Like many ranchers, Bill Jensen drives a pickup, shoots a high-powered rifle and loves to talk about sheep, cattle and the outdoors.
Unlike many ranchers, he no longer relies on the federal government for predator control.
The Marin County rancher doesnt have a choice. Marin, known for its environmental activism, halted lethal federal control 10 years ago and launched a program emphasizing nonlethal methods. Jensen, initially skeptical, has turned the program into a success with the help of miles of electric fencing.
Jensens losses to coyotes have declined 60 percent to 70 percent from about 50 lambs a year when a federal trapper worked there to 15 to 20.
Anything that can help you 24 hours a day, like electric fencing, is a good thing, he said.
Whats happening in Marin County is part of a broader and varied spirit of reform aimed at finding new, less destructive ways to live with predators and other wildlife.
The target of that effort a little-known division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Wildlife Services has long specialized in destroying animals considered to be a threat to agriculture, the public and the environment.
Since 2006, employees have trapped, shot and poisoned more than 500,000 coyotes and other predators, along with 300-plus other species. In the process they have unintentionally killed more than 50,000 nontarget animals, from dogs to eagles.
People want to see bears. They want to see wolves. They want to see mountain lions. Its part of the natural heritage of the United States, said Michael Mares, president of the American Society of Mammalogists. We should be stewards of the system, not wiping out species and damaging ecosystems.
Ideas for reform include more nonlethal control, curtailing aerial gunning, a ban on traps, snares and cyanide poison, and pouring more resources into controlling invasive species. Some critics are calling for an investigation of Wildlife Services trapping practices, and others want the agency eliminated.
As a fiscal conservative and a budget hawk, why is the taxpayer paying for this? said Rep. John Campbell, a Republican from Irvine and one of the agencys leading critics.
Here we have a program that is not very effective, has a number of unintended consequences and costs millions of dollars.
Many, of course, do not support change, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents more than 6 million farmers and ranchers nationwide.
They help control predators and pests that cause millions of dollars in damage to agricultural producers every year, from crops to livestock, said Richard Krause, senior director of congressional affairs for AFBF. We support the idea of what Wildlife Services does.
PUSH FOR CHANGE
One matter is already under discussion. A bill introduced by Campbell and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., in March would ban the use of one of Wildlife Services most toxic tools: spring-loaded sodium-cyanide cartridges known as M-44s that fire a burst of poison into the mouth of whatever tugs on them, along with a less commonly used poison called Compound 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate).
Since 2006, federal M-44s have killed more than 81,000 predators on public and private lands, agency records show. But 3,400 nontarget animals have died, too, including bobcats, swift foxes and dogs.
People, including Wildlife Services employees, also have been sickened, though there have been no deaths.
The public has no idea what danger they are in when they are out there with their families, said Rex Shaddox, a former Wildlife Services trapper who has deployed M-44s to kill coyotes and recently traveled to Washington in support of a ban. Somethings got to be done.
Agency officials disagree, of course.
In 2009 the EPA found that use of M-44 does not pose significant risks to humans or the environment, said Wildlife Services spokeswoman Carol Bannerman. The review, she added, found the (M-44) device has a significant benefit in reducing predation without making an impact on coyote, other target species, or nontarget species.
Todays push for reform is the latest in an effort stretching back decades. No voice has been more consistent than that of the 93-year-old American Society of Mammalogists, which has protested wholesale federal predator control and for many decades has called for a ban on poisons.
Perhaps the primary emphasis should be to control invasive, exotic species, a rapidly worsening threat to rare native species and ecosystems, Mares said.
Although Wildlife Services does some work to control nonnative species such as wild pigs and nutria Deputy Administrator William Clay would like to do more.
Invasive species have been recognized as a national problem for many years, he wrote in a letter to Mares, and was a focus of the symposium we sponsored in 2007 to inaugurate our new invasive species research building.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the National Invasive Species Council resources have not emerged.
The agency augments its budget with funds from farmers, ranchers and other cooperators financial relationships that critics say should be re-examined, perhaps even ended, because they are often aimed at killing native wildlife.
Its an inherent conflict of interest to have private organizations and individuals funding a federal agency, said Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, an Oregon environmental group. They are buying influence. They are buying a federal agency.
Environmentalists and wildlife groups are calling for major overhauls, including more spending on nonlethal control and greater transparency in the reporting of nontarget species killed. Early this summer, the Natural Resources Defense Council is expected to release Wild Things, a 30-minute documentary about the agency.
AIR AND GROUND ATTACKS
Hunting predators from the air kills more than any other technique. That is a practice that many believe should be curtailed, perhaps banned, because of the cost and danger. Since 1979, 10 people have been killed and several others injured in agency crashes across the West.
Flying year-round is a waste of money, time and, most importantly, peoples lives, said Gary Strader, a former agency trapper in Nevada. It is very expensive and extremely dangerous.
Wildlife Services defends the practice.
Aerial operations are one of the most effective, selective and environmentally sound methods of lethal management, a 2011 environmental assessment in Nevada reported. In 2008, the Interagency Committee for Aviation Policy awarded Wildlife Services a Certificate of Recognition for meeting the requirements of (the committees) Federal Aviation Gold Standard Program.
On the ground, two of the agencys top wildlife-killing tools leg-hold traps and neck snares are drawing attention.
Its a war zone out here, said Lynne Stone, director of the Boulder-White Clouds Council, a wolf advocacy group in Idaho. They are strangling and mangling coyotes, wolves, foxes, raccoons and bobcats. Its so ugly Im afraid to walk my dog.
Strader said a ban goes too far, but he believes agency employees should be required to check on devices more frequently to limit animal suffering.
There are times when traps and snares go months without being checked, he said. If a recreational trapper did that, he would have his license taken away. Wildlife Services is not being animal-friendly or anywhere near it.
PUBLIC TRUST CALLED VITAL
Stone suggested a stronger fix. It should be gotten rid of unless they can start teaching people how to live with wildlife, instead of just killing it, she said.
Environmentalists have found an unlikely ally: Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services district supervisor who wrote about his career at the agency in a 2010 memoir called Wolfer, which won the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal for regional nonfiction.
Federal trappers like to think theyre good at what they do, and most of the time they are but only when it comes to killing, Niemeyer wrote in the book.
When it comes to conserving being careful not to leave a wolf in a trap too long, not letting it drown because the trap was set near water, learning how to mix immobilizing drugs properly, accidentally shooting the wrong ones because they cant tell a pup from an adult thats where the agency is woefully, willfully sloppy.
Niemeyer recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to share his concerns with agency managers. Asked what he would do if he were in charge, Niemeyer replied with a long email calling for better training and education in wildlife management, ethics and the humane treatment of animals.
I would phase in college-trained wildlife personnel, he wrote. Many (trappers) have a basic high school education and only district supervisors like myself receive some specialized training, while trappers were seldom considered.
He also called for less killing and more transparency.
If the public trusts you, there will be a lot less question about what you are doing, Niemeyer said. Its that simple.
He said employees in the West could learn from colleagues.
The eastern program is much more advanced, Niemeyer said. They are dealing with disease surveillance, feral animals, including wild pigs, and urban wildlife problems: rodents, deer, beaver, skunks, opossums, raccoons, etc., and give me the appearance that they are much more grounded in dealing with the everyday public in urban and farming communities.
In contrast, I see the western program still hung up, primarily, with killing predators like foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears and mountain lions, not so much because these animals are problems but because they exist and are macho to kill and the western culture encourages and demands Wildlife Services be funded and continue to focus on these species, Niemeyer said.
I would downgrade predator control in the West to a corrective program and phase out the preventative program of thinning out coyote populations in the event that they might kill livestock in the future.
Some ranches are already taking such steps, including the 24,000- acre Lava Lake Land and Livestock sheep ranch in Idaho.
Our company has a dual mission: to produce the worlds best grass-fed lamb and achieve conservation at a landscape scale, said Mike Stevens, the ranch president. For us, landscape scale implies having all the big animals roaming the landscape, and that includes predators.
The ranch leases more than 800,000 acres of grazing land from the government in a rugged and scenic swath of high rolling hills and mountain terrain occupied by coyotes, bears, mountain lions and wolves.
Living with predators isnt always easy wolves have occasionally killed sheep but instead of retaliating, Stevens and California-based ranch owners Brian and Kathleen Bean have deployed a wide range of nonlethal strategies, including portable corrals, electric fencing rigged with distractive flagging, all-night vigils by herders armed with rubber bullets, and Great Pyrenees guard dogs.
We found that we were able to radically reduce our losses down to one or two scattered animals, Stevens said. It can happen. It takes a lot of work and management time. It takes a commitment at all levels of the company.
AGENCY TOUTSPIONEER ROLE
Clay, the agency deputy administrator, said critics often overlook Wildlife Services role as a pioneer in developing such nonlethal wildlife control techniques. One of its employees, since retired, helped out at Lava Lake, along with Niemeyer and Suzanne Stone, northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental group.
Most of the effective nonlethal methods out there have been developed by Wildlife Services or tested by Wildlife Services, Clay said. He cited some examples: bird repellents such as anthraquinone and methyl anthranilate, birth control for white-tailed deer, and electronic siren and strobe devices to scare off predators.
Were looking right now at these Eurasian guard dogs, these bigger dogs that can be more effective against wolf predation, Clay said.
But Defenders of Wildlifes Stone said the agencys animal-friendly research and practices are rarely deployed in the field.
Their researchers are some of the top nonlethal specialists in the world, Stone said. They are developing and testing a lot of tools. But those tools are more often than not ridiculed by their field agents. They promote using lethal control almost always.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Another place where nonlethal methods are working is rural Marin County, where Wildlife Services lethal program was halted in 2002 after environmentalists objected to agency practices.
We know predators play a critical role in maintaining ecosystem health, said Camilla Fox, executive director of a local nonprofit, Project Coyote, which helped persuade county supervisors not to renew the Wildlife Services contract.
Despite their differences, Fox and Point Reyes-area rancher Bill Jensen worked with the Marin County Department of Agriculture to craft a nonlethal program that reimburses ranchers for fencing, guard dogs and other expenses. They are no longer adversaries.
The program also reimburses ranchers for losses to coyotes and does not forbid the killing of coyotes that threaten sheep.
It works fine for me, said Jensen, not long after he shot a coyote one day last fall as a last resort.
Some people were trying to rely on what the trapper was able to do to keep them in business and that was not going to work, Jensen said. They were only so effective. They cant be here all the time.
Were the only people that are going to save ourselves in this thing.