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USDA dodges bullet on predator control

An effort in Congress to put an end to the controversial practice of killing tens of thousands of predator animals that harass or kill livestock itself died an ignoble death last week on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In one of the closest votes yet on the federal “lethal predator control program,” the House voted 228 to 190 to defeat a measure that would have gutted $7 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services budget. The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), also would have funded a four-year study comparing the effectiveness of lethal livestock protection measures to non-lethal ones.

According to the Bozeman-based nonprofit group, Predator Conservation Alliance (PCA), Wildlife Services spends about $10 million of its estimated $27 million budget killing predators such as foxes, coyotes, bears, and mountain lions in 17 western states, despite evidence that lethal control measures are inefficient, environmentally destructive and do little to prevent depredation in the future. Moreover, PCA remains critical of the lethal predator control program because some methods used to kill wildlife, such as sodium cyanide traps, kill any animal that happens upon them, including pets.

According to figures from the National Agriculture Statistics Service, Wildlife Services killed 10,325 animals in Montana in 1999, second only to Texas, which lead the nation with 22,800 predators killed.

But Teresa Howes, public affairs specialist for the Wildlife Services Program, disputes the PCA’s claim that Wildlife Services spends more money killing animals than the livestock losses are worth. According to Howes, Montana’s 2000 budget for Wildlife Services amounted to $353,900, of which $195,000 came from “cooperators,” such as private landowners, the agricultural industry and other state and federal agencies. During 2000, Montana lost a total of 600 cattle and 3,200 calves to predators. In economic terms, that translates into $477,000 in cattle and $989,000 in calves, she says.

Howes refutes the claim that Wildlife Services only focuses on lethal methods, arguing that their “integrated pest management” program utilizes many non-lethal tools to dissuade predators, such as guard dogs, scaring devices, and improved animal husbandry practices. While she couldn’t say exactly how much money is spent on lethal control programs versus non-lethal ones, Howes did say that the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center devotes 70 percent of its work to finding new, non-lethal methods for predator control.

Nevertheless, critics of the program remain unconvinced. In fact, the lethal predator control program was one of 77 federal programs featured in the 2000 “Green Scissors” report put out by a handful of conservation and taxpayer watchdog groups highlighting federal programs that damage the environment and waste taxpayer dollars.

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