Published: Monday, Apr. 30, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Apr. 30, 2012 – 9:52 am
Second of three parts
Like the prow of a ship, the Granite Mountainsrise sharply from the creamy-white playa of theBlack Rock Desert in Nevada.
Here, in rugged terrain owned by the American public, a little-known federal agency calledWildlife Services has waged an eight-year war against predators to try to help an iconic Western big-game species: mule deer.
With rifles, snares and aerial gunning, employees have killed 967 coyotes and 45 mountain lions at a cost of about $550,000. But like a mirage, the dream of protecting deer by killing predators has not materialized.
"It didn't make a difference," said Kelley Stewart,a large-mammal ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno.
For decades, Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has specialized in trapping, poisoning and shooting predators in large numbers, largely to protect livestock and, more recently, big game.
Now such killing is coming under fire from scientists, former employees and others who say it often doesn't work and can set off a chain reaction of unintended, often negative consequences.
In biological shorthand: Kill too many coyotes and you open a Pandora's box of disease-carrying rodents, meadow-munching rabbits, bird-eating feral cats, and, over time, smarter, more abundant coyotes. You also can sentence the deer you are trying to help to slow death by starvation.
"There is a widespread perception that predators are the root of all evil and I'm tired of it," saidStewart. "More often than not, if you have predation on a mule deer population, you're going to have a healthier population."
Agency officials say controlling predators is a must, especially in the West where livestock graze large tracts of unfenced land. "The intent is not to prevent predation," said William Clay,deputy administrator of Wildlife Services. "All we're trying to do is remove the problem animals."