Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+ Join today!.
Photo: Bob Landis
“Wildlife isn’t agriculture,” says Brooks Fahy, executive director of the non-profit Predator Defense. Sounds obvious, and yet the Federal government agency known as Wildlife Services falls under the authority of the USDA. Bringing to light the agency’s overreach, the documentary Exposed: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife is co-directed and co-produced by Fahy. Here, he responds to questions about the scandal that is Wildlife Services’ predator control program.
According to the film, U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing livestock industries through Wildlife Services. How is this happening?
In a lot of cases Wildlife Services activities take place on open-range public lands and for private ranching operations that are already being subsidized through open-range public allotments, so it’s a freebie to the ranching community. It’s another example of how the ranching community for well over a century in this country has been able to externalize the cost of doing business.
Wildlife Services prophylactically goes into areas and slaughters coyotes, cougars, what have you, and now wolves, which is happening in Idaho and Montana. If ranchers had to go out and set traps and snares and maintain them, they might think about taking better care of their livestock. An interesting thing about the ranching community as a whole is they try to identify themselves as the independent, iconic Western cowboy, and yet they’re one of the most heavily subsidized special interest groups in the West, especially through open-range ranching, which is destroying the America West. What we see with livestock—sheep and cattle, especially in the West—is they degrade habitat; they degrade ecosystems; they degrade water quality. I’m talking about public lands. Wolves are being killed because some bozos want to run sheep in wilderness areas, with no husbandry. Yes, some of the sheep get taken, but the problem is they shouldn’t be there to begin with.
What’s the involvement of hunting groups with Wildlife Services?
Human hunters expect state wildlife management agencies, especially in the West, to aggressively manage predators because they view them as competition—I’m not talking about every hunter, but the vast majority of them. Another aspect of Wildlife Services is killing wildlife [predators] for state wildlife management agencies to enhance prey populations: deer, elk, animals like that. Science has shown this doesn’t generally work, and if it does it’s very short-term. The main thing that affects ungulate [hoofed mammal] populations is human activity: roads, agriculture, removal of habitat.
What does science say about keeping predator numbers in check?
When you look at the science of killing predators you learn real quickly that if you don’t want problems with them and you don’t want them to reproduce at a high rate, don’t kill them. There’s an old adage, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” and there’s no better example of that than the North American coyote. If you hammer coyotes in a certain area, you’ll have temporary relief, but that opening is very quickly filled by other coyotes in surrounding areas. They’re great dispersers.
Also, coyotes are pack animals. There’s an alpha male and an alpha female, and when Wildlife Services goes in with aerial gunning and trapping, they’re non-selective. And when you kill an alpha male and alpha female, subordinates within the pack that are normally what’s called behaviorally sterile and won’t reproduce—when you destroy that pack structure—all of a sudden you have subordinates, younger animals, able to breed, and by virtue of their being younger, they have big litters. They have to feed those hungry pups, and now they have to bring down big packages of food, not just jackrabbits or whatever, but they look at that sheep and go, “Wow, maybe I should take that sheep because I’ve got all those hungry mouths to feed.”
There are repercussions to the indiscriminate slaughter of predators. What science has clearly demonstrated for decades is that apex populations of predators don’t need to be controlled, they’re self-regulating.
How do you see the way forward?
We [at Predator Defense] want to see Wildlife Services dismantled. One of the things that makes our organization different is we come flat out and say we don’t want predators hunted—at all. First and foremost that speaks to the science, the ecology of it, and then the ethical: these are sentient beings, and they suffer pain and have social structures. Human beings are not the center of the universe. We should try to co-exist with all other creatures on this planet the best we can.
Exposed: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife screens at the 2nd Annual Animal Film Festival in February.