonlethal control measures but experience predation problems nonetheless. Those methods include herders with guard dogs, carcass removal, lambing in sheds rather than on the open range, predator-proof fences, night penning and scare devices.

    Idaho Wildlife Services’ 2014 budget was $1.4 million. The agency reported verified predator-caused losses to livestock and private property in 2012 at about $263,000. The draft EA cites what it calls a “common concern” about government-funded wildlife damage management programs that the value of livestock losses is often less than the cost of providing predator control.

    “[T]his concern, stated in that way, indicates a misconception of the purpose of wildlife damage management for livestock protection, which is not to wait until the value of losses is high, but to prevent or stop losses in order to minimize them,” the agency states in the draft EA.

    The agency acknowledges that it is impossible to accurately determine the amount of livestock that predator control saves from predation, but says it can be estimated. The draft EA cites studies showing that in areas without some level of predator management, losses to predators can be as high as 8.4 percent of adult sheep and 29.3 percent of lambs. However, rancher Brian Bean, owner of Lava Lake Lamb & Livestock near Carey, has estimated his lamb losses to coyote predation at about 4 percent. Bean said he uses only nonlethal deterrents and does not kill coyotes.

    The draft EA briefly addresses the contention that predator control should be fee-based. The agency concluded that wildlife damage management is an appropriate sphere of activity for government programs because wildlife is held in public trust by the government.

    “A commonly voiced argument for publicly funded wildlife damage management is that the public should bear the responsibility for damage to private property caused by ‘publicly-owned’ wildlife,” the document states. “In Idaho with its high ratio of federal to privately owned lands, the responsibility for [predator damage management] is especially true.”

    The draft EA also addresses the idea of requiring livestock producers to pay for lethal removal, thereby increasing federal funds available for nonlethal deterrents. The agency concluded that such a scenario would be unfair to ranchers who pay for nonlethal methods themselves.

The document states that while removing animals from small areas at the appropriate time can protect vulnerable livestock, immigration of coyotes from the surrounding area quickly replaces the animals removed. The agency cited a study assessing the impact of removing a set proportion of a coyote population and then allowing the population to recover. All populations recovered within one year when less than 60 percent of the animals were removed. Recovery occurred within five years when up to 90 percent of the population was removed.

Wildlife Services concluded that killing about 3,000 coyotes, combined with the 3,500 or so killed by hunters and trappers, has little effect on the estimated state population of about 50,000 coyotes.

In February, nonprofit Advocates for the West filed a lawsuit demanding that Wildlife Services conduct a full environmental impact statement about its activities in Idaho, partly to address the question of how its predator-reduction activities affect other wildlife.

    “Something that is as precious as Idaho’s wildlife should be managed with an eye toward making sure that predators can continue to serve their role in the ecosystem,” said Talasi Brooks, an attorney with Advocates for the West. “We still believe that a full EIS would be necessary to adequately disclose this information to the public.”

The draft EA notes that some people have expressed concern regarding the potential for lethal predator control to actually increase coyote populations because of compensatory reproduction. However, the document cites a study that indicates that litter size appears largely unaffected by human exploitation. Available food, especially in winter, is often considered the major factor regulating coyote abundance, the draft EA states.

Regarding other predators, the draft EA noted that the average of 3.5 mountain lions killed by Wildlife Services between 2011 and 2014 is insignificant compared to the 510 killed by hunters. The animals’ estimated statewide population is between 2,000 and 3,000.

The document states that the state’s estimated black bear population is 20,000. Between 2011 and 2014, hunters killed an average of 2,333 each year, while Wildlife Services killed only 4.25. During those four years, the agency killed seven bears on the Sawtooth National Forest.

    The agency concluded that the public’s opportunities to view predators in the wild are little affected by its activities.

    “Most of the species potentially affected by Idaho [Wildlife Services’ predator damage management] activities are relatively abundant, but are not commonly observed because of their secretive and largely nocturnal behavior,” the draft EA states. “[B]ecause there is already a low likelihood of seeing a predator, this temporary local reduction in public viewing opportunity would not likely be noticeable in most cases. … The potential minor reduction in local opportunity to view predators must be weighed against the potential economic harm suffered by livestock owners or others affected by predator damage, if predator control were not implemented.”

    The document states that Wildlife Services personnel are concerned about animal welfare.

    “[Wildlife Services] is aware that techniques like snares and traps are controversial, but also believes that these activities are being conducted as humanely and responsibly as practical,” the agency stated. “Wildlife Services and the National Wildlife Research Center are striving to bring additional non-lethal damage management alternatives into practical use and to improve the selectivity and humaneness of management devices. Until new findings and products are found practical, a certain amount of animal suffering could occur when some methods are used in situations when non-lethal damage management methods are not practical or effective.”

    The agency is seeking public comment on the draft EA, which can be found at www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=APHIS-2014-0105. Comment deadline is July 27. Comments can be submitted on the website or mailed to USDA APHIS Wildlife Services, 9134 W. Blackeagle Drive, Boise, ID, 83709. For more information, the agency can be reached at 208-373-1630.

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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