National Geographic News
A badger looks for food at the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield, southern England July 21, 2011. Environmental groups, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), have voiced their opposition to plans by Britain's government to begin culling wild badgers in order to combat bovine tuberculosis in England's cattle herds.  REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth (BRITAIN - Tags: ANIMALS ENVIRONMENT) - RTR2P4GH

A badger looks for food at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey. The animals are considered a risk to cattle because they may transmit bovine tuberculosis.

PHOTOGRAPH BY STEFAN WERMUTH, REUTERS

Will James

for National Geographic

Published March 5, 2014

Last fall, the U.K.'s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs targeted badgers for culling—the selective killing of a species as a population control measure.

Badgers reportedly transmit bovine tuberculosis, a disease with a profound economic impact on farmers whose cows test positive. But a recent report by an independent panel leaked by the BBC said the culls failed in efficacy and humaneness. (Related: "Mr. Badger Should Be Worried: Britain Ponders a Cull.")

Proposed culls have made headlines in the United States as well. Wildlife managers have targeted bison in Montana and swans, geese, and deer in New York.

What's driving these high-profile culling programs? Are they necessary? Can they be done ethically? And what's at the heart of the debate between their proponents and their detractors?

We explored the controversy over culling with Mary Pearl, a conservationist with the City University of New York who formerly served as president of the Wildlife Trust, a nonprofit organization now called EcoHealth Alliance.

Wildlife culls have been in the news a lot lately. Is this a new practice?

I would say nature has been a culler, in the past, of wildlife species. It still is. If an animal becomes superabundant in a limited habitat, they're going to have either a die-off from starvation or some pathogen that will take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Then there's hunting by predators, including humans.

Today's culling is an artifact of our transition from having a lot of open, interconnected wilderness to having islands of wildlife habitat that then become almost like gigantic zoos. You have a finite exhibit area, and you can't let the population abundance go unmonitored.

There's also the effect of rapid global travel of wildlife, which is either intentionally introduced to new places or hitches a ride on an airplane or ship and moves from one part of the world to another. Newly arrived species can become superabundant in the absence of natural predators.

Bison were hunted nearly to extinction before conservation efforts began. Now they're being culled in Yellowstone National Park. Is culling a sign of the conservation movement's success?

Yes. You could also say that about the Canada geese, which were under protection and now are superabundant. And the white-tailed deer that was almost hunted to extinction as well.

Animals can be brought back. That's a wonderful thing about conservation. Often, if they're left in good habitats, populations will rebound. The problem is that they can become victims of their own success and become so abundant that they then become a threat to the survival of other species and to their own populations.

Last year, an excerpt of a book by Jim Sterba published in the Wall Street Journal said, "It is very likely that in the eastern United States today more people live in closer proximity to more wildlife than anywhere on Earth at any time in history." To what extent is culling the result of increasing interaction between humans and wild animals?

Well, you could say, "It's very likely that in the eastern United States today more people have toothaches than ever before," and that's because there are more people.

The more interesting question would be about the relative abundance of wildlife per person, and I'm not sure that that's different. There have always been people who have lived with and followed masses of animals, such as the Native American groups traveling with the bison or the indigenous people in the Arctic Circle following reindeer herds.

The northeastern U.S. landscape has changed dramatically. In the 1800s, New England and the mid-Atlantic forests were mostly converted to agricultural land, which eliminated a lot of forest species. Now it's reversed and we have 80 percent forest and 20 percent open land, and that's resulted in a big wildlife return.

But it has been selective. There are more white-tailed deer, but there are probably not more lynx. Deer do very well in the mosaic habitat of forested and open lands that we have created in suburbs. Animals that are human commensals also have become abundant, like raccoons and skunks.

Photo of a pair of Mute Swans near City Island January 30, 2014  in New York.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DON EMMERT, AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Mute swans swim near City Island, New York City. The state considers them an invasive species and plans to eradicate them by 2025.

In New York, where you live, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently proposed culling mute swans, but a public outcry forced the agency to reconsider. What factors went into the cull proposal?

First of all, they're an exotic invasive species. They're native to Europe. The introduced birds were rare before the 1960s. More recently, their populations have grown dramatically in some areas.

The problem is, beyond their numbers, that they are huge birds with seven-foot [two-meter] wingspans and a big impact on the ecosystem. They eat between five and eight pounds [2.3 and 3.6 kilograms] of aquatic vegetation per day. And they're very aggressive. This means they'll chase away native, endangered birds. They can clear a five-acre pond so that other birds can't nest there.

What factors contributed to the public opposition?

They're big and beautiful and they're not afraid of people, so people can feed them and develop an emotional attachment. It's kind of comical and romantic to see a big male swan chasing everyone away so his mate can sit on the nest.

People connect with the romance of the mated pair of birds, and the little cygnets are so cute. They're charming.

A recent report in the United Kingdom concluded that a pilot culling program did not kill badgers humanely in many cases. What would you call an ethical cull?

It may be surprising to most people, but most animal ethicists consider the avoidance of suffering to be more important than the avoidance of death. For example, a sharpshooter immediately removing an unwitting animal is in most cases preferable to a protracted and disruptive capture, with the attendant fear and pain.

Any contact with wildlife should be minimal and humane. And there must be an evidence-based rationale for removal—not wishful thinking, but a sound plan where risks are anticipated and avoided, and the intended goal of disease reduction or achieving a sustainable population level highly likely and constantly monitored.

When bats are culled in South America to prevent rabies, for example, care must be taken to remove overabundant vampire bats, rather than insectivorous bats that typically do not interact with humans but play a positive role in reducing crop pests.

When West Nile virus first appeared in New York, the city sprayed pesticide at dusk, when those pesky mosquitoes that prefer humans come out. It turned out that the major transmitter of the virus was a daytime mosquito that feeds primarily on birds, so the spraying targeted the wrong species.

Wildlife managers have portrayed culling as a balancing mechanism for ecosystems. Some wildlife advocates have portrayed the practice as disruptive to ecosystems. Is this a debate about the definition of "natural"?

I think there are two strong strains here that get confused in our society. There are people who are really committed to wildlife conservation. That refers to maintaining the health of the most biodiverse habitats possible. And then there are animal rights advocates, who believe that every animal is ethically considerable and should have the right to live.

I think these two camps sometimes overlap in that wildlife conservationists want to find the most humane ways of managing ecosystems, but believe that the genie is out of the bottle—we live in an artificial set of habitats that must be managed or we will lose biodiversity. And then there are the animal rights people who say we'll deal with that as we come to it, but we have to find a way to make room for every animal to fit into the ark.

That's really not my perspective. If wildlife managers don't cull, then nature culls, and we will see animals starving [and] habitat types that used to be vibrant and beautiful consisting of highly reduced numbers of species. That's the specter that frightens wildlife conservationists, whereas I think those with the animal rights perspective feel that, ethically, we lose our souls if we cannot respect the divine spark in every individual animal.

The sad thing is I think both sides really love nature. But they have a very different view of looking at the future of nature on a planet that is overpopulated by humans.

19 comments
Mariya Smet
Mariya Smet


 Keep in mind that our wildlife, did nothing wrong and continue to do nothing wrong, YET, they are being punished for living and paying with their lives -- something is very wrong.  

    Wildlife population management could be achieved through reproductive means -- an acceptable vaccine already exists.  WE MUST NOT KILL THEM, WE MUST NOT HUNT THEM DOWN, WE MUST NOT SLAUGHTER THEM!

    Please approve a non-lethal surgical sterilization project to humanely reduce the population of wildlife, as they've done elsewhere.  Everyone would be proud and would applaud these groundbreaking efforts to develop and implement a humane, effective and sustainable wildlife management program that everyone can live with, including the wildlife.
 
    What's more, coupled with administering vaccinations, much of the wildlife, keeping families intact, can be transferred to other locations where they can continue to thrive within and outside the state.

    There are many animal rescue organizations that can assist with advice and finances -- there is no excuse for hunting wildlife, there is no justification in this day and age for slaughtering them -- this is cruel, primitive, draconian and downright unconscionable.  I STRONGLY OBJECT TO THIS!  It sounds like the easy way out -- it sounds like the coward's way out -- it sounds like the killer's way out -- it sounds like the lazy way out.
 
    Many residents, as well as visitors, hope and pray that the wildlife population is controlled without wildlife being injured or murdered -- people want spaying and neutering along with wildlife not only moving out of the area BUT moving into a comparable area elsewhere where it's not so crowded and where the wildlife can continue to live and thrive.   

Susan Russell
Susan Russell

A few points should be clarified.   There is little real  evidence that mute swans do in fact negatively impact other species, or, for that matter, plant life.  Much is the New York DEC's case was predicated on opinion, or "potential" impact. 

Secondly, the most vocal opponents of eradicating all mute swans in New York were not "animal rights" proponents, but professors -- see New York Times op ed and CNN commentary against the proposal.   Both torpedoed the "non-native" "invasive" argument as an ideology that is not always wise or accurate.

Thirdly, mutes do have a wide wing-span.  So do native swans.   Why not kill the native swans, too?  The answer: trumpeters are desired as a potential "game" species. 

Scores of federal studies report that  the major "disturbance factor" for birds is hunting --- not swans - swans aren't even mentioned..  From forcing birds into sub-optimum feeding areas to expending precious energy stores to reduced breeding and destruction of family bonds, the litany is a long one.

  A growing number of wildlife researchers report that  "mow 'em down" control efforts are counterproductive.  See Science Magazine's September 20, 2013 issue.   Killing mountain lions in western states led to a cascade of dysfunction and increased complaints and, depredations.   Absent adult males, young males began to attack cubs, forcing female adults with cubs to flee to less than ideal habitat and prey upon endangered species.   Depredations and complaints went up.  Conversely, depredations in California, where hunting lions is illegal, are the lowest of all  states with mountain lions.   Mammalogists are also speaking out against predator "control" programs as, again, counterproductive.

Jim Sterba ("Nature Wars")  a hunter and fisherman who grew up killing animals and has long held  little tolerance for those who disagree, may not be the most objective source on the need to kill wildlife.  For instance, he doesn't and didn't report on cases such as the above.   Jim's a "mow 'em down" kind of guy.  If you're not as militaristic, you're a pansy.

Finally, perhaps it's time to put to bed the conceit that "conservationists" can see clearly and dispassionately, and that "animal rights" is sheer emotion.   Especially when so many wildlife protection objections   - regarding deer and goose management, for example,  proved correct.   It is, in fact, the conservationist claim of "sound wildlife management" that led to both debacles.   Surely, in 2014, it is possible for professionals to both care deeply about the ethics of our dealings with wild animals and the land.  And be right.

Sharon D.
Sharon D.

Both sides in this issue have their points.  Wildlife Management is about finding that BALANCE- enough wildlife to fit the eco system and not impact on the Human population to the point of major conflict. I celebrate all life and agree with the Animal Rights faction that we need to treat animals with compassion and dignity- both in life and in death.

Marion Ambler
Marion Ambler

"And they're very aggressive. This means they'll chase away native, endangered birds. They can clear a five-acre pond so that other birds can't nest there."

This is a bit misleading...according to a DEC document on swans,  the bird swans bother the most during nesting season is another bird under attack by the USDA WS....Canada geese.  Since the USDA WS rounds up and gasses or otherwise slaughters 25,000 Canada geese a year,  I'm not sure what the problem with aggression during nesting really is.  I cannot believe they are worried about Canada geese being chased off. 

STATUS AND ECOLOGY OF MUTE SWANS IN NEW YORK STATE

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

"Canada geese were most often the target of aggressive behavior, with ducks and other mute swans targeted less often. However, the proportion of encounters that resulted in aggression was highest for other mute swans and Canada geese (75% and 68%, respectively), and much lower for mallards and wood ducks (14% and 0%, respectively) (Table 8).

Aggressive events usually caused the affected waterfowl to move awayfrom the aggressive swans, but rarely caused birds to leave a water body entirely."

http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/muteswanreport.pdf

The moral of the story is.....you can really fudge facts and play fast and loose with words, vague phrases, and huge over generalizations, aka propaganda.    

Marion Ambler
Marion Ambler

"If wildlife managers don't cull"...how about if wildlife managers had not created artificial unnatural populations for hunters?

Just one of MANY similar examples....resident Canada geese in North Carolina.  Resident geese never even existed in North Carolina, they had migrants.  But wildlife managers populated the state with a species of goose that had weak migration tendencies to start with, and being captively bred they also never knew about migration.  This was not very smart. Now North Carolina has resident geese...and it's not nature or the goose's fault. 

"In the1980’s, several state wildlife agencies including the North Carolina WildlifeResources Commission released Canada geese to help bolster declining numbers of migrant geese.

Many of the geese released were of the subspecies Branta Canadensis maxima with weak migrating tendencies.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission released geese in coastal North Carolina and our current resident flock of Canada geese is a result of these releases as well as releases in adjacent states by other state wildlife agencies. The resident flock of Canada geese in North Carolina likely exceeds 100,000 birds."

http://www.ncwildlife.org/portals/0/learning/documents/profiles/canadagoose.pdf

What should be culled is wildlife mis-managers!!!

Mikki Solodow
Mikki Solodow

Interesting how humans decide what animal is an invasive species and needs to be exterminated.....but HUMANS are an invasive species and we don't try to exterminate certain groups of them! 

David Karopkin
David Karopkin

Not a bad piece overall, but National Geographic has revealed some of their biases, especially evident when answering questions regarding why the DEC proposed to kill off NY's mute swans, and the factors which contributed to public opposition in response. 


Animal rights is about honoring and respecting sentient life, not "fitting everyone on the ark." The fact is that people have taken over the ark, and we have a propensity to kill animals that gets in our way. The overwhelming majority of "culls" are done to protect the interests of ranchers, sport hunters, the aviation industry, and property owners - not to protect an ecosystem or biodiversity. Tax dollars are used to execute these wild creatures, but the public is largely excluded from the decision making process. The government agencies carrying out these culls are essentially judge, jury and executioner. These programs are conducted with little reason to believe they are necessary or will be successful. This article correctly indicated that often these killing programs are ineffective, the genie is indeed out of the bottle, and our efforts to correct these mistakes are often futile - like sweeping sand off a beach - a waste of time, money, and life. 

Tanya Sharpe
Tanya Sharpe

I have to agree with you Katie P, do we cull humans, things are meant to what earth intended their are reasosn why spikes in certain breeds happen they gradually decline and another species prospers we should leave this stuff alone were not god who give us the right to control??? We as humans are greedy and think this is our earth and we can do what we want but things will change and we will become the demise of our actions!!!!

Little Bird
Little Bird

Are cattle vaccinated against bovine tuberculosis?

John Eberhart
John Eberhart

NGS, thanks for attempting to address this controversy.  Surely it was inadvertent, but the topic is framed misleadingly.


"Culling" is what natural predators do.  They selectively remove unfit individuals from prey populations.  Thus fit individuals survive to breed.


Hunters do the opposite.  They pick out and subtract the best, most robust animals, the genes of whom their populations need most for survival and success.


Hunting is unnecessary.  Recreational hunts are held, not for wildlife population control, but to dish up furred and feathered targets to hunters.  Where nature manages wild populations and animals are not hunted, even where hunters extirpated natural predators, there are no more wild animals than the land can support.  For example, wild animals on National Parks where hunting is excluded generally do fine.


Game managers of the federal US Fish & Wildlife Service and at the state game departments are in the business of growing target animals like deer and ducks ("game") for shooting by the greatest number of hunters that they are able to license.  An antiquated federal law mandates that paychecks in state wildlife agencies come from license sales.  These agencies are effectively salesmen on commission, selling out the lives of America's wild animals.  This is largely why hunters' demands get priority, and the public's broader interests and ambitions for wildlife often are given short shrift.


He who pays the piper calls the tune.


How about finding nonacademic wildlife PREservationists to interview?


Thank you. 

John Eberhart
John Eberhart

NGS, thank you for attempting to address this controversy.  Surely it is inadvertent, but how you framed the issue is misleading.


"Culling" is what natural predators do.  Natural predators improve prey populations by selectively removing unfit individuals.  Fit individuals survive and reproduce.


Hunters do the opposite.  They selectively remove the best, most robust animals, the genes of whom the population most needs for survival.


Hunting is unnecessary.  Recreational hunts are held, not for wildlife population control, but to dish up furred and feathered targets to hunters.  Where nature manages wild animals and they are not hunted -- even where hunters extirpated natural predators -- there are no more wild animals than the land can support.


Game managers in the federal US Fish & Wildlife Service and at state wildlife departments grow popular target animals like deer and ducks ("game") for shooting by the greatest number of hunters that the agencies are able to license.  In the state agencies, an antiquated federal law mandates that paychecks come from license sales.  The agencies are effectively salesmen on commission, hustling "recreational opportunities" to kill wildlife that belongs, in fact, to everyone (Hunters don't own wildlife more than any other citizens, until it's dead.)  This is largely why hunters' demands get priority in the agencies and the broader US public's interests and ambitions for wildlife often get short shrift.


He who pays the piper calls the tune.


How about interviewing someone instead who's more appropriate for this subject? Try nonacademic wildlife PREservationists.

John Gunnett
John Gunnett

@David Karopkin  Not all culls are a bad thing.  In Pennsylvania humans killed off the Mountain Lions and wolves to protect our livestock and the white tail deer have no natural predators.  We have control their numbers to keep a balance.

Roger Balcer
Roger Balcer

@John Eberhart  I strongly disagree with your assertion that hunting as a whole is unecessary. Sking, Golf and professional sports are unecessary. Hunting licence fees and taxes on hunting equipment established under the P & R Act are the major contributors to wild life management...not donations from animal conservation groups. I agree that no animal should be hunted just for sport and some like bears, wolves and cougars should not be hunted for sport at all. However, there is nothing wrong with hunting hogs (a good example of an amimal not controlled by nature) squirrels and gamebirds with the exception woodcock, doves and others  without a body mass large enough to provide a meal. The same goes for deer, elk and their ilk when used as provender.  Your further assertion that humans are not  "Natural" preditors of game species is also flawed as proven by anthropological and paleontological studies . A quick dispatch by a bullet is far more merciful than a slow death by starvation as I have seen first hand. I am no longer a hunter due to age but have hunted world wide and have seen many hunting game management programs that disprove your statement that only the prime animals are harvested, Germany is a prime example. With respect, Judging by your misinformation and views I suggest you join PETA if you are not currently a member as your views are as misguided and unfounded as theirs !

Marion Ambler
Marion Ambler

@Roger Balcer @John Eberhart  

You seem to be ignoring John's valid point that many of these populations of animals were CREATED for hunters.   They are not natural.   Well yeah after you breed and release animals to create an unnatural population then you can say 'hunting is necessary' and these animals have to be 'managed'.    

Just weeks ago the DEC in the NY area released about 30,000 pheasants for 'hunting' too.    If they hadn't created this population and released them they would not need to be hunted or managed.  Why paid to grow 30,000 pheasants anyhow??


Just one small example.   


"DEC releasing 30,000 pheasants statewide for the upcoming pheasant hunting season"


Ernie Jay
Ernie Jay

 @Roger Balcer @John Eberhart Your uninformed and misleading comment does nothing but attempt to perpetuate the myth--the urban legend--that funds provided by hunters from the PR Act are "major contributors to wild life management."  Hunters buy their firearms once, but the 95+% of Americans who do not engage in sport/recreational killing are the ones who are purchasing firearms.  They also purchase ammo, as do sport/rec killers, but the latter are NOT the major funders of PR Act revenues.    Also, Land Trusts and animal conservation groups spend much more than any hunting groups do in buying lands and setting them aside for wildlife conservation.  There are huge groups (Trust for Public Land, Nature Conservancy, etc.) and there are hundreds of trusts in almost every state or county buying up lands to preserve and protect--all operating as nonprofits from donations or grants.  Those who kill for sport and recreation do very little to conserve or protect wildlife habitat, but they do the most chest pounding to spin their yarn.   

Ernie Jay
Ernie Jay

@Roger Balcer @John Eberhart Your uninformed and misleading comment does nothing but attempt to perpetuate the myth--the urban legend--that funds provided by hunters from the PR Act are "major contributors to wild life management."  Hunters buy their firearms once, but the 95+% of Americans who do not engage in sport/recreational killing are the ones who are purchasing firearms.  They also purchase ammo, as do sport/rec killers, but the latter are NOT the major funders of PR Act revenues.    Also, Land Trusts and animal conservation groups spend much more than any hunting groups do in buying lands and setting them aside for wildlife conservation.  There are huge groups (Trust for Public Land, Nature Conservancy, etc.) and there are hundreds of smaller trusts in almost every state or county buying up lands to preserve and protect--all operating as nonprofits from donations or grants.  Those who kill for sport and recreation do very little to conserve or protect wildlife habitat, but they do the most chest pounding to spin their yarns.  

Katie P.
Katie P.

@Roger Balcer @John Eberhart  


I think you both have good points. But considering PETA has it's own unethical back dealings I'd say it's excessive to call someone a member of that group as an insult. It was uncalled for and your comment would have read as more reputable without that end note. 


However I disagree on one of your points. Humans could be classified as invasive species, and an overpopulated one in many areas. We spread out over the world at an incredibly rapid rate, reaching all four corners of the earth and taking up root in all manner of environments at a speed that pushed many other species to extinction, and is still pushing species to extinction. As a result, ecosystems haven't adapted to our presence. Some animals such as crows, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, rats, gulls, etc do great. Others need protection to survive in their now human dominated environments. This is probably what any species as successful as humans would end up doing though, spreading so rapidly that the speed at which resources are consumed and other species are killed off eventually creates our own collapse / mass die off. That is, if it weren't for our smarts and our ability for self control.


I've heard the claims at how much recreational hunters do for wildlife conservation by way of the fees they've paid. And have no reason to doubt that, as numerous parks originated from the desire to preserve species so they could be hunted by future generations. Which I'm grateful for, but this is a different day and age, and we value wildlife for more than just food now. I think both hunters and non-hunters deserve an equal say in how our wildlife is managed.

Marion Ambler
Marion Ambler

@Katie P. @Roger Balcer@John Eberhart    I just want to point out that John Muir, 'grandfather of our national parks' was not a hunter and was against hunting.  I think he wanted to preserve wildlife naturally in their natural ecosystems. 


"John Muir clearly advocated a higher relationship of man to the animals. We had much to learn from them by simply observing their life styles in the wilderness as Farley Mowat was to do years later as recorded in Never Cry Wolf.

Animal wisdom, language, and poetry of movement were, according to Muir, untapped riches for the human race. Of all Muir's books, perhaps The Mountains of California most directly concerns itself with observation and appreciation of wildlife."

http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/defense_of_wildlife_fleck.aspx

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