for National Geographic News
Olympic Committee members in Salt Lake City may be regretting their
selection of mascots for the 2002 Winter Games.
Mascots are chosen to reflect the land and culture where the Olympic events are being held. This year's mascotsthe snowshoe hare, the coyote, and the black bearwere selected by a group of Native American and petroglyph experts as symbolic of the American West.
But nearly 85,000 coyotes and several hundred black bears are killed each year in predator-control programs designed to protect sheep, cattle, and other livestock grazing on public lands. Their selection as mascots has provided wildlife conservationists with an opportunity to raise public awareness of the issue and voice their opposition to a practice they argue is unethical, environmentally irresponsible, expensive, and ineffective.
Coyotes, foxes, bears, mountain lions, and bobcats all prey on livestock. The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that sheep and goat ranchers lost U.S. $19.9 million to predators in 1999, while losses to cattle producers in 2000 exceeded $51.6 million. Black bears pose a threat to the livelihoods of beekeepers and orchard and tree plantation growers, particularly in the Northwest.
To combat the problem, Wildlife Services (WS), the federal agency responsible for predator control, kills close to 100,000 animals nationwide. Conservation groups criticize the WS for its reliance on non-selective lethal control methodsrandom killing, in other words.
"There's no question that coyotes and black bears are having an impact on people and the environment," said David Gaillard, director of the Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman, Montana. "But killing them should be a last resort, not the first."
The most commonly used method to kill coyotes is aerial shooting.
"Typically the Wildlife Service clears an area by coming in and shooting every coyote they see on public lands that are going to be grazed, before the sheep and cattle arrive, and before they even know whether there's going to be a problem," said Gaillard. "Coyotes that have learned to hunt natural prey, and have a stable territory shouldn't be targeted. Lethal methods should be used only as a last resort against offending animals."
Other lethal methods used to reduce predator populations include poisoning through the use of M-44 cannisters, and trapping, using leg traps and wire neck snares.
Killing coyotes as a way to reduce their population is inefficient, ineffective, and in all likelihood exacerbates the problem, wildlife conservationists argue. Coyotes have a unique ability to fill population holes; if their numbers go down, the females produce bigger litters.
"The coyote is very resilient, and despite the numbers that are being killed annually, there's no question that we have more now than we ever had," said Gaillard.
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