USDA Wildlife Services–Black Vulture, Wolf Predation

USDA Wildlife Services–Black Vulture, Wolf Predation

“Wildlife Services” is the helpful-sounding name taken by the federal agency which has been conducting the misguided, wasteful, and counter-productive war on predators for over 120-years. The war started with bounties, but now relies on agency poison programs. At one time or another these folks have tried to kill out every predator in North America – plus non-predators like prairie dogs – to “protect” domestic and wild animals. Their accumulated body count including ‘by-kill’ surely exceeds 100-million animals.


Their “villain de jour” is the Black Vulture, colloquially called ‘buzzard’.


Here is an article on what they do, and why they say they need to do it, recently published in Texas’ well-respected “Livestock Weekly”.


NOTE: this article was originally published to Livestock Weekly on Wednesday, January 24, 2024. It was written by Colleen Schreiber.


DENVER — At the recent American Sheep Industry Association annual convention, those attending the resource management council and policy forum heard an update from USDA-Wildlife Services.


The update was wide-ranging and included everything from work underway for predator management of black vultures, wolves and coyotes as well as ongoing research both lethal and non-lethal.

Keith Wehner, regional director for WSs’ eastern region, first reminded participants that there are some large differences between the West and the East in terms of WS ability to manage predators. He stressed that WS has been operating in the western part of the U.S. for well over 100 years. In the East, it’s only been since 1987.

“The traditional livestock protection that covers almost every western state really doesn’t exist in the same format in the East. In fact, the only place that it’s the same as in the West is in West Virginia and Virginia,” Wehner told participants.

In the early 1990s, there were some pretty significant livestock protection directives established in those states. Those directives have since been lost though WS still maintains a cooperative agreement there. Most of the funding for management and control of their three primary predator problems, coyotes, bears and black vultures, comes from the state with a smaller portion coming from WS.

Currently, black vultures are a particularly hot topic in the East as they’ve expanded their range over the last 30 years. Traditionally a Gulf Coast migratory bird, the black vulture can now be found as far north as Michigan, he told the group. Unlike the turkey vulture, which is largely solitary and almost exclusively eats from dead carcasses, black vultures don’t wait till something’s dead. They kill it.

“They’re learning from one another how to kill livestock,” said Wehner. “We see it every day, and it’s really becoming a problem.”

They tend to focus first on pecking out the eyes of newborns and there may be 20 or 30 vultures working on that one baby and its mother can’t fight off that many predatory birds at one time, he said. Other times, they’ll torment the cow while she’s having her calf.

“The birds will chew up the cow’s rear end while she’s giving birth,” said Wehner. “Then they eat the afterbirth and attack the baby, usually as it’s being born.”
Sometimes the young are born alive but with their eyes already ripped out.

“It’s a lot more brutal and more inhumane than what I’ve seen wolves or even bears do,” he opined.

He also noted that these birds don’t just cause big problems for farmers and ranchers.

“We might get 100 vultures on a cell phone tower or a transmission tower and when they’re spooked, the first thing they do is crap and the next thing we know is their excrement has caused a million-dollar power outage.”

Airports also face challenges because of these birds.

“The Department of Defense has a huge interest as well,” said Wehner. “They’ve lost aircraft to black vultures along the coast.”

He also told participants that these birds love any petroleum-based product. They’ve been known to rip up a brand-new asphalt roof as well as windshield wipers and all the caulking around a vehicle windshield. Also, on billboards, the birds walk the top and literally peck at the plastic sheeting until it is hanging in the wind.

“Three-quarters of my states are dealing with this issue,” said Wehner. “We provided operational assistance in 26 states.”

While the birds are easy to trap by putting a roadkill deer in a trap that draws in 100 birds at a time, the problem is there are millions across the landscape. Additionally, because of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, WS is limited in what they can really do. WS has to get a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before they can do anything at all.

There is ongoing research to better understand some alternative prevention tools everything from lasers to effigy placement on transmission lines, even inflatable scarecrows.

“These things only work for a short time because the birds are smart and they learn quickly,” said Wehner.

Researchers are trying to better understand movement across the landscape, how they interact across the landscape, what they target as well as how the birds respond to trapping and or harassment. They’re doing survival studies as well.

“These birds don’t have any natural predators so if a young bird doesn’t die in the first six months, they’re believed to live 10 to 15 years,” Wehner told the group.
Some birds are even being equipped with GPS collars to help in the various studies. Research has also shown that the vultures prefer red, green and black colored vehicles.

“They don’t like white though I have no idea why,” said Wehner.

Wendy Anderson, who is the new head of the Western division for WS, reiterated that livestock protection from predators is a foundational mission. However, congressional appropriations only cover about 45 percent of WS operations. The remainder comes through cooperative funding.

Anderson said that in 2023 WS assisted sheep producers in 32 states with the top states being Nevada, Texas, California and Montana. The top five predators taken were coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, black vultures and feral hogs.

“Wildlife Services legally removed over 400 black bears, six grizzly bears, over 200 mountain lions, almost 300 gray wolves and over 68,600 coyotes in 2023 for the protection of livestock,” Anderson told participants.

She also shared an update on the ongoing issue with the use of the M44 device on BLM lands. She explained that in 2023, the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter and a petition asking BLM to stop the use of M44s on BLM lands.

“The letter claimed that the M44 is a danger to the public’s pets and threatened and endangered species,” said Anderson.

The letter also made an indirect reference to HR 4951, which seeks a ban of M44s on all public lands. The petition attached to the letter was signed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Predator Defense and 70 over NGOs.

WS responded by providing background and safety information on the device itself and the sodium cyanide capsules as well as information about the agencies’ use of M44s on both public and private lands. Additionally, WS leadership met with BLM to further discuss the issue and stress the importance of continued use of the device on BLM lands.

“Unfortunately, in August of 2023, the BLM director decided to disallow use of all M44s with cyanide capsules on any BLM land,” she told the group.
In November 2023, the BLM and WS revised their MOU to state that no M44s would be used on BLM lands.

“This could change with a different administration,” she said.

Anderson also offered an update on livestock protection dogs. In mid-2023, WS ran out of stock on both the public and private land versions of the educational signs used to advise those recreating that they may encounter livestock protection dogs or sheep. In early conversations between Wildlife Services staff and wool growers, the signs were deemed incredibly important and valued by livestock producers. However, there was mixed feedback regarding the messaging on the signs and the photographs used, said Anderson.

Thus, Wildlife Services’ leadership worked with ASI on updating the signs. ASI secured the funding and volunteers to handle the printing and the new inventory of signs going forward. They are nearing completion.

Anderson also talked about WS standards of evidence in conducting livestock lost investigations pertaining to Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico.
“Wildlife Services has always believed subcutaneous hemorrhaging with underlying tissue damage from bite marks to be the de facto standard for depredation investigations across the U.S.,” Anderson told the group. “In New Mexico and Arizona, unfortunately, we realized inconsistency had developed over time in the way we were conducting our depredation investigations.”

That led WS to implement standards of evidence informally in 2020. In July 2022 WS began the process of establishing standards in writing for determining Mexican wolf predation. The goal was to ensure there are written, science-based standards in Arizona and New Mexico that are consistent with how WS manages wolf depredations throughout the U.S. and that all involved parties have a clear understanding of the physical evidence required at the time of an investigation to make depredation determinations.

WS received comments on the development of these written standards from stakeholders, including several groups representing livestock producers. Those standards were finalized in August 2023.

“According to all research and state established standards, of which we are aware, the presence of subcutaneous hemorrhage and underlying tissue damage is the core standard to confirm wolf predation,” Anderson reiterated. “The physical evidence must indicate that the animal was alive when bitten by the wolf and that the wolf bites are not associated with scavenging of an animal that was already dead.”

She added that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with the new written standards of evidence and WS investigation process will be helpful in terms of their issuance of management actions. With the new written standards in place, last year New Mexico and Arizona confirmations were right in line with the Northern Rocky Mountain confirmations, Anderson said.

“Our confirmations in Arizona and New Mexico haven’t decreased,” she added. “We’re staying right in line, so I feel like we’re doing a good job with these new standards.”

She also told participants that there was an inspection done by the Office of Inspector General through USDA to determine whether WS uses a consistent approach for its depredation reports, and consistent support for those reports regarding livestock loss attributed to Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. OIG found that Wildlife Services approach was consistent, but that supporting evidence was not always consistent. In a final report, OIG provided WS with three recommendations with specific deadlines. Those recommendations included implementing agency policy that clearly describes photographic support requirements for depredation reports; establishment of training on the agency policy including detailed photographic requirements for depredation investigators and reviewers and finally a formal request to the Mexican wolf executive committee to review and make any applicable updates to its standard operating procedures. WS implemented all three recommendations by the due dates, Anderson said.

“This inspection is considered closed, and with the standards of evidence, we feel we have a better path forward with the USFWS on depredation investigations.”
Finally, Anderson offered an update on WS’s participation in the reintroduction of gray wolves in Colorado. Colorado Parks and Wildlife released 10 gray wolves, all from Oregon, in Colorado pursuant to a 2020 state referendum that required reintroduction of the endangered grey wolf by December 2023. Specifically on December 18, CPW released five wolves onto public land in Grand County and another five a few days later onto an undisclosed area in Grand and Summit Counties.
She noted that in November, the USFWS released a final rule establishing that the release would be designated under the ESA section 10(j) as an experimental population.

“This designates management flexibility that may include management action to address both impacts on people or livestock,” said Anderson.
She also pointed out that the reintroduced wolves from Oregon are not the only wolves in Colorado. In 2021, wolves from Wyoming wandered into Colorado. They remain in Colorado.

Anderson told participants that currently WS is only participating as a member of the CPW Technical Working Group. The working group contributes expertise towards developing conservation objectives, management strategies, damage, present prevention, and conservation planning for wolves in Colorado, she explained. However, if WS is doing a depredation investigation and there is a possibility that it could be caused by a wolf, WS has to step back and contact CPW to do the investigation.
“If CPW and USFWS decide they want our assistance with depredation investigations in the future, we’ll have to enter into some MOU to do that,” Anderson said. “So right now, WS has very little impact or assistance with the Colorado wolves, but hopefully that will change in the future. Right now, it’s very political.”

Questioned why WS has not taken a more active role, Anderson responded by explaining that it’s the state who has thus far been reluctant to allow WS an MOU to be part of depredation investigations. Additionally, it was pointed out by WS’s Wehner, who previously served as the western director, that the reason WS has been so involved with wolves in other states is because in these states wolves were originally introduced as threatened or endangered species. However, in Colorado, citizens passed a referendum saying they wanted wolves.

“They’re a totally different beast in Colorado,” Wehner told participants.

Referring to it as a “powder keg” he too acknowledged that it’s very political with different personalities at play in the governor’s office and different agencies.
There was considerable more discussion about all things wolf and in particular about the depredation investigation process and the standards of evidence for wolf depredation.

Cat Urbigkit, Wyoming producer and vice president of Wyoming Wool Growers Assn., commented that the livestock industry has “a pretty big issue” with the standards of evidence that WS has adopted.

“A strict reading of those standards indicate there would rarely be a confirmed depredation,” Urbigkit insisted. “And realize that our compensation is dependent upon that designation.”

She added the whole issue has caused a huge rift between livestock producers and WS.

“It’s put us on a very bad path with each other right now … I would just be very cautious. We just went through this process for WS to develop these written standards that we sure as hell don’t want to see happen in any other state,” Urbigkit stressed.

Dustin Ranglack, Utah field station leader for the National Wildlife Research Center, also shared an update regarding ongoing research at the Fort Collins, Colorado, facility starting with the PAPP toxicant, an oral toxicant being tested for coyotes.

“Basically, it functions very similarly to sodium cyanide in that it reduces the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the tissues,” Ranglack explained.

He acknowledged that while it’s very humane and fast acting it is a bit slower than sodium cyanide. Specifically, it takes about 20 to 30 minutes before a coyote, for example, actually succumbs to the toxicant.

“We’ve tested a lot of different doses and settled in at about 400 milligrams as the appropriate dose for coyotes,” he told participants.

It’s delivered via a spring loaded ejector device, essentially an M44 rebranded a bit.

The big difference between PAPP and sodium cyanide is there is a potential for an antidote for accidental exposure to a companion dog or a working dog, for example. However, researchers are struggling a bit on the delivery mechanism for the antidote, so it remains a work in progress.

There are several different non-lethal tools being investigated as well including fladry and fencing, and a newer project underway includes the use of flashing eartags for livestock. NWRC put out about 1700 flash tags in nine different states in 2021. What they generally found is that livestock producers using the tags reported a reduction in predation between years and also between neighbors and more are interested in trying them or continuing to use them.

NWRC also has some quantitative data on a band of sheep with tags and a band without from the same area.

“We showed that it cut depredations by about one half with the flashing tags,” said Ranglack.

The research is now under peer review with the next step being publication.

He also mentioned that one of the issues with the flash tags is durability. Thus, they’re in the process of working with Colorado State University on a design that they could then take to an eartag production company to produce and eventually sell commercially.

Responding to a comment that predators adapt to all of these tools like fladry, Ranglack acknowledged that there is a habituation rate.
“There’s never going to be a silver bullet.”

However, he also opined that predators may be slower to habituate to flashing eartags than a static device, say a light on a fencepost, for example.

Ranglack is also working with another potential tool in Oregon. Specifically, he’s using thermal imaging on a drone to detect wolves before they come into areas being grazed by cattle. The drone can also be used to chase away the wolves. Here too, he acknowledged there are definitely limitations.

Finally, Ranglack told participants that some producers in Texas say they now have more predator problems from caracaras than coyotes. To reckon with all of the avian predator issues, when the federal budgeting process finally gets worked out, one of the new hires will be an avian predator scientist at their Utah station to work on eagles, caracara and raven issues.

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