USDA Wildlife Services Funding Shortfall Has Strange Result in Montana.

I think it’s safe to say that this couldn’t be called a trend, but last year a funding shortfall for USDA Wildlife Services shortened their coyote killing season by two months in Montana while at the same time the number of domestic sheep that coyotes killed ended up being lower by 1,900.   The effectiveness of USDA Wildlife Services’ coyote killing has long been questioned and the effectiveness of widespread coyote killing in general may be counterintuitive.

Among biologists it has long been understood that indiscriminate killing of coyotes leads to changes in social structure that might lead to higher conflict with livestock and other wildlife. The common wisdom about the response to indiscriminate coyote killing is that coyotes respond by having larger litters of pups, but, according to a discussion I had with Dr Jon Way, that may not be true. Rather, the litter size appears to remain the same but the overall survival of the pups increases due to less competition for resources in areas where there is more control (killing) of coyotes.  The areas with higher levels of control tend to have a younger age ratio with more surviving pups which probably cause more conflict than pairs with more defined territories.

USDA Wildlife Services has spent millions upon millions of dollars to kill coyotes yet their population continues to grow nationwide. Could it be that this money is going down a rat hole?

Predators, weather kill nearly 23,000 sheep and lambs in 2011.
Billings Gazette

“The number of sheep and lambs coyotes killed actually decreased by 1,900 from the previous year, according to NASS.”

“Without the targeted funding last year, Montana ran out of predator funding and went two months without federal predator control.”

Montana sheep losses 1984-2010

Montana sheep inventory 1971-2011



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  1. Mike Avatar

    Ken, I don’t think these guys are too interested in science. They speak by chest-thumping and poo-flinging.

    I’m not surprised to see that leaving animals alone makes them behave better. The disruption of social structures creates mayhem.

    Clearly, it’s time to end Wildlife Services.

    1. Kristi Avatar

      Amen to the end of Wildlife Services!

    2. ma'iingan Avatar

      “Clearly, it’s time to end Wildlife Services.”

      To be replaced with what?

        1. ma'iingan Avatar

          Do you really know that little about Wildlife Services?

          1. WM Avatar

            I think there are a bunch of nitwits here who know very little about WS. They have been brainwashed by a select few who find some small portion of its function distasteful to their views. And that, in my opinion, is a damn shame.

          2. Salle Avatar

            I don’t think that the practices of WS in the western states is anything like those in the rest of the country. Aerial gunning, for one example, including total capitulation to the ranching interests, ( a small interest group who would not be able to function at a profit in these areas due to the large tracts of land their operations require) at taxpayer expense (WS, BLM and NF cheap grazing allotments) who keep the range in an unnaturally antiseptic, predator-free state of ecologically (think biodiversity) decimated stasis. And WS not only provides this service at a great cost on the surface, they also hang over the state agencies like a dark cloud as they demand carte blanche with the funds they demand with little to no oversight. (Read one of their annual reports-the aerial accident reports are a good place to start- and you will see the lack of detail in explaining how these happened and why.)

            Makes me real f’ing happy to pay taxes for these things…

            And then there are all those blackbird cullings of the past couple years… I’m sure their operations in the nonwestern states is quite different from what they do out here, likely with smaller taxpayer fund allocations.

          3. william huard Avatar
            william huard

            I know a few years ago they killed 571 Otters, 84% of them by mistake. Talk about nitwits…..WS is a big bureaucracy, so inefficient they can’t get out of their own way. And that arrogance and lack of any accountability- that’s so appealing!

          4. Immer Treue Avatar
            Immer Treue

            I might be wrong, but just about any airport becomes just a bit safer because of WS.

          5. Alan Avatar

            “I might be wrong, but just about any airport becomes just a bit safer because of WS.”
            Yeah, like shooting the first snowy owl ever seen in Hawaii just because it was on the tarmac! Whew! I know I feel safer!

          6. Immer Treue Avatar
            Immer Treue


            Your cynicism does not address what happens when wildlife(in general) walks or flies across runways when aircraft are taking off and landing, the two most critical stages of any flight. That was the point of my comment.

      1. Mike Avatar

        WM –

        Nothing’s a damn shame like killing something for no reason.

        Save your moral outrage for such permanent, unfixable actions.

        1. WM Avatar


          ++ killing something for no reason.++

          If I understand the WS mission they have reasons for the lethal control they do, consistent with priorities established for them by the states (that is why they have state offices). The exception might be in the case of federal reservations (military bases for example) or federal regulations (FAA rules to keep airports free from bird strikes).

          1. Jon Way Avatar

            personal distaste for WS killings aside, it does seem apparent that much of killing of coyotes is purely for revenge without accomplishing what you would think would be the goal: ie, to reduce predation losses to livestock. If killing coyotes isn’t working, many of us strongly (an understatement) believe that other methods should be used and traps and aerial killing (especially) should be a last resort. For one, I would rather have my tax dollars spent on better husbandry practices.

          2. WM Avatar

            Jon Way,

            As a coyote researcher, perhaps you can assist in answering this question. APHIS-WS has for sometime been engaged in a variety of reseach activities focused on coyote control, which includes more than just shooting them. I have seen a couple of papers on the topic but nothing recent (past 2008 or so). Their website search feature doesn’t produce much relevant and recent.

            Can you educate us on what is going on there now, if you know? As I understand it, there are a couple of coop arrangements with Midwest universities and Utah State U Extension, and their Logan UT research operation.

            And, as one thinks this through, if there were more effective long term methods of coyote control, why would they not be in use. I have seen a couple of summary papers that clearly state most of the non-lethal methods do not work over the long term. Are those researchers at major universities (typically land grant colleges with extension service offices intended to provide practical, implementable cost-efective research with solutions to the agricultural community) that far wrong?

            I am trying to get my arms around this disconnect. Perhaps you can shed some light on it.

          3. Jon Way Avatar

            To be honest I am not certain on why there hasn’t been more work on this. I know that a variety of techniques can be helpful tools for preventing predation and multiple papers do point out that livestock husbandry is the most important factor to prevent losses.

            Carter N. would definitely be the point person on this. But from what i gather, I can’t help but think that the lack of interest in various states in promoting non-lethal coexistence is probably a major factor. Also, while not all non-lethal techniques work, trying them (in conjunction with occasional lethal control) is probably the best prescription – that is, multiple techniques to avoid predation.

            More to my point, the following paper states that market conditions over predator control influence sheep numbers. The paper basically recommends reimbursing farmers rather than killing coyotes since coyote killing sheep has little influence on market conditions ($):
            Berger, K.M. 2006. Carnivore-livestock conflicts: effects of subsidized predator control and economic correlates on the sheep industry. Conservation Biology 20(3):751-761.

            Also, it is important to note that there also isn’t much evidence that documents that killing coyotes also prevents predation. As we know, dead coyotes allow new coyotes to move into an area. So, while non-lethal techniques may not be an end-all, neither are lethal techniques – except for the people that “want something to be done”. If livestock husbandry practices were greatly improved that would be the single most important factor to prevent livestock losses – and would also allow people to more justifiably kill predators that are causing real damage (like close to barns, etc).

          4. william huard Avatar
            william huard

            Jon Way-

            Isn’t it unrealistic to expect ranchers to improve their husbandry methods as long as the politicians and the FEDS in the WEST are so willing to provide lethal and poison control action?

          5. JB Avatar

            As a follow-up to Jon’s response…

            I think all one need do is follow the money: that is, what sorts of activities are subsidized. Coyote killing is essentially federally subsidized and WS employees have a vested interest in keeping this subsidy in place. If policy-makers instead decided to subsidize better husbandry, then practices might change. However, that still would not impact WS vested interest…perhaps if they judged their success not on the number of coyotes killed, but rather on the number of sheep killed on “treated” sites, things might change?

            – – –

            FYI: The paper I commonly see cited in defense of “preventative” coyote killing is Wagner & Conover (1999). They found sites that used winter aerial gunning of coyotes (treatment) had fewer depredations than control sites. The estimated a benefit:cost ration of 2.1:1.

            Wagner, K. K., and M. R. Conover. 1999. Effect of preventive coyote hunting on sheep losses to coyote predation. The Journal of Wildlife Management:606-612.

      2. Mike Avatar

        ++To be replaced with what?++

        So now you’re for big government? I thought you didn’t care for it?

        1. Salle Avatar

          How about replacing them with a toned down, sane/rational/science based agency that has no access to aviation tools. Oh, crap, I forgot that the MT governor and at least one Senator (Baucus) are gunning for drones to do the dirty work now… dang. I don’t supposed there will be any funding cuts once that gets going…

  2. Paul Avatar

    They also get reimbursed for weather related deaths? Do ranchers have any business risk at all that the government does not back up? The government pays them subsidies, kills predators wholesale, and pays for weather damages. Then why are these people so pissed off all the time? If I knew that my livelihood would be guaranteed by the federal government indefinitely I would be quite content.

    1. william huard Avatar
      william huard

      I have a book from the early 70’s called Slaughter the Animals, Poison the earth, written by Olsen, who was a Sports Illustrated writer I believe. The book explains the old poisoning campaigns in the West, and how coyotes have been scapegoated by ranchers. Once section describes a sheep farmer (kind of reminds me of Siddoway) who was a millionaire and complained every month about being “almost put out of business by coyotes.” This guy would poison coyotes- then take sheep hair and insert the hair into the dead coyotes stomachs, and then have the local papers run stories depicting and showing the “sheep killing” coyotes. This was done to ensure the politicians would continue to fight for predator control funds….. Coyotes kill sheep but not anywhere near the amount that sheep farmers claim……

    2. Ken Cole Avatar

      LIP Fact Sheet for January 2011.

      Apparently this program, which Ralph wrote about long ago, expired last year. Senator Jon Tester is trying to get it reinstated. What a racket.

  3. Jeff Avatar

    I remember a study in western KS years ago where they compared a block of counties with intensive coyote killing with another without any control and the net result was no net difference in coyote populations or predation. Sounds like a government program to continue!

  4. rork Avatar

    Linked to article said sheep loses to coyotes in Montana were 1.4 million last year. I think blueberry losses to birds might be ten times that where I’m from, but there’s been no talk of killing the robins off.

    It didn’t say how much public money gets spent to control coyotes.

    1. rork Avatar

      Doh, that’s 1.4 million dollars.

  5. Wolfy Avatar

    WS probably once had a niche in true wildlife damage control, but now it has morphed into the gunman for the corporate interests. I’ve work with a number of WS agents over the years and they are mostly good people. However, these good people do some nasty things that most of the public does not want or care to know about. I believe that most of the agents that I’ve know have habitually stepped over the letter of the law in their duties as part of what their supervisors expect from them. Of course, I’ve also know a few WS agents that I wouldn’t turn my back on; in other words, they proudly live up to the negative stereotype. WS needs to be more accountable for their actions and more transparent. Its expected of all other government employees; its far past the time that WS become more answerable to the taxpayers and less to the corporations.

  6. Carter Niemeyer Avatar
    Carter Niemeyer

    The Wildlife Services infrastructure in the West is a scattered group of trappers who are mostly full-time employees with trucks, salaries, benefits and an arsenal of tools to conduct predator control. The trappers must produce a product – predator removal primarily. Control methods are either corrective (actual livestock damage) or preventative (pre-emptive removal of coyotes for example with traps, snares, ground and aerial shooting to prevent livestock losses before they happen). There is no way to reduce the cost of the program because to show success means budgets might be cut and to show failure means they need a larger budget and more field personnel. To keep livestock producers supportive, WS needs to show positive results but for producers to report positive results threatens to reduce WS budgets. It is an endless cycle. What you will notice though is that coyotes have been killed in large numbers by WS in the West for decades but livestock losses reported to NASS (self-reporting by producers) do not reflect any positive value in killing all those coyotes, other than to “suggest” that removal of those coyotes is holding the line. I’m not sure that is a valid conclusion at all.

    1. WM Avatar


      Just a few questions about WS operations, if you have the time.

      When was the last year you worked for WS, and which state(s)?

      Have you kept up with changes, if any, in the state office(s), and any modifications they might have made based on local political pressure?

      With your recent work in assisting OR in their wolf depredation investigation reporting, do you see a higher or lower set of rigorous standards in reporting employed in different offices (to the extent you know or can reasonably speculate)? Do you suspect things are done differently in say, WA or CA, as compared to ID/MT?

      Do you have any personal thoughts on the effectiveness of coyote controls (lethal or non-lethal) that should be employed in parts of the West but apparently are not? How would one most effectively advocate for these changes, if any are indicated?

      Thanks in advance for the courtesy of a reply. We do need facts and informed opinons (as you know) on this forum.

      1. Carter Niemeyer Avatar
        Carter Niemeyer


        I last worked for Wildlife Services in the summer of 2000 – 26 years with the outfit all in Montana but branched out into other states as the Wolf Specialist. I haven’t kept up with the state offices but certainly have had plenty of feedback from field personnel. Overall, it doesn’t sound like much has changed except the faces and names in charge.
        Oregon WS obviously lacks rigorous standards of investigation in my opinion. Responsibilities in WS vary dramatically as you cross state boundaries because Idaho/Montana spend an inordinate amount of time in pursuit of coyotes and Montana is obsessed with aerial hunting of predators and always has been since I worked for them. I don’t think Washington has the focus on coyotes but has many other projects from bird management to protecting fisheries to killing pigeons. California would be much more diverse with a lot of urban wildlife problems. WS state directors each captain their own ships with a lot of variability in what they want to focus on.

        I do not necessarily hang my hat on any particular non-lethal methods but absolutely believe that guard dogs for sheep have made huge differences, of course, at the expense of the producer maintaining and feeding them. Nomadic sheep bands seem to sustain their worst coyote problems in the winter and spring months and then drive the sheep into the mountains on top of wolf packs in the summer. There are no silver bullets with non-lethal but a variety of tools to apply through adaptive management depending on the situation. The biggest problem with non-lethal is that it requires a genuine commitment from the livestock producer to “buy in” and try it and somewhat believe in it, to work. What I don’t see happening is any attempt by WS to take all of their non-lethal expenditures and put them in the hands of field trappers with instructions to “make them work”. I think NGOs would work with WS on a cost sharing plan to accomplish some different approaches but that always comes across as political suicide to look in that direction.

        The other point I should emphasize is that WS has an eastern region and a western region and I often think they are different as day and night. The eastern WS region seems to me to have a modern approach where they integrate a lot of their work responsibilities with the states on a variety of species. It would be hard to ever convince me that Idaho, Montana and Wyoming need to spend so much time focused on killing coyotes the year around and wolf depredation investigations need a much more rigorous set of standards and procedures from what I see, hear and am advised.

    2. CodyCoyote Avatar

      – or as we say in Wyoming: ” Kill a coyote and two coyotes take its place “…

  7. Rancher Bob Avatar
    Rancher Bob

    Nice piece of propaganda maybe I can supply some facts and reality.
    In Montana WS is basically out of the coyote control business all their time is in problem wolf control. There is no compensation for coyote depredations.
    So what is the motivation for reporting coyote depredations. Why would a sheep producer waste the time. Expect reports of coyote depredation to drop because whats the point of reporting.

  8. Nancy Avatar

    Jon Way – curious if you have ever seen this approach in practice?

    Inexpensive to own & operate (solar) positive testimonials.

    While I can’t see it functioning over huge tracts of land (unless at night when sheep are gathered) most losses due to predators, occur during calving/lambing season in smaller areas.

    1. Jon Way Avatar

      Interesting Nancy. I don’t specifically know of that company but the thought that flashing/strobe lights might work is valid and is just one tool in the non-lethal toolbox that can certainly be attempted along with improved husbandry practices, fladry, etc. I bet these practices have best long term merit for reducing livestock (or other) losses and preventing predator deaths.

  9. Nancy Avatar

    “Weather is always a gamble. Ewes are impregnated months before anyone’s certain how long winter will be. Last year’s winter was still full strength in March when shearing crews arrived to shave ewes in advance of lambing season. A normally safe practice, the shearing left ewes shivering as winter lingered. Some died. Lambs bore the brunt of a cold, wet spring as well”

    Okay – continue to keep your hands out for subsidies every year or start thinking outside the box:

    Contact the manufacturer, find out if a design is possible for sheep & lambs (they’d probably go for it if the number were in the thousands) When they are sheared, slap them in a suit and turn them loose. Material is tear resistent so it might just come in handy around predators.

    Might be worth experimenting with 🙂

    1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      I don’t know about protecting domestic sheep but those tyvek painting suits are incredible for approaching wild sheep and other wildlife. We took some to the north slope of the Brooks Range a few years ago and a teenage friend and I donned them to climb a mountain in the fog after some old Dall rams I had spotted earlier from several miles away. We never did catch up with those old boys but were amazed to be able to walk feet away right past ptarmigan that are generally very spooky up there, usually flushing at long distance. He was able to crawl, pretending to be grazing, across open ground up to within 15 feet of a young ram that would occasionally look at him intently and then go back to feeding. Obviously, they make you appear unlike any predator the animals in that area are expecting (maybe there is some hope for iceless, landbound polar bears!). I guess the flipside or possible downside would be what other predators, particularly grizzlies, would think of you when you are moving around in those duds? We saw a wolverine loping past camp and tried unsuccessfully to get photos by making a few distressed prey sounds after it saw us (wasn’t fooled) but soon thereafter it bee-lined toward a young white ram on the mountainside (that easily outdistanced it), so as a photographer you might possibly be seen not as a potential threat but an attraction while wearing a white suit around.

  10. Nancy Avatar

    “Cattle deaths confirmed by USDA Wildlife Services in Montana decreased from 87 in 2010 to 74 in 2011, and confirmed sheep death losses dropped from 64 to 11. About 17 percent of Montana wolf packs were confirmed to have killed livestock, down from 31 percent in 2010. One horse and two domestic dogs were also confirmed killed by wolves. Additional losses and injuries occurred, but either could not be verified or were determined to be “probable” wolf kills”

    I heard these facts a couple of weeks ago on the local radio but couldn’t find the information in print until this morning. Interesting that wolf populations have increased yet predations have decreased.

    Are ranchers more vigilant or are wolves learning (and teaching offspring) to avoid livestock, which are not their natural prey?


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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