Battle Rages Over Predator Control

March 3, 2007
Rocky Mountain News - Denver, Colorado

Conservation groups want ban on toxic weapons

Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News

MONTROSE — Come springtime, the coyotes lurking on Ernie Etchart’s sheep ranch, their minds fixed on a fresh meal of newborn lamb, face a deadly distraction.

It’s the alluring stink of rotten meat, smothered on the end of a spring-loaded device staked into the soil near Etchart’s fence line. Any coyote that sniffs it out and takes a bite gets an unwelcome surprise: a burst of sodium cyanide powder.

The toxin mixes fast with saliva, forms a gas and penetrates the lungs. Breathing quickens, the animal convulses, collapses and dies, often within just a couple of minutes.

Ranchers such as Etchart credit the fatal contraptions, called M–44s, with saving their businesses. It’s another weapon — along with guard dogs, shepherds, traps, aerial gunning and a rancher’s rifle — that cuts the number of livestock lost to predators.

"I was always partial to the M–44," Etchart said as his bulky pickup truck bounced along sagebrush–dotted federal lands west of Montrose, where his 3,000 sheep graze. "It’s the most effective. It’ll stop your problem right there."

It’s actually the federal government that distributes the cyanide ejectors on private land. A trapper with a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services is on call for Etchart and other local sheep–growers, who together chip in to pay a share of the costs.

But the M–44s, and a second toxic apparatus not used in Colorado — a poison–filled livestock collar that kills predators that rip into the necks of sheep and goats — are in the crosshairs of 11 environment and wildlife groups across the country that want the poisonous traps banned.

Another threat

In a recent 53–page petition to the Environmental Protection Agency, authored by the Boulder–based wildlife advocacy group Sinapu, the groups argue that animals with no interest in sheep, even family dogs, are killed by M–44s. Most troubling to activists are deaths involving rare species, such as California condors, wolves and, in one case, a grizzly bear.

Petitioners argue that predators can be managed by non–lethal means, including better fencing and deploying more guard dogs — a method that Etchart conceded has cut lamb losses substantially.

Opponents also suggest the poisons create terrorism risks, citing recent audits by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General that criticized the USDA for a poor job securing and tracking the toxins.

"The larger question is why is the federal government scattering highly dangerous toxicants all across the country as a wildlife control strategy," said Wendy Keefover–Ring, of Sinapu.

Sinapu’s petition documents several dog deaths, including one in 1999 in Crawford, in western Colorado, when a family’s golden retriever mix, Bob, found something in the grass that let out a puff of white mist. Bob sprinted away, collapsed and died.

The family sued after discovering that a government trapper had set the devices on their land without permission, the petition says. In 2001, the family won $9,500 in a settlement with Wildlife Services.

Wildlife Services’ data for 2004, the most recent year for which such information is available, show 117 dogs killed by M–44s, though it’s likely some of those dogs were feral.

For activists, the petition is part of their larger campaign against Wildlife Services, what they call a "rogue agency" with what they see as a "sledgehammer approach" to managing wildlife.

In 2004, the Wildlife Services killed 2.7 million animals (including 80,000 coyotes) on behalf of farmers and ranchers at a cost of more than $100 million, the agency’s figures show. It did this, the groups complain, despite the fact USDA’s own statistics show more cattle and sheep perish from injuries and illness than predation.

"They go out and kill many times more predators than are actually involved in livestock depredation," Keefover–Ring said. "The cycle of killing - it just never stops."

To ranchers, the activists’ petition is another threat to their way of life.

Long gone, they know, are the days when they called all the shots: running livestock unhindered and shooting, trapping and killing predators at will.

But farmers and ranchers complain it’s gone too far the other way.

Etchart cites Amendment 14, the voter-approved initiative in 1996, that limited trapping and poisoning in Colorado in most cases to just 30 days a year.

Prior to it, he relied far more heavily on M–44s to control coyotes.

He doesn’t employ them nearly as often anymore.

"Gosh, if you’ve got a coyote that keeps coming and coming, and everything they do is at night, it’s difficult to pick them up," Etchart said. "The more we get restricted, the harder it is to make a living. That’s why you see children in family farms and ranches" leaving the business behind.

Worry over losses

In the chill of late February, the predator problem ebbs. Etchart’s 3,000 pregnant ewes are fattening on sagebrush, rabbitbrush and blue gamma and Indian rice grasses that blanket high-desert Bureau of Land Management parcels in southwestern Colorado.

It’s springtime, when lambs are born several miles east on Etchart’s small ranch, that coyotes show more interest.

"When (predators) kill, it’s my profit margin, my wages that they’re taking. Everything has to be met. My herder’s not going to split that (loss) with me."

Etchart knows his sheep ranching. His father, a French Basque, came to America in 1948 as a sheepherder. He once spent six years watching the flocks without once visiting town.

Environmental groups such as Sinapu and others that scrutinize grazing leases and protect wildlife "are going to use any tactic, any ploy they can to get what they want," Etchart said. "They want to create a hardship so we’re forced out of business."

The agency responsible for containing predators, and deploying M–44s, is protective of its methods as well. A top Wildlife Services official noted M–44s are much easier than setting traps, which state laws often require be checked once a day or once every other day so animals don’t suffer.

"M–44 kills the animal relatively quickly; you don’t have to worry about it being restrained (in a trap)," said Gary Littauer, assistant regional director for Wildlife Services in the western region.

The agency killed only 13 coyotes in Colorado in 2004, records show. Nationally, though, M–44s killed about 10 percent of the 101,225 meat–eating mammals taken the same year.

Of those, Wildlife Services classified 1,980 as unintended targets of the devices. Littauer acknowledges such losses, but said the agency takes steps — including posting warning signs for pet owners and working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when rare species are involved - to avoid those deaths.

As for more emphasis on nonlethal approaches, Littauer said ranchers and farmers usually ask his agency to step in when fences, guns and guard dogs haven’t worked.

And Littauer said Wildlife Services has taken steps to address concerns raised by government auditors over handling of the wildlife toxins.

"We believe we’re in compliance with the current standards for accountability and secure storage," he said.

Etchart said wildlife activists misunderstand the situation. Ranchers understand that predators play a role in keeping nature in balance.

"Their feeling toward the ranching industry is that we’re out to kill every predator at all cost," Etchart said. "I’m pretty darn sure it’s not true."