I-Team: Federal agency spends more than $100M to kill predatory animals

LAS VEGAS - DISCLAIMER: Some of the images in this story may be disturbing.

Nevada Lawmakers are debating a plan that would remove hundreds of thousands of dollars from a program that targets predators such as coyotes, mountain lions, and bears.  The money is raised from hunters when they obtain their licenses, and it goes into programs that kill predators which prey on trophy animals such as deer or big horn sheep.

But the state program is a drop in the bucket compared to a little known federal agency that spends more than $100 million in public funding per year to kill animals.

The I-Team discovered that Nevada is a bloody battleground for coyotes and other predators. An obscure federal agency called Wildlife Services, which was created in the late 1800's, spends huge sums each year to shoot, trap, and poison predators, such as coyotes, foxes, lions, bears, and birds.  

Of the 12 bloodiest counties in the west, three are in Nevada.  It is no coincidence that Elko, Humboldt, and White Pine counties are all ranching centers.

"Wildlife Services is a welfare program for ranchers, and on top of all the other ones where the government comes in, they do aerial gunning, they use traps and snares," said Wendy Keefover, Humane Society of the U.S. "They use all kinds of horrible poisons to kill animals."

Keefover is the author of a study which asserts that Wildlife Services spends up to $140 million to kill millions of animals. The 8 News NOW I-Team reached out to the agency to get the numbers, but it has been reluctant to reveal just how many animals die.

"I think Wildlife Services has a culture of killing," Keefover said. "It's going to be very hard for them to be truthful."  There's a culture of shoot, shovel and shut up in that agency."

Keefover's study helped inspire a lawsuit in federal court which challenged the legitimacy of the science behind predator control, and because Nevada is ground zero for wildlife services' killing machine, the suit was filed in the state of Nevada.

"Nevada's wildlife services budget is somewhere close to $3 million; nationally wildlife services kills millions of animals a year," said Dr. Don Molde, a wildlife advocate.  "The number is three or four million or more.  They kill birds; they kill mammals. They kill all kinds of things."

Molde became a central part of the court challenge.  He says the hatred of coyotes in particular is way out of whack.

"Because the coyote is so hated by the people who manage it, Dr. Molde said.  "The wildlife services department, ranchers who complain about coyotes -- to me the animal is demonized far beyond what it deserves."

Coyotes and mountain lions prey on livestock from time to time, but the government spends more money to kill the predators than what the livestock are worth. It pays an average of $700 to kill a coyote and thousands of dollars to hunt a mountain lion.

Some methods are unnecessarily cruel and often have the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

"Randomly killing coyotes produces the wrong kind of coyote and makes the problem they are trying to address even worse," Dr. Molde said.  "So it's utterly crazy."

Coyotes go into reproductive overdrive when hunted down because of the constant pressure, today's coyotes these days are bigger, stronger, and their range has spread across all of North America.

In addition to federal money spent to protect livestock, the state of Nevada has its own pot of public dollars to kill predators. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are collected from hunting licenses. 

The state anti-predator programs are designed mainly to benefit hunters, eliminating predators that might be a threat to desirable trophy animals like deer and bighorn sheep.

It's a tricky balancing act for the Nevada Division of Wildlife.

"Our objective is to manage all species within the job, so that it's sustainable, and we value every one of those species as part of our resource," said Bryan Wakeling, Nevada Division of Wildlife.

The wildlife decision didn't ask for this program but has spent millions of dollars to pummel predators so that deer populations can be stabilized.  It has resulted in more trophy bucks for hunters to bag. 

So, how did that work out?

"There's been no change in mule deer numbers in over a decade, despite $5 million and thousands of animals being killed, so no, it doesn't work," Dr. Molde said.

The lawsuit filed by wildlife groups prevailed in  Federal Court, so late last year, the Wildlife Services agency agreed to suspend its killing -- at least on federal wilderness lands.

And because the state of Nevada usually relies on that federal agency to handle its own predator programs, Nevada's anti-predator efforts have also been limited so far this year.

It could all start up again when or if scientific studies can show that predator control is justified and that it works as intended.
 


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