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The Fallacy of Lethal Predator-Control: Strategically Defunding Wildlife Services on Behalf of the Citizens of Oregon

 Madison Cook-Hines


Harmful lethal predator control practices in the U.S. are sustained by the anthropocentric mindset of policymakers: a mindset which puts human interest at the crux of all decision making. Agriculture and ranching lobbies have thus successfully prevented any federal legislation defunding the ‘Wildlife Services’ agency by insisting on the necessity of lethal control to human livelihoods and wellbeing. This paper will reverse assumptions of necessity in order to prove that lethal predator control does a disservice not only to ecosystems, but to livestock, ranchers, and taxpayers, using anthropocentrism as an incentive for the elimination, rather than continuation, of subsidized lethal predator control. In response to failed efforts of defunding Wildlife Services at the federal level, the paper will then propose state-level regulation over predator control funding in the state of Oregon, where tensions with Wildlife Services provide an opening for legislative progress. Specifically, it will propose a ban on in-state monetary contributions towards any lethal wildlife-control. Finally, analyzing the budget-makeup of Wildlife Services, the paper will emphasize the efficiency and effectiveness of the proposal.



Predator Control

The U.S. government developed Wildlife Services as a branch of the Department of Agriculture over a century ago, based upon false conjecture which held that eliminating predators from an ecosystem was beneficial to human beings. Theoretically, in the absence of predation, hunters would have access to flourishing herds and ranchers would sustain ample beef yields each year. Theoretically, yes; but in reality, no. Over the decades, lethal predator control has proven to be ineffective — failing in its long-term goal of eradicating predators — and inhumane — associated with violent slaughters and short-term ecosystem damage (Bergstrom et al.). Yet, the federal government still subsidizes its practice, spending around $100 million on Wildlife Services annually.

Under the purview of the USDA, Wildlife Services oversees the multitude of dilemmas that arise at the interface between human civilization and ever-shrinking wilderness, including inevitable conflicts between ranchers and the species that occasionally prey on their livestock. The agency handles these conflicts with disturbing flippancy; according to Rebecca Bale of National Geographic, Wildlife Services neglects to perform any scientific analysis of consequences involved in eliminating predators. In addition, crude, cruel methods, such as poison baiting, neck snares, body-gripping traps, and foothold traps, are unable to distinguish between target and non-target species, resulting in the frequent capture and death of non-predatory animals (The Humane Society 7). From 2000 to 2013, Wildlife Service agents slaughtered two million mammals, including twenty species of carnivore and many “non-target animals” like squirrels, rabbits, and even domestic pets (Bergstrom et al.).

Lethal control methods like those employed by Wildlife Services cause damaging repercussions throughout ecosystems, consequences well-exceeding the inhumane slaughter of individual animals. In the absence of top-predators, prey species overpopulate, taxing the land, which is then unable to provide growing herds with enough food. This overgrazing causes malnutrition, and, eventually, shrinking and sickening of prey populations (“Agriculture’s”). Such ecological impacts reverberate, and similar patterns appear in each trophic level. Predator control thus upsets the complex interdependencies that form within natural ecosystems.


Potential in Anthropocentrism

Wildlife Services exists thanks to the anthropocentrism that is common in American policymaking. Elected officials tend to make decisions by weighing, above all, the benefit that any given decision might have to human beings. However, while this mindset has allowed damaging practices to become societal institutions, it may also hold the key to their reversal. A study by Kortenkamp and Moore found that when decisions are made surrounding an environmental dilemma, both ecocentrism, putting the earth first, and educated anthropocentrism resulted in more environmentally-conscious decisions than a “non-environmental” reasoning method. Basically, if lawmakers are properly educated, their anthropocentrism might allow them to make choices in favor of both people and the ecosystems that surround them.


Oregon’s Role

Recently in Oregon, a state where predator control is employed frequently, there has been increasing dissent against the inhumane practices of Wildlife Services. Five separate environmental organizations (The Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, Predator Defense, Cascadia Wildlands, and Project Coyote) are suing the agency for the illegal slaughter of eighty-one wolves that were protected under the Endangered Species Act (Western Environmental Law Center). In 2011, Oregon’s fourth-district congressman, Peter DeFazio, proposed an amendment to the USDA Budget that would have cut $11 million from the lethal predator control funds of the agency. The amendment was struck down in the House by representatives claiming that lethal control is crucial for both ranchers and the average citizen (Markarian). DeFazio is primarily concerned with minimizing lethal control in his own state, but, unfortunately, Wildlife Services is a federal agency, and therefore difficult, if not impossible, to regulate at anything other than a federal level. However, only a portion of its budget comes from federal funding. The rest is derived from “cooperators” (state universities, county police departments, or local municipalities); the institutions that require each individual job to be done (Wildlife Services). It is through the regulation of these “cooperators” that the state has the power to regulate Wildlife Services. Oregon has the opportunity to manage these un-subsidized funds, capitalizing on in-state opposition to lethal control and avoiding the proven gridlock of federal legislation.


The Solution

With lawsuits in progress and congressmen chomping at the bit for restrictive action, Oregon is ripe for the implementation of a long-needed change in its relationship with Wildlife Services. The catalyst for change will be definitive proof that lethal predator control is as damaging to humans as it is to ecosystems. And proof is not hard to find. In light of the evidence provided in this paper, Oregon’s state representatives must acknowledge the widespread human benefits associated with the elimination of lethal predator control and must prohibit any state-controlled or in-state private entities from contributing funding to Wildlife Services for lethal control methods.


Scientific and Statistical Misrepresentation

Failures of Ecosystems and of Predator Control

Studies indicate that the long-term success of lethal predator control is essentially nonexistent; it does not solve the problem of predatory nuisances. The USDA cattle survey, for instance, found that while calf deaths due to coyotes decreased by approximately 10% over nineteen years, calf death due to predators overall increased for the same time period (USDA 27-28). As Wildlife Services systematically reduced coyote populations, overtime, other top-predators moved in to fill the niche. While the complex balances of an ecosystem are degraded by lethal control, predator populations naturally attempt to adapt and repair their numbers, producing larger litters or, if unable, giving way to a different species of dominant predator. Within the ecosystem, intricate symbioses are ruptured and food webs become unbalanced, owing to the changing demands of a changing predatory population. For instance, while both coyotes and wildcats are often targets for Wildlife Services, their functions within an ecosystem are unique. Coyotes generally hunt smaller species, whereas cougars tend to go for larger kills. If a wildcat population is replaced by a coyote population, deer species may experience a population boom, putting stress on local flora to provide enough food, while rabbit species may steeply decline, which, in turn, might reduce fox populations. Overgrazing by the deer might even reduce the availability of food for local livestock. Meanwhile, nearby human civilizations would simply see continued the predation of ranching animals (Bergstrom et al.).

Studies do exist that deny the severity of ecosystem damage resulting from lethal control. An article by Allen et al. states that Australian prey species fluctuated with no correlation to the presence of poison-baiting predator control, a result taken to indicate that lethal control does not always cause such catastrophic “trophic cascades.” However, the data collected during the study revealed a key factor: predator populations also fluctuated independently of the presence of poisons. Essentially, prey species weren’t affected only because predator species weren’t affected. The Australian system of lethal predator control was not functioning whatsoever. “Trophic cascades” were avoided only because the lethal measures subsidized throughout the nation were so inefficient that they failed to even make a dent in the target predator populations.



Unfortunately, the system in the U.S. cannot boast of such inefficacy, and ecosystems, livestock, and ranchers alike have suffered for it. Indeed, imbalance within an ecosystem can, and has, adversely affected human populations. Studies have found that livestock depend on healthy ecosystems and healthy levels of predation within them. An article by Packer et al. states that “domesticated stock” benefitted from the presence of healthy predator populations in surrounding ecosystems. The study found that predation of wild herbivores served to control parasite populations within these local ecosystems. A prey animal weakened by a parasite is more likely to be singled out in a predatory hunt. Killing the host animal is a successful method for permanently shutting down the natural cycles that would return the parasite to the ecosystem. The result is fewer parasites present in the organic matter consumed by livestock, and sheep and cows that are generally healthier, and that do not require the added expense of parasite-preventative treatment (Packer et al.). In this way, the livestock, and the ranchers themselves, benefit from adequate predation in local ecosystems.


Lack of Necessity

Granted, the very idea that this predation poses a serious threat to maintaining a healthy herd of cattle or sheep on ranch land is a proven fallacy. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture analyzed nationwide losses due to predation in the cattle industry. The findings are published in a formal report, Cattle and Calves Predator Death Loss in the United States, 2010, and the numbers are compelling. Of all cattle deaths reported in the United States’ agricultural sector, there were less than 4 million out of 92.6 million — less than 6% were the result of predation (9). This percentage fell as low as 0.3 on dairy farms (19).



In regions like Jackson County, Oregon, ordinary citizens are under the impression that their personal safety depends on Wildlife Services. A local newspaper reports that although lethal measures are used “only as a last resort,” residents consider them to be necessary protections against recurring top-predator issues. Cheryl Payne, for instance, recalls being stalked by a wildcat: “luckily I had a gun,” she remarks, noting that access to Wildlife Services means that people aren’t forced to shoot at predators themselves (Aldous). And Payne’s opinions are certainly justifiable, for, if a predator begins stalking a neighborhood, the safety of the residents is compromised. There is, therefore, an argument for the short-term value of occasional predator control.

However, lethal predator control is just one out of many methods of dealing with wildlife conflict. Nonlethal methods are available and are employed by Wildlife Services and ranchers alike on a regular basis. Shed lambing and shed calving, confining livestock at night, effective fencing, and proper carcass disposal are all proven strategies for minimizing the attraction of predators to ranch lands and surrounding communities (Aldous). Indeed, according to the Humane Society, in Marin County California, twenty-nine ranchers developed a comprehensive system of non-lethal control. Implementation cost a hefty $44,000, but, as a result, they saw a drop in relatively high predation rates from 5% with the use of lethal control to 2.2% (“Humane, Effective”). Had such measures been taken in Jackson County, it is possible that the wildcat would never have approached Payne.

While nonlethal alternatives may not be ideal, the cost of lethal predator control outweighs the benefit: lethal predator control is objectively damaging to livestock through the trophic cascades that cause parasites and the exhaustion of ecosystem resources. And, all the while, it fails at solving something that wasn’t a problem in the first place.


New Policy and State-Level Regulation

Taxpayer Interests

Over $100 million in the 2012 fiscal year alone were allocated to Wildlife Services’ damaging and ineffective field operations, and 52% came directly from federal funding. While it is true that only a portion of the total budget was allocated to predator control operations — the rest flowing toward Wildlife Services’ other duties of animal management — that portion was an utter waste of taxpayer dollars. Oregon congressman Peter DeFazio attempted to rectify this very issue in 2011 with his budget-cut amendment trimming the $11 million allocated to lethal predator control out of the agency’s budget, but the measure was struck down (Markarian). The burden of funding an ineffective practice remains on the shoulders of the taxpayers.


Downsizing and New Fiscal Regulations

Agricultural and ranching lobbies continue to prevent legislative action that would restrict Wildlife Services in any way (Cart). Federal legislation has thus proven to be unsuccessful. State-level politics are much more promising, particularly in Oregon, where The Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, Predator Defense, Cascadia Wildlands, and Project Coyote are already taking a stand against lethal control. While powerful lobbies have control of the federal system, state legislators’ primary incentive is to please constituents (Cart).  The Oregon legislature is, therefore, the ideal body to begin reining in Wildlife Services.

Arguably, the more vulnerable portion of Wildlife Services’ funding is the 48% of the Oregon Branch’s total budget that comes from major “cooperators.” These include state agencies and universities and city and county governments, each of which pay for individual tasks performed by Wildlife Services agents (Wildlife Services). State and local governments control the allocation of this funding, making it an ideal target for measures of reform. In order to circumvent the special-interest politics of the U.S. House of Representatives, Oregon will thus need to target the “cooperator” aspect of Wildlife Services’ funding.

Ideally, the state legislature would propose new fiscal regulations for county, city, and town governments. These regulations would prohibit any spending on lethal predator control methods performed by Wildlife Services. As nearly half of the Wildlife Services $100 million budget relies on “cooperator” funding, the $11 million spent on lethal control is well within the scope of the restrictions. This partial defunding would thus have the same local effect as DeFazio’s federal proposal. Each district would remain free to employ the agency for any nonlethal measures deemed necessary for the health of livestock or the safety of citizens.

Making lethal control the sole target of legislation should, in theory, provide for more widespread support from constituents. For, while Oregon may not need lethal predator control, it may still require Wildlife Services to regulate airport wildlife hazards, to assist in aquaculture protection, and, of course, to perform nonlethal predator control (Wildlife Services). In accordance with anthropocentric human interest, the policy would be aimed solely at eliminating that which is, at best, useless, and at worst, damaging to the people of Oregon: lethal predator control.

Unfortunately, without explicit federal directives, this policy would not guarantee the complete halting of lethal predator control by Wildlife Services. However, once a ban on lethal-control-related payments is instated, Oregon’s demand for lethal services would likely dip, incentivizing Wildlife Services to use its existing funds elsewhere. The hope is that a positive feedback loop will develop, as lowered demand forces the agency to direct funds to more worthwhile outlets, lowering demand even further.



This proposal prevents Wildlife Services from practicing lethal control, using finance as a lever — a strategy commonly used on the federal scale. Indeed, the federal government often withholds highway funding, using “the power of the purse” to influence state actions not otherwise under national control (“Federal Highway”). Drug laws were developed in much the same way. Lacking constitutional authority to enact outright bans on what are now illicit substances, in 1914, the federal government, through the Treasury Department, imposed such high taxes on drugs that their procurement and use was forced into the sphere of illegal dealings (Sacco). This isn’t to say that making lethal control illegal is the solution. The core of all of these measures is simple: the use of finance as a disincentive for actions that could not otherwise be regulated. In imposing a spending freeze on all lethal predator control, the Oregon legislature would be turning precedent on its head, following a strategy with decades — if not centuries — of successful history, and using the unique opportunity afforded by Wildlife Services’ split funding to reverse the role of the individual state.



There lies within American anthropocentrism the untapped potential for environmental stewardship (Kortenkamp and Moore).  In order to awaken this potential, however, it must be understood that Wildlife Services is damaging to people. If citizens and their governmental representatives continue to believe that lethal predator control is beneficial to their livelihoods and safety, they will continue to support its use. Without the enactment of a statewide policy to prohibit spending on lethal predator control, Wildlife Services will continue to waste valuable taxpayer dollars on a practice that is inhumane, damaging to ecosystems, damaging to livestock, and ultimately ineffective at achieving its goals. In this way, anthropocentrism can be used to justify and encourage environmentally-conscious initiatives. Evidence proves that the elimination of Wildlife Services’ lethal predator control program is in the best interest of ecosystems, livestock, ranchers, and taxpayers. By imposing the suggested fiscal regulations, Oregon will be able to minimize the employment of lethal methods, saving money, reducing a harmful practice, and setting an example for the rest of the nation.


Works Cited

“Agriculture’s Misnamed Agency.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 July 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

Aldous, Vickie. “Jackson County’s Wildlife Services Agent Seen as Both Killer and Savior.” Mail Tribune. Local Media Group Inc., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Allen, Benjamin L., Lee R. Allen, Richard M. Engeman, and Luke K-P Leung. “Sympatric Prey Responses to Lethal Top-predator Control: Predator Manipulation Experiments.” Frontiers in Zoology 11.1 (2014): n. pag. GREENR. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

Bale, Rachel. “This Government Agency’s Job Is to Kill Wildlife.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 12 Feb. 2016. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

Bergstrom, Bradley J., Lily C. Arias, Ana D. Davidson, Adam W. Ferguson, Lynda A. Randa, and Steven R. Sheffield. “License to Kill: Reforming Federal Wildlife Control to Restore Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function.” Conservation Letters 7.2 (2013): n. pag. Wiley Online Library. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

Cart, Julie. “Congressmen Question Costs, Mission of Wildlife Services Agency.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 04 Jan. 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

“Federal Highway Administration.” Legislative Affairs and Policy Communications. U.S. Department of Transportation, 7 Nov. 2014. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.

The Humane Society. “Humane, Effective Predator Control.” The Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society of the United States, 15 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

The Humane Society. “Wildlife Disservice: The USDA Wildlife.” The Humane Society of the United States (2015): 1-32. The Humane Society of the United States. 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

Ketcham, Christopher. “The Rogue Agency.” Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s Magazine Foundation, Feb. 2016. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

Kortenkamp, Katherine V., and Colleen F. Moore. “Ecocentrism And Anthropocentrism: Moral Reasoning About Ecological Commons Dilemmas.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 21.3 (2001): n. pag. Academic Press, 31 Aug. 2000. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Markarian, Michael. “Advocacy for Animals.” Congressional Year in Review for Animals. Encyclopedia Britannica, 29 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

Packer, Craig, Robert D. Holt, Peter J. Hudson, Kevin D. Lafferty, and Andrew P. Dobson. “Keeping the Herds Healthy and Alert: Implications of Predator Control for Infectious Disease.” Ecology Letters 6.9 (2003): 797-802. Wiley Online Library. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

Sacco, Lisa N. Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends. Rep. no. R43749. Congressional Research Service, 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

United States House of Representatives. Transportation and Infrastructure. Statement of Congressman Peter DeFazio. Congress of the United States, 30 Oct. 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

USDA. Cattle and Calves Predator Death Loss in the United States, 2010. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Prohibits (2012): 1-39. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Feb. 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

Western Environmental Law Center. “Lawsuit Challenges Wildlife Services’ Authority to Kill Wolves in Oregon.” Common Dreams: Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community. Common Dreams, 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Wildlife Services. Oregon State Report. Rep. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.