Wildlife Services, from M44s to scared-to-death cows

September 10, 2018

Ralph Maughan

The cyanide spraying device, called an M-44, first came to the attention of most Pocatellans over a year ago when one was accidentally triggered by Canyon Mansfield behind his home in the hills east of town. His dog died and he was sickened by the poison.

The device was meant to kill coyotes. The idea is that some coyote might wander by, sense the device’s bait, pull on it, and suddenly be enveloped by a cloud of cyanide.

What could go wrong? Especially when it is placed near a home with no notice of its existence given.

Dogs, fox, bears, raccoons, wolves, badgers, and other animals, plus people have been killed or harmed by M-44s or their predecessor killing gadgets. They are set by Wildlife Services, an obscure federal agency that for years has serviced wildlife in a way similar to how a bomber services its target.

Wildlife Services is part of APHIS (the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) and APHIS is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I called Wildlife Services “obscure.” I mean obscure to the average American. If you are a stockgrower in the West, you will probably know Wildlife Services well. They have been your friend for killing “bad” wildlife for generations.

Wildlife Services was formerly named Animal Damage Control (ADC). Before that, beginning 100 years ago, it was named Predatory Animal and Rodent Control (PARC). The current name is just camouflage for an old killer.

For many years the agency’s biggest tool was poison. As we have recently seen, poison is still used but now there are many restrictions

on its use. At the present, M44s are used in just a few states.

It was different in the past. Wildlife Service’s predecessors spread strychnine poisoned meat and oats across the countryside in an effort to kill wolves, coyotes, fox, eagles, hawks, crows, ravens, magpies, rodents, badgers, raccoons, bears, and others for good measure. Their general motivation was to uphold the idea once held by most stockgrowers that if it moves and isn’t livestock, it is better off dead.

The populations of many carnivores declined greatly in the West as result of this idea and the methods employed (mostly poison). Wolves were made extinct in the lower 48 states (except Minnesota) with poison, not with traps or guns.

The restoration of wolves in the West began in Idaho and Yellowstone in 1995, and I think it has been successful with wolf populations now firmly established in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, and California.

I suppose nearly everyone knows that wolves sometimes kill and eat livestock. The big questions are how many and what to do about it? One group with answers is Wildlife Services, all ready to go with their traps, guns, airplanes, helicopters, but not poison.

By tradition ranchers don’t like wolves. As public opinion changed in the 1980s and 90s, rancher’s opinions did not change except for a very few. Those few, however, did get news stories, I think that gave a false impression of changing attitudes.

Ranchers howled about reintroduction of the wolves before and afterwards even though some conservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife agreed to pay damages to the livestock owner if their livestock were killed by wolves. The program was popular but there is no evidence it made any difference in changing attitudes. There have been several studies showing this.

Nonetheless, after a while even the states began to pay damage compensation and expanded it to other carnivores. Some even decided to pay extra, e.g. Wyoming where you hit the jackpot if a wolf is judged to have killed your cow or sheep. Wyoming decided to compensate ranchers who lost animals to wolves seven times their market rate! And the governor has to come and personally apologize (I made the governor part up). Ranchers rake in the money all the while complaining about the wolves. In the Cowboy State you could make money by secretly raising livestock with goal of wolves killing them.

My observations have convinced me this compensation stuff is all a waste of money.

My opinions aside, a determination needs to be made that wolves have actually made a kill. Otherwise the Defenders would not pay. As a result, the site of dead livestock soon became like a crime scene. The rules are don’t step on animal tracks there or move the carcasses. Cover them to keep scavengers away.

The wolves were managed by the federal government for about a decade, and they (the feds) made the decision on the livestock kill. For ranchers, the federal agents that decided this were not the good old, friendly Wildlife Services, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for whom ranchers were not a constituency. You can image how the ranchers liked that.

An expert from USFWS made the decision at “the crime” scene as to the cause of death. Not surprisingly, there were fewer wolf kills than the owners thought. Evidence that a carcass had been fed on did not mean wolves were guilty. A carcass is a smorgasbord for many animals, including wolves. A dead cow or sheep that has been fed on might well not be a wolf kill. Even evidence of feeding by wolves does not necessarily mean wolves killed it. Wolves feed on carcasses they just happen to discover. During deer and elk hunting season, wolves often

subsist by eating gut piles and wounded deer and elk.

The way to tell if a wolf did it usually requires work – skin the carcass and look for bite marks, and not just any bite marks, but wolf bites that caused a hemorrhage. Already dead animals don’t bleed.

Then there were the cases of a cow (or cattle or sheep) that was simply missing. At times, the owners would say wolves killed them, and the wolves were so ravenous they ate the entire animal, apparently hooves and all. No evidence. Other times it was that the wolves ran their livestock clear “out of the country.” “Who knows where?”

I might suggest perhaps they got a ride in a rustler’s truck.

As an aside, there is the opposite view of wolves. Strangely, it is often held by the same people. That right there should tell you about attitudes on the matter.

Here it is. Instead of the wolves ate the whole cow, leaving not a trace; their conclusion became “look at this dead cow, they took just a few bites and the wolves left it.” They just killed it for fun. Of course, they never provided photos of what was at the carcass, let’s say, a half hour before they showed up and saw no wolves.

I have seen many photos of partly eaten carcasses. The photographer never seems to realize that the absence of wolves, while standing there taking pictures, does not mean the wolves have abandoned it.

Livestock owners were not the only ones to peddle the killing for fun notion. One example was Wyoming Game and Fish Department which operated an elk winter feedground at Alkali Creek up the Gros Ventre River east of Jackson Hole.

During one winter wolves would come down to the feedground at night. They’d kill an elk and eat for a while, perhaps until dawn when the Game and Fish personnel showed up. The Game and Fish folks

would see the carcass, and pull it over to a pile of dead elk that was right next to the road (a snowmobile trail in the winter). The next night the wolves would come back to finish their meal. They would find it gone. So, they would kill another elk. Then, the next morning Game and Fish came again and drag the half eaten carcass off to the pile.

This went on and on. Game and Fish used the carcass pile to show snowmobilers how wasteful and finnicky the wolves were, but it wasn’t that at all. It was the result of the feedground and the procedures used there. Only Wyoming has a large winter feedground system. Many biologists say the winter concentration of elk breeds disease. If wolves scatter the elk, Game and Fish goes ballistic, but some say the wolves are doing the elk herds a favor.

The feedground system is used to placate the ranchers who don’t want elk dispersed and naturally eating grass that cows could eat. In the Cowboy State, Game and Fish, like the federal Wildlife Services, does what the ranchers want. Ranchers have a huge impact on the fish and game, or wildlife agencies, in all the Western states. I should add that in rancher political influence has also made it tough on hunters and other outdoors people. In Idaho they have written and pushed through a new trespassing law that makes it too easy to prosecute the innocent.

When the states finally got control over wolf management in the West, Wildlife Services no longer had neutral expects looking over their shoulder. Not surprisingly, the number of livestock incidents claimed to be the result of wolves generally increased. Today it is far higher than when the feds handed over the program even though the number of wolves is down.

I didn’t mention it, but when it’s decided wolves have killed livestock, then usually a wolf killing is authorized. One or more wolves are found by air or trapped and shot. This usually done by Wildlife Services. Killing is supposed to deal with the problem. It might, but often they can’t find

the right wolves – the ones that did it. When they do find the right ones, killing only helps sometimes. Flight time is expensive. In a number of cases it costs far more than the damage done. Then too, new wolves often move into the territory (just like coyotes do).

A better (more permanent) solution is having the livestock owners modify their operations and bury or haul away dead livestock, employ guard dogs, range riders and the like. I should add that if the area has a wolf pack that does not kill livestock, it should be left alone. Packs are very territorial and it will deter new packs from coming in who might see the local livestock as food.

Both the killing of wolves and modifying livestock operations costs money. The difference is the government does the killing, but the livestock owners bear the costs of changing operations. This often causes resistance to change, especially if the owner gets compensated anyway for wolf-killed livestock.

Furthermore, if wolves don’t kill livestock, Wildlife Services has less to do. So does the Idaho Wolf Control Depredation Board which orders WS to do its deeds. There is an incentive to say wolves killed whatever, and the money expended comes out of the Idaho general fund.

The latest is the idea that wolves scare livestock to death. The way they have framed this new idea, for which there is hardly even indirect evidence, makes it so they can call almost any dead cow or sheep a wolf kill. There doesn’t have to be a mark on it. They don’t even have to find wolf tracks. They can say they couldn’t find tracks but wolves are known to be in the area, or that the cow ran away and died a mile away from the accumulated effects of fright.

Already the figures on wolf-killed livestock are highly suspect since Wildlife Services operating with the Idaho Wolf Control Depredation Board is the judge, jury and executioner. This new claim about scared cows will be used to try to extract more money from Idaho taxpayers by

influencing the Idaho legislature.

Pocatello residents got a peek of Wildlife Services in the Mansfield M44 poisoning. The victims so far unsuccessful lawsuit shows how hard it is to fight these entrenched interests.

Many more articles need to be written about this rogue federal agency and the wildlife they kill to benefit small numbers of well-placed people.

Ralph Maughan created his wolf reports in 1995 and wrote about 300 of them between then and 2006. They are news about the restoration of wolves to the West beginning with reintroduction of wolves in Idaho in Jan. 1995. You can find them online at http://www.forwolves.org/ralph/wolfrpt.html.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is a professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with his wife Jackie Johnson Maughan. He is currently president of the Western Watersheds Project.

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