Wildlife Services A Failed Agency

The euphemistically named federal killing agency known as Wildlife Services was sued and won in Idaho US District Court by environmental groups that include Western Watersheds Project, Predator Defense, Wild Earth Guardians, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The plaintiffs assert that Wildlife Services’ lethal control of coyotes and other predators at the behest of the livestock industry (and sometimes hunters) is based upon political expediency, not sound science. Currently, the plaintiffs are formulating a remedy.

Making matters worse, a litany of scientific studies demonstrate lethal methods are ineffective at controlling coyotes because they disrupt the animal’s social ecology and ultimately fail to reduce predation losses.

Wildlife Services is a secretive taxpayer-supported federal agency whose prime purpose is to kill wildlife.

Wildlife Services uses a host of cruel methods to kill coyotes including trapping, poison, hunting, aerial gunning, and snares, all based on the flawed assumption that such procedures will reduce coyote predation on livestock as well as huntable species like deer. Ironically, such control measures increase the likelihood of predation.

In a sense, Wildlife Services control begets more coyotes and more predation, thus creating a circular feedback mechanism that creates political support for continued agency funding. In other words, Wildlife Services does not want to see coyote predation reduced since the more predation it can create by its activities, the more funding support it receives.

The basic issue is that Wildlife Services ignores coyote social ecology.

A breeding pair of coyotes will stake out and defend a territory. If unmolested, a breeding pair will have pups and form a pack of up to 10 individuals. Each pack has a dominant breeding pair. Other adults are behaviorally “sterile” and do not breed.

This has implications for coyote control, because in areas with heavy coyote mortality, these typically “sterile” females are released and can breed.

In addition to pack members, there are always random individuals that are known as floaters who usually do not maintain a territory, but are available to breed, if the dominant breeders are killed. These floaters form a reservoir of replacement breeders, should a breeding coyote be killed.

In addition to these behavioral controls on breeding, in unexploited coyote populations that are near the saturation point in terms of food availability, many pups die of starvation and never reach maturity. In exploited populations, a greater number of pups will survive into adulthood, often negating any losses from Wildlife Services control efforts.

A further limit on coyote livestock predation is due to learned behavior. Coyotes, like most predators, are reluctant to sample “new” food. If they are not preying upon livestock, they are unlikely to begin. However, in exploited populations, young orphaned coyotes must fend for themselves and in desperation will prey upon livestock and become livestock killers.

To be successful at reducing coyote populations, a minimum of 70% of the population must be killed on a sustained basis. This is almost never achieved, and a vacant territory is quickly filled by floating individuals, or by a nearby pack.

Furthermore, due to extreme competition for food and territories, there are compensatory mechanisms that quickly repopulate any vacant space.

First, more females breed. Second, due to reduce competition for food, a greater percentage of pups survive and mature into adults. Finally, in exploited populations, female coyotes bred at a younger age. All these mechanisms ensure that coyote numbers seldom decline for any significant period.

Livestock grazing can also lead to more coyote predation by reducing cover for the preferred prey of mice and voles which results in lower small mammal populations.

Exploited coyote populations also have fewer adults in a pack to feed pups, thus are more likely to attack the easier prey available—which often is domestic animals.

In the end, the only alternative that is effective is non-lethal measures such as guard animals, corralling livestock at night, and herding. Indeed, in some California counties, tax dollars that previously went to Wildlife Services were used for non-lethal methods, resulting in lower predation losses, and costs.

It’s time to put the Wildlife Services killing machine out of business and to put more responsibility upon ranchers to manage their animals in a way that reduces predator opportunity.


  1. Robin Cornell Avatar
    Robin Cornell

    Put ranchers out of business. Stop eating meat. No need to kill predators for ranchers then.

    1. Mark L Avatar

      Robin, I’d like to point out that it’s not as simple as ‘stop eating meat’. What kinds of meat are the hardest on the environment? What kinds of meat are most often mixed with other meats as a filler, or added to say that it has that kind of meat also, to attract consumers? What’s the health deficit/benefit of each meat?
      What’s the correlation between chicken and the need for wildlife services? Turkey? Pigs? Goats? Deer? Elk? Mule deer? Sheep? Cattle? Horses (just as an adjunct)? Seafood of any kind? Birds? Etc.
      If we drill down deeper we start to get different answers than just ‘stop eating meat’.
      As an example, same goes for hunters and trappers being grouped together. Most hunters I know don’t want to be grouped with trappers, that’s a different ‘Venn diagram’, if you will. But trappers WANT to be grouped with hunters, because they know a lot of people look down on the activity (in some circumstances…in some not) and don’t see the same activity and construct as hunting.
      I think most of the general population, and most on here, aren’t going to just quit eating ‘meat’ (and let’s remember, it’s an animal) I guarantee I’m not…I like some meats. But, I also guarantee I’m a lot more selective about the meats (animals!) that I do eat in part because of the environmental impact (maybe even including effect on wildlife services) that some meats (animals!) have.
      Ranchers have their place in our society, but we need to set proper limits on their influence, just like we need to set proper limits on other entities influences in our country (gee, who could THAT be?) I don’t want to put ranchers out of business, they have a function. But, I do want to see them have to work to earn a living like the rest of us, and not work a system that’s designed by a government entity to keep itself going through ineptitude and political expediency (bureaucracy?).

    2. rork Avatar

      Stop eating meat, means more goes to China. Your personal holiness is not the solution. Systemic changes will be much more effective. Things like raising the prices of public grazing, carbon taxes, or direct taxes on cows.
      We can preach to people to buy fuel efficient cars, or we can raise taxes on gas – which one of those works better? The average German uses 1/4 of the gasoline we do in the US. Instead we have fleet millage standards – something only a politician could like.

  2. Pamela Williams Avatar
    Pamela Williams

    Thank you, George Wuerthner, for the education. I wish it could be delivered to the wildlife “managers” such as Wildlife Services. As you point out, it’s in their best interest to remain obstinately ignorant — an ignorance they consistently demonstrate.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It has no place any longer. Hunters and ranchers already have more than enough leeway to ‘manage’ wildlife, especially with recent legal and legally questionable changes in laws, and should not need additional taxpayers ‘help’.

    And those pop-up sprinkler-like poisons need to go, if they haven’t already.

  4. Kyle Avatar

    Thanks for the article George. This “agency” has failed in a number of ways and the sooner we can put it out of business permanently the better.

    I seem to recall the Center for Biological Diversity had some local success working with CA counties to terminate their contracts with the WSA. There have to be avenues available to the public to eventually terminate the agency and its foul mission.

  5. rork Avatar

    “at the behest of the livestock industry (and sometimes hunters)”
    I would be interested in citations about the hunters. I’m more familiar with WS killing deer. Even if true I recommend at least trying to drive the wedge between hunters and WS, unless your goal is anti-hunting. For example you could mention that ranchers could get hunters/trappers to locally (and temporarily) reduce coyote densities – that happens near me on sheep farms before spring. Government is not involved.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “For example you could mention that ranchers could get hunters/trappers to locally (and temporarily) reduce coyote densities”

      Rork, that already happens out here and government trappers are already welcomed, with open arms, on many ranches to “cull/trap” coyotes, beaver, fox and now wolves, ANY predator/or even prey animals (elk come to mind) that might interfere with their livelihood.

      Got to keep in mind, ranchers got the “green light” decades ago (close to a century?) because there were no “red lights” and taxpayers just continued to fund and still do, grazing subsidies, predator control, etc. because if benefits the few….

  6. Anthony Jones Avatar

    Nice article George. Every bit of it true from my observation. For the past 20 years I have lived in an environmentally rich area with deer and rodents and coyote, etc. For all that time I have also had horses, dogs and cats, and the coyote were never a problem. In many respects the coyote were the best mannered dogs in the area. Everything was pretty well in balance until a Wildlife Services retiree moved into the neighborhood and started killing the coyote. Now the mice, vole, and rabbit populations are wildly out of control. Hawks and owls are starting to pick up the slack, but they are seasonal, and their populations don’t rebound quickly. The coyote were never a problem, indeed they provided a much needed service, keeping the rodents in check and cleaning up the droppings from the fruit trees. I would trade a dozen coyote, in a minute, for the jerk of a Wildlife Services idiot.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner