Howling in West Over Coyotes

US House debate this week over federal animal-control program underlines changes in 'sagebrush country.'

Early settlers called them "prairie wolves" - cunning canines who viewed a flock of sheep or a newborn calf strayed from its mother as lunch meat. Ranchers and farmers did everything they could to eliminate these coyotes, sometimes stringing up carcasses along fence lines as a warning to other predators.

Today the battle continues across much of the West. Only the weapons are new: steel traps, explosive cartridges that shoot cyanide into coyotes' mouths, and shotguns fired from light aircraft skimming over the sagebrush - much of this employed with help from Uncle Sam. And still, coyotes flourish, biologists say, their internal mechanisms responding to attack with larger, healthier litters of pups.

But there's another war in the West these days, one involving newcomers to expanding urban centers, growing environmental and animal-rights movements, and budget hawks who view government-sponsored efforts to control varmints as a special-interest subsidy.

The struggle between these "New West" values and those of the "Old West" was clearly illustrated in the US House of Representatives this week. There, lawmakers wrangled over federal funding for a program that kills some 1.5 million animals a year on behalf of ranchers, farmers, and urban dwellers troubled by "pests" ranging from sheep-eating coyotes to Canada geese that mess up golf courses and city parks.

On Tuesday, opponents of the federal animal-control effort persuaded a 36-vote majority of House members to cut $10 million from the US Department of Agriculture's wildlife services program. (Until it opted for a more benign-sounding name last year, wildlife services had been known for more than 65 years as the "animal damage control" program.)

But within 24 hours that vote had been reversed, much to the dismay of animal-rights and environmental groups. Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States blamed an "all-out blitzkrieg from livestock industry groups," concluding "a majority of [House] members seem to care more about wealthy ranchers than they do about taxpayers and wildlife."

For their part, ranchers and farmers defend efforts to control troublesome wildlife as necessary to the production of food and fiber for all Americans. In urging defeat of the budget-cutting measure authored by US Reps. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon and Charles Bass (R) of New Hampshire, they pointed out that losses to crops and livestock because of wildlife total more than $500 million a year.

While the heavy lobbying came from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Sheep Industry Association, supporters of Western ranching note that most ranches benefiting from the wildlife-control program are family operations with very small profit margins.

Typical of most Western ranchers is David McCrea, who (together with his wife, Lou, and their two children) runs 300 head of cows and 600 sheep on 20,000-acres near Roswell, N.M.

"A couple of years ago, we had a bear that killed two of our sheep and 30 of our neighbor's," he recalls. With help from federal animal-control agents, they tracked and killed the bear. More recently, when coyotes began killing sheep and calves, Mr. McCrea called in aerial gunners who "thinned them down."

"Coyotes are probably a bigger problem than anything because they've gotten so smart," he says. "I respect the coyote and the bear and the mountain lion - as long as they don't cut into our profits too much." Those profits, McCrea notes, are usually about 2 percent on the family's annual investment.

In the New West-Old West clash, the debate over varmints is far from settled. In 1994, voters here in Oregon passed a ballot measure that bans the use of radio-collared dogs to hunt mountain lions and also prohibits the use of bait to hunt bears. Since then, Arizona and Colorado have restricted some forms of hunting and trapping. This fall, Californians will vote on a measure that more strictly regulates the use of traps and poisons. In Alaska, a ballot initiative would ban the use of snares to kill wolves.

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