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Monday, January 12, 2009

The Kindest Cut

I’ve previously observed that our deteriorating economy cuts both ways for animals—it may result in people abandoning animals or diminishing care for them, but it also may put questionable animal enterprises out of business, because they, too, are facing economic pressure. For instance, some states have terminated programs to allow the cruel and wasteful stocking of tame pheasants for target shooting.

Now, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to balance the state’s budget includes another cut that will not only save money but also save animals’ lives. As Melinda Deslatte of the Associated Press reports, “The state agriculture department will shut down its nuisance animal control program, which traps beavers, coyotes and any other wild animals deemed a public nuisance.”

Coyote3 Such programs around the country have historically had a bias toward lethal control rather than nonlethal management, and have largely operated as a government-funded subsidy to private ranchers and other corporate interests. The federal Wildlife Services program, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spent $100 million to kill 2.4 million animals in 2007. A good number of the animals were predators—bears, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, badgers, wolves, and cougars—killed with steel-jawed leghold traps, aerial gunning, sodium cyanide M-44 devices, and the toxic poison Compound 1080.

The expense of killing wildlife, however, is often more pain than gain. During one year in Montana alone, the federal government spent $1 million of taxpayer dollars to kill coyotes and other predators, when the livestock losses due to predation in the state only totaled $900,000. A report showed that cattle were more likely to be killed by weather conditions, calving problems, or illness than by predators. And it would have been more cost effective simply to compensate the ranchers for their losses, rather than engage in a taxpayer-funded predator control program.

Congress on numerous occasions has attempted to reduce the levels of funding for lethal predator control, but these cost-saving and cruelty-cutting measures have been defeated by lawmakers aligned with Big Agribusiness. U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and former Reps. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) and Connie Morella (R-Md.) fought with great skill to bring the issue to the House floor, but their amendments to cut lethal predator control funding were defeated by votes of 193-230 in 1999 and 190-228 in 2000.

The status quo has been in place for years, and although there has been an increase in the development of nonlethal strategies to protect livestock from predators—such as guard dogs and special fencing—ranchers have no incentive to use these humane methods because they know the government will just come to their property and kill predators for free. The problem is, it’s not free—it’s a financial burden shouldered by U.S. taxpayers, at a time when every dollar counts. And it’s not effective, either—and never will be. It’s an 18th century habit that has no place in 21st century America.

A coalition of 115 conservation, animal protection, ranching, and faith-based organizations has written to the USDA’s secretary-designate, Tom Vilsack, calling for a top-to-bottom overhaul of the Wildlife Services program. A new vision of reform is desperately needed in this arena. Shifting agency resources and cultural bias from lethal to nonlethal strategies will be more effective, less expensive, and far more humane—and will help to solve problems through innovation and balanced management, rather than through government hand-outs.

This period of economic crisis provides us with an opportunity to rethink long-held assumptions. When it comes to human-wildlife conflicts, I am quite sure we can do better at the state and federal levels than the programs built around large-scale killing of wildlife.


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