With predator populations rising, more calls for control

Western states grapple with how to address an increasing threat to livestock from wolves and big cats.

Jesse B. Gill/Redlands Daily facts/ap/file
Captured: A biologist and a fish and game warden subdue a cougar prowling near a Redlands, Calif., school last November. Such incidents are on the rise.

Around the West and in various ways, efforts to wage war on wildlife predators are increasing.

Some examples: ranchers and environmentalists are fighting over a proposal to have the Environmental Protection Agency ban the use of two poisons that kill coyotes.

A successful wolf-reintroduction program means wolves are likely to be taken off the endangered species list soon, and critics of removal say this would leave them vulnerable to indiscriminate shooting, particularly in Idaho and Wyoming.

And here in Oregon, hunters soon may be deputized to kill cougars, whose population has grown from several hundred in the 1960s to about 5,000 since the use of radio-collared dogs to hunt them was banned in 1994.

While there is no direct connection, collectively these issues reflect the tension between rural Westerners involved in ranching, farming, and logging, and those in growing urban and recreational areas where people are more likely to have a friendlier attitude toward wildlife. In all cases, wild species' need for adequate habitat is competing against human interests.

Tuesday was to have been the deadline for public comment on a proposal before the EPA to outlaw the use of sodium cyanide and sodium fluoroacetate to kill wild animals that prey on sheep and cattle. But at the request of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the deadline was extended to March 5.

Sodium fluoroacetate typically is used in "livestock protection collars" strapped onto the heads of grazing animals. When the predator, usually a coyote, tries to bite the stock animal it gets a mouthful of poison instead. Sodium cyanide is used in a device known as the "M-44 ejector" baited on the ground to attract coyotes, foxes, or wild dogs preying on livestock or poultry.

Earlier this month, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon introduced legislation outlawing the production and use of the two poisons, which the EPA classifies as having "acute toxicity." Mr. DeFazio points out that the two chemicals have killed growing numbers of dogs and other pets as well as "nontarget" wild animals including some endangered species.

But in a recent letter opposing the bill, Rep. John Salazar (D) of Colorado wrote, "As a livestock producer from the rural area, I know these two predator control tools are absolutely essential in combating aggressive predation."

Not all ranchers agree.

In their letter supporting the ban, Mark and Jane Truax of Crawfordsville, Ind., wrote: "We have been sheep producers for nearly 15 years, and have suffered losses due to predators. After buying a guard llama seven years ago, we have suffered none. We are not opposed to lethal predator controls (we have a shotgun at the ready), but we are opposed ... to releasing these chemicals into the environment."

The controversies over Rocky Mountain wolves and Oregon cougars both involve protected predators roaming over wide areas.

The number of wolves and wolf packs increased steadily after reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park and in Idaho in 1995. They are not a threat to humans and their main diet is elk and deer. But they have attacked cattle in some instances, and they have migrated outside their initial areas. From a few dozen Canadian wolves, the number has grown to about 1,500 animals.

Under federal and state plans, limited numbers of permits would be issued to hunt wolves in Idaho and Montana. In Wyoming, outside Yellowstone National Park, the killing of wolves by ranchers and others would be unregulated.

Cougars in Oregon can pose a threat to humans. Although no attacks on people have been reported, the big cats have been spotted inside the city limits of several towns. Cougars are solitary territorial animals, which means that younger males especially are increasingly being pushed toward developed areas. Livestock, horses, and pets have been attacked.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is drafting rules to permit hunters to pursue and kill cougars using hounds equipped with radio collars to allow for easy tracking.

Officials, concerned about the steadily growing cougar population, say a stable number for the state is 3,000 - 2,000 fewer than the number existing today.

Animal activists dispute those figures. In testimony to the commission last week, Spencer Lennard of the group Big Wildlife cited research concluding that the state had "never undertaken a scientifically credible count to determine how many cougars inhabit the state."

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