THE public lands of the 11 western states - over 300 million acres owned by all of us - are our last chance to prove that we can coexist with the mountain lion, our last large predator. The grizzly bear and the wolf, except for remnant populations in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, have not been a real part of the natural world for more than a half-century. Once a part of every state east of the Mississippi, mountain lions hang on today only in Florida. Before congratulating ourselves that the mountain lion still survives over most of the mountain West, we need to realize it exists there in spite of hostile policies. If the lion, like the wolf and the grizzly, had eaten carrion and thus been vulnerable to poison, it too would be long gone.
The same federal agency that was chiefly responsible for the demise of the grizzly and the wolf is still killing lions, and for the same old reason - to make the West safe for cows and sheep. Derisively branded as ``gopher-chokers'' by their many critics, the Animal Damage Control (ADC) division of the US Department of Agriculture was authorized in 1931, and still operates under the same archaic language of its founding nearly 60 years ago.
The 1931 ADC Act authorized federal expenditures of nearly $30 million in 1990 ``to promulgate the best methods of eradication, suppression or control'' of the nation's predatory and other wild animals, and to ``conduct campaigns for the destruction or control of such animals.'' Thanks to the White House, their 1990 budget is about 14 percent higher than the previous year. State and country taxpayers add another $15 million each year.
Due to an understandable preference for secrecy, the ADC does not make available a summary of the ``body kill'' for all states. According to information gleaned from 35 state ADC reports in 1988, the mortality count for mammals alone was 140,246. Included were 76,033 coyotes, 9,143 beaver, 5,195 foxes, 1,163 bobcats, 289 bear and 203 mountain lions. If birds such as starlings, blackbirds, grackles, and egrets are included, the total kill was almost 4.6 million animals.
The roots of the ADC go back to 1890, when federal involvement first began. Organized as part of the US Biological Survey, it was better known as the Predator and Rodent Control until the passage of the 1931 Act. The sole reason for the ADC's original existence was the constant pressure of the western ranchers for government help in killing everything from large predators to prairie dogs.
When ranchers finally began to pay for the formerly free grass on the public lands, the fact of that minuscule fee (5 cents per cow) was a powerful justification for higher federal expenditures. According to recent estimates by the GAO, today's ranchers on federal land still pay only a fifth of market value for the forage consumed by their cattle and sheep. In essence, low grazing fees and many other public subsidies amount to a payment to the rancher to share the public land with its original inhabitants, the wildlife. Instead, public money is used to kill public wildlife on public lands while taxpayers pick up the tab for everything.
If such killing did reduce losses, and thus hold down food prices, it might be more acceptable. However, the public lands of the West produce only about 2 percent of the US beef supply. States such as Iowa, Nebraska or Missouri each produce more beef than all of the public lands combined. More important, however, is the increasing evidence that constant killing of the predators may actually increase livestock losses over time.
In southern Arizona, near a tiny settlement called Klondyke, mountain lions have been dying at very high rates for decades, killed by both ranchers and the ADC. Despite the long history of carnage, ranchers still complain of high calf losses. From January through April of 1990, 13 lions were killed by the ADC on one ranch alone. As far as can be determined, never in the West have so many lions died on one ranch in such a short time.
Lions are strongly territorial, with adult males aggressively excluding each year's production of juvenile lions from their hunting area. If such adults are killed, the territorial vacuum is quickly filled by these immature and unskilled lions. Since deer, their natural prey, are difficult to catch, young lions are much more likely to take easier prey - calves. The sizes of the 13 lions killed on the above ranch, as reported by the ADC, indicate that most of them were sub-adults. Killing such young lions before they develop the skills of an adult will only serve to keep the vicious circle intact, and keep the ADC in business.
Ranchers such as the one in Klondyke need to try something new, if they want to continue to use the public lands for private profit. However, as long as they have the ADC to kill lions at taxpayer's expense, there is no incentive to improve their livestock management. They have been so long on the public dole that they no longer know how to operate without federal hunters killing the public's wildlife. Taxpayer subsidies give them unfair competitive advantage over 98 percent of all US beef producers who lack federal grazing land. It's clearly time the archaic ADC be ended, along with welfare ranching. Each has become dependent on the other.
We have nothing to lose but our wildlife.