Aerial-gunning foes plead with Obama to ban such methods

RANCHERS: Ability to control predators vital to livestock industry.

December 19, 2009 

BOISE, Idaho -- A wildlife advocacy group has asked President Barack Obama to end aerial gunning of coyotes and other predators, citing an Idaho incident where a shotgun-wielding parachutist illegally fired on a wolf.

New Mexico-based Wild- Earth Guardians' 39-page petition also urged Obama to banish spring-loaded cyanide devices and other predator poisoning methods from public lands, calling them dangerous and indiscriminate.

In June, an eastern Idaho sheep rancher fired on a wolf while piloting a powered parachute above a 160-acre sheep pen. It's unclear if the animal was hit. Wolves in Idaho are considered big game, not predators, so shooting them from the sky is illegal even with a state-issued airborne predator control permit that covers animals such as coyotes.

No charges were filed, but WildEarth Guardians said the Idaho case shows federal agencies have lost control of aerial shooting. The group also contends airborne predator control programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services division cost taxpayers unnecessary millions and lead to accidents that have killed 38 people since 1973.

"We call upon the Obama administration to protect our native carnivores," said Wendy Keefover-Ring, a spokeswoman for WildEarth Guardians in Boulder, Colo.

In January, the federal Environmental Protection Agency refused a similar demand from WildEarth Guardians and others to ban cyanide for predator control, calling its arguments "unpersuasive."

And efforts to end aerial hunting aren't new, either: The Humane Society of the United States has tried for decades to stop the practice. In 2005, however, Idaho officials convinced the Federal Aviation Administration to expand policies to allow licensed ultralight aircraft pilots to shoot predators from aloft.

Aerial gunning even rose to the level of presidential politics in 2008, when then-Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin unapologetically backed her state's airborne wolf hunts.

Ranching interests including the American Sheep Industry Association say using aircraft and poison to kill coyotes is an important tool to combat $125 million in annual losses from predators to the sheep, goat and cattle industry. Peter Orwick, the group's director in Englewood, Colo., said WildEarth Guardians has a radical animal-rights agenda that threatens the livelihood of ranching families like his own.

"If they weren't able to use airplanes, they would not be in the livestock business," Orwick said. WildEarth Guardians "wants absolutely no control tools made available, from the federal perspective."

USDA Wildlife Services, with a budget of about $120 million, reported killing some 4.9 million animals in 2008 in efforts to control predators and invasive species. It uses airborne predator management primarily for coyotes, wolves and feral swine, spokeswoman Meghan Klingel said.

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