Letter from Utah — From the January 2017 issue

Bounty Hunters

A clandestine war on wolves

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The following day, I visited the nondescript three-story building on the outskirts of Salt Lake City that houses the headquarters of the Utah D.W.R. Amid drab cubicles and cramped offices was a menagerie of taxidermied animals and mounted heads: black bears, bison, badgers, ptarmigan, otters, grouse, elk, bighorn sheep. It was as if a wing of the American Museum of Natural History had been teleported under the fluorescent lights.

I sat down with Kim Hersey, who, as head of the state’s Mammal Conservation Program, oversees management of wolves that wander into the delisted zone. Hersey confirmed that a “wolflike” animal fitting Cindy Wamsley’s description had been trapped earlier in the week. Since 2002, she told me, there had been only three documented cases in Utah of a wolf killing livestock. Nevertheless, she seemed sympathetic toward ranchers. “If that’s your livelihood and you see one of your animals torn apart,” she said, “that is going to viscerally affect you.”

Coyote, American Museum of Natural History, by Walton Ford

Coyote, American Museum of Natural History, by Walton Ford

Emotions aside, there is little evidence to suggest that wolves pose a serious threat to the nation’s livestock. Of 3.9 million cattle deaths reported in 2010, only 220,000, or 6 percent, were attributable to predators. (Inclement weather caused twice as many deaths.) And of these 220,000, wolves accounted for a mere 4 percent. Domestic dogs killed more than twice as many cattle as wolves did.

Hersey claimed that Utah wildlife managers are not opposed to the presence of wolves. But, she said, the animals should be managed on terms determined by Utah, not the federal government. “We want state control of these animals and we advocate for them to be managed as other predators in Utah are,” she told me.

When I asked if by “other predators” Hersey meant coyotes, she pointed me down the hall to the office of Leslie McFarlane, who was then the head of Utah’s coyote-bounty program. McFarlane explained that because coyotes are considered nuisance animals, the state does not conduct population surveys or establish quotas as it does for animals such as mountain lions and black bears. Thus, the number of coyotes that may legally be trapped, poisoned, or shot in the course of a season is virtually unlimited.2 In 2015, Utah paid out more than $400,000 for more than 8,000 coyotes killed.

2 In order to better understand the process, I became a licensed Utah coyote exterminator. All it took was the completion of a short online quiz. My ace performance means that I am now licensed to shoot coyotes and to collect bounty from the state. At the time I took the test, in July 2015, it did not include any questions about safe hunting or humane trapping practice. More conspicuously, it did not require the test taker to identify a coyote or distinguish it from, say, a large dog or a wolf.

McFarlane said the bounty has been in place since 2012, as part of the Mule Deer Protection Act. The goal is to target coyotes in places where mule deer give birth — yet the bounty allows animals to be killed wherever they are spotted. Moreover, because the D.W.R. does not track coyote populations, McFarlane could not say whether the bounty program had effectively reduced the number of coyotes — nor whether it had contributed to rising mule-deer numbers.

Some say that bounty programs may actually have the effect of increasing coyote populations. Like wolves, coyotes are considered “behaviorally sterile,” meaning that only alpha males and females in a population typically breed. When an alpha is killed, that role is likely to be filled by a juvenile. Additionally, a drop in wolf populations can contribute to a rise in coyote populations. William Ripple, an ecology professor at Oregon State University, explained to me that when wolf populations are robust, the wolves compete with coyotes for prey (and in some cases eat the coyotes), reducing coyotes’ breeding rates. The numbers bear this out: in places where wolves have rebounded, such as Michigan’s Isle Royale Park and Yellowstone, coyote populations dramatically declined or were eliminated entirely. “If you want to deal with an overpopulation of coyotes,” said Ripple, “wolves are not a bad place to start.”

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