Wildlife Services Administrator overviews programs
Casper – The Wyoming Wool Growers Association brought sheep producers from across the state to Casper for their 2017 Summer Membership Meeting on June 24-25, which hosted a variety of informative meetings ranging from practical management strategies to national programs.
Among the speakers during the event, USDA’s Wildlife Services Administrator Bill Clay provided an update on programs administered by the agency, including the aviation program and use of M-44 devices.
“We get a lot of criticism for our programs,” Clay said, noting that many activists try to paint Wildlife Services as an inhumane agency, “but we need all the tools we can get to control predators for producers.”
Wildlife Services aerial operations utilize 35 agency-owned, borrowed or leased fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft, employing 30 pilots. They also use 20 contractor-owned fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft with 20 contract pilots for predator control.
“After the airplane accident this winter in Wyoming where one pilot was killed and another critically injured, I asked for a review of our program from experts,” Clay said. “They came in early January to look at all aspects of our program, the type of training we provide, our training and operations center and more. They made a number of recommendations to strengthen our program.”
Since the review, Wildlife Services has made changes to equip all aircraft with flight monitoring devices.
“The plane that crashed in Wyoming did not have one, and it took two to three hours to locate that plane in sub-zero temperatures,” he explained. “Now, all of our planes are equipped with monitoring devices.”
In addition, Wildlife Services hired an additional employee, a full-time flight monitor.
“Whenever we are flying – anywhere in the U.S. – the flight monitor can see the plane, where it is, its altitude, how fast it’s flying, when it starts and stops and more,” Clay said. “If there is a problem with a plane, they know immediately.”
Now, all state programs that utilize planes for predator control are equipped with flight monitors and are involved with the National Aviation Safety, Training and Operations Center to monitor flights.
Clay emphasized, “Flying is critical. We have to do whatever we can to maintain the program.”
He also noted that, although such additions to the program mean additional cost, the new equipment and additional training strengthens the program.
“We need to be as safe as possible,” Clay said.
Also for predator control, Clay noted that the M-44 program has also been under fire recently, in the wake of several widely publicized events.
“We got a lot of attention in Oregon when an M-44 device killed a non-target wolf,” he said. “The wolf was not supposed to be in the area, and it was not listed as being in the area.”
Animal interest groups targeted Wildlife Services for the wolf’s death, and then, several weeks later, two Wyoming dogs were killed northwest of Casper with M-44 devices.
“Then, we also felt repercussions from an incident that happened just outside Pocatello, Idaho when an M-44 device was pulled by a dog, killing the dog,” Clay said. “The device also ejected the powder onto the boy’s clothing. He was taken to the hospital, observed and released.”
The result was a number of negative news article that mischaracterized M-44s and their use.
Again, Wildlife Services began reviews of their program, and, at least until Sept. 1, the program requires a one-half-mile barrier between M-44 devices and occupied residences.
“In the West, this may not have much impact, but in eastern states, like West Virginia, this restriction has essentially eliminated our use of M-44s,” Clay said. “A producer in West Virginia told me that this would probably put him out of business because they have no other way to control coyotes.”
“M-44s are a very important tool, and we need all the tools we can get,” he continued. “They are canid specific, and we have a good safety record with M-44s.”
Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency performed an expansive review of the use of M-44s in the last decade, finding that the devices are an important tool to alleviate livestock depredation and the registration for the product should not be cancelled.
“We were asked to analyze M-44 use, where and how we use them, timing of use and non-target animal deaths so a final decision can be made on whether the buffer distance will be made permanent or not,” Clay explained.
One of the most challenging pieces of the effort is that new rules mean that private property owners are no longer in control of what happens on their own property, he added.
“We’ll see what happens when we turn in all our data, but right now, there are no plans to try to ban M-44s,” Clay commented.
Among their other efforts, Wildlife Services will host three demonstrations and outreach workshops in Idaho to demonstrate M-44 use and restrictions in the state.
“Western Watersheds Project has indicated that they will protest the demonstrations,” Clay said. “Part of our problem with M-44s is that people don’t understand how the tools work.”
He also noted that they continue to work to ensure that M-44 devices are adequately noticed through the use of signage and that the devices are as far away from human dwellings as possible.
For example, they have changed the color of the signs indicating M-44 use to fluorescent orange, and internally, the positioning of signs has been changed from 25 feet away from devices to 15 feet.
“We’re going to make our signage more visible and ensure they are anchored securely in the ground,” Clay explained. “I think these steps help to improve the program and will allow us to keep using the devices.”
“My expectation is that we may have some restrictions,” Clay said. “We need to operate M-44s as safely as possible because they do present a risk, although it’s a low risk to people. Most of the people that come across M-44s are disregarding signs, trespassing or both.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.