Predator-control programs come under fire in West

Increasingly, mountain states are enacting bounties and hunting contests. Some say they're overreacting.

In his home state of Utah, Craig Axford says the coyote has become a potent symbol of commerce.

For about $20, Mr. Axford notes, he can buy his daughter a stuffed-animal version of "Copper the Coyote," one of three lovable mascots selected for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

On the other hand, he can earn roughly the same amount of money by loading a gun and participating in a new state-sponsored bounty program. For every pair of coyote ears he delivers, county authorities will give him cash for helping to control a proliferating coyote population that they say is a menace to livestock, household pets, and big-game herds.

Increasingly, polemic attitudes toward coyotes and other predators - dead or alive - are deepening the cultural divide now emerging in America's New West.

Utah is just one of several states that have either enacted predator bounties or allow contests whose principal aim is to reward hunters and trappers who kill the most predators during a given time frame:

* In Colorado, the state is sponsoring a study of mule deer that involves eliminating coyotes from complete areas.

* In Idaho, lawmakers have advanced a plan to kill 75 black bears and 10 mountain lions in the Clearwater River drainage to bolster the success rate for elk hunters.

* In Oregon, the legislature has sanctioned a study of mountain lions. The lions will be radio-collared and tracked for two years, then killed to see how their absence affects elk populations.

* In Arizona, the governor's regulatory review council overturned a ban imposed by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission on predator "contest shoots," in which prizes are given for shooting as many coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions as possible. Before making its decision, the review council received more than 14,000 letters - the vast majority of which supported the ban.

Kanab and the surrounding landscape of Kaibab Plateau, stretching from southern Utah to northern Arizona, are well known to fans of old TV westerns. When shooting movies in this rugged setting, John Wayne and other stars stayed in local motels, where their autographed pictures are still on display.

Outside of town, rifle-toting ranchers in pickup trucks don't hesitate to shoot any coyote that comes within range. That's the way it's been as long as raising livestock has been a livelihood.

Still, a wildlife study conducted here 80 years ago (one of the earliest) found that eliminating large predators from ecosystems can result in overpopulation of big-game species.

Ken Labrum, though, is not deterred. A co-organizer of a predator-control survey for the Uinta Basin Sportsmen in northern Utah, he says opponents of coyote killing fail to understand that humans play a big role in managing nature. Controlling coyote populations, he says, is essential to protect livestock and bolster big-game herds. The survey recognizes citizens who turn in the most coyote tails.

"We don't hate coyotes, but we think there are way too many of them out there," says Mr. Labrum.

Others disagree, and say such surveys and studies are science in name only. "There's something to be said for trying to advance ... predator science," says David Gaillard of the Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman, Mont. "But this isn't coming from scientists. It's coming from legislators who are simply responding to ranchers, hunters, and outfitters."

Mr. Gaillard's group and other environmental organizations are pushing Congress to end the taxpayer-subsidized practice of federal predator control. On average, nearly 100,000 predators are killed each year. Of those, 85,000 are coyotes blamed for as many as 30,000 sheep deaths.

According to Gaillard, who recites official federal and state agricultural statistics, three times as much money is spent - about $20 million - shooting, trapping, and poisoning predators than the total dollar value of livestock losses.

Biologists confirm that during the past decade coyote and mountain-lion numbers, in particular, have increased in the West. The irony is that both species are thriving in settings fragmented by human settlement. A key factor is the proliferation of deer, a prey species that adapts well to suburban environments and, in turn, lures coyotes and lions into civilization - where they also eat people's pets.

Hostility toward predators continues to simmer in the rural West, despite the success of restoring wolves to Yellowstone and a low livestock predation rate. "Controlling coyotes is part of our western way of life," Mr. Labram says."

But some of the recent legislative moves are particularly controversial. That Utah lawmakers have committed $100,000 to culling the state's coyote population, a proud icon of the 2002 Games, has angered some residents.

"In my view, condoning the needless killing of the real-life model for the Olympic mascot represents an attitude that is hypocritical to the extreme," says Axford. His Salt Lake City-based Utah Environmental Congress is calling upon citizens worldwide to boycott the Games.

"The coyote is much more than a cuddly commercial object," he says. "It's an important part of the ecosystem in Utah."

The office of Gov. Mike Leavitt had no comment for this story, but the state's top wildlife manager told reporters recently that he questioned the merit of encouraging citizens to randomly kill coyotes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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