Western ranchers favor aerial hunting to protect herds

Jan 27, 2012

Livestock producers in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana agree that aerial hunting of predators is an efficient means of protecting their cattle and sheep herds from marauding wolves and coyotes.

The controversial use of fixed-wing aircraft over flat country and helicopters over mountainous terrain to track down and eliminate wild carnivores that have killed valuable cows, calves, ewes or lambs is worth the expense, ranchers contacted by WLJ concur.

Defenders of Wildlife is promoting enactment of the Protect America’s Wildlife Act of 2009, introduced by U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep. George Miller, both D-CA, which would close a loophole in the Aerial Hunting Act of 1971 that’s designed to put an end to aerial hunting by private citizens.

Proponents of the measure say Alaska is exploiting the loophole to resume the practice of shooting wolves from the air or chasing them before landing and shooting the exhausted animals at close range.

In 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law his state’s “pork chopper bill,” which made aerial hunting of wild pigs and coyotes legal as of last September.

Aerial hunters with landowners’ authorization permits killed more than 14,800 pigs from the air the previous year.

The new law allows any Texas hunter with a license to lease hunting rights from landowners, rent seats on helicopters and act as gunners with semiautomatic rifles. The state’s 2 million destructive wild hogs cause millions of dollars in damage to agriculture, property and wildlife.

Gene Hardy, 81, immediate past president of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association who also chairs that state’s predator advisory board, said a good deal of aerial hunting of predators is under way in Wyoming under the auspices of the USDA’s Wildlife Services program. “It’s operating in a majority of counties,” Hardy told WLJ.

Wolves and bears pose a depredation problem in western Wyoming while coyotes also threaten livestock in the rest of the state, said Hardy, who also is a member of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

He noted wolves are still protected as endangered species in Wyoming although official wolf hunting seasons are authorized in neighboring Idaho and Montana by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a bureau of the Department of Interior. The Wyoming Legislature may work on amending the state’s wolf management plan when it convenes in February, Hardy said.

Under Wyoming’s existing plan, three quarters of the state outside of Yellowstone National Park and surrounding wilderness area would classify wolves and coyotes as predators that could be shot on sight anytime, anywhere, without repercussions. Only when the federal government approves Wyoming’s management plan can wolves in the state then be delisted and hunted as predators.

Semi-retired and a thirdgeneration rancher, Hardy raises sheep between Douglas and Gillette, WY, with his daughter and son-inlaw running the ranch in eastern Wyoming. “Our operation has not had extensive losses from coyotes (which he pronounces ‘kayutes’),” he said.

Wyoming is one of the few states that legally uses M-44 cyanide devices in addition to traps and snares on the ground to control predators under proper restrictions. Some private aircraft also has been approved by the state although there are no official wolf hunts.

“Aerial hunting is extremely effective,” Hardy said, noting pilots employed by Wildlife Services are professionals who work well with trappers on the ground despite risks involved. “Between the combination of the aircraft and ground crew, it’s extremely efficient.”

Wolf packs are capable of killing large animals like buffalo, elk, mature cattle and mature sheep “or practically anything on four legs in this part of the world. Sheep are prone to all kinds of predation,” Hardy said.

Sheep producers in western Wyoming operate more on public lands and employ herders, usually from Mexico, Peru, Chile and even Mongolia, while their counterparts in eastern Wyoming “predominantly run everything under fence.”

Richard Savage, president of the Idaho Cattle Association, said USDA’s Wildlife Services (formerly known as Animal Damage Control or ADC) is running low on funding to control predators ravaging the nation’s livestock industry. He ranches about 400 head of cattle in eastern Idaho north of Idaho Falls and south of Dubois.

“General hunts are great, but it’s probably not effective in controlling wolf numbers. Certainly, when you have the problem, flying is the only way to be effective,” Savage said, mentioning some livestock producers pay an assessment per branded cattle to help supplement ADC’s funding.

While coyotes can hurt sheep badly, they are not as hard on cattle. Introducing wolves has changed that equation. Wolves can be shot when harassing or killing livestock, but USDA’s Wildlife Services must do the aerial hunts.

“Depredation has gotten serious,” Savage said. “I don’t think anyone has any grasp of how expensive wolf depredation is.”

Wolves have dramatically reduced elk and deer herds in wilderness areas. An outfitter in Salmon, ID, told Savage last fall that he once had a waiting list, but now his business is down to 50 percent of capacity because of wolves killing wild game.

A woman in Cambridge, ID, told him wolves are harassing elk and deer to the point it is driving them onto lower elevation farms, where they consume hay and private winter feed earmarked for livestock. A Dubois sheep station lost

100 confirmed head of sheep to wolves three or four years ago.

“It has become quite an expense for the people who live and operate in these areas and where wolves are,” Savage said. “We didn’t get in this business to kill wolves, but to raise cattle and produce protein, feed and clothes for people.”

Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, said aerial hunting is mandatory if wolves are to be controlled in the Gem State— and if livestock and wild game are to be protected. It is efficient, cost-effective and humane, he said.

“Predators continue to take their toll. Fifteen years ago, we did not have wolves. Now, over 50 percent of the Animal Damage Control budget is devoted to them,” Boyd said. “The wolf has turned into a very expensive proposition to manage.

Wolves are doing a number for Fish & Game, too.”

Kim Baker, president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, said wolves are listed as species in need of management, not predators, which gives them their own set of rules. Aerial hunting of them is “really important,” she said.

“For us, we don’t have a problem with aerial hunting as long as it’s done with Wildlife Services or someone with their own plane on their own land. Some people even move cows with airplanes,” Baker said.

When Wildlife Services runs low on funding, it reverts from aerial hunts to trapping predators.If ranchers are having wolf problems, they can have hunters of their choice come onto their land to take care of the wolves during Montana’s official wolf hunt season.

About $10,000 came out of an eastern Montana antelope fund to help cover Wildlife Services’ aerial hunting expenses. “They haven’t gotten any more money. When we pay our per capita fees, none can go to taking care of the wolves. It’s crazy. We pay beaucoup dollars.” — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent