U.S. native wild animals, from bears to bison to grasshoppers, are routinely killed by the millions to protect the profits of meat and dairy producers. While grazing advocates frequently claim that grazing non-native livestock is beneficial, even crucial, for ecosystem health because it “mimics natural systems,” native grazers like elk, deer, bison and pronghorn antelope are systematically killed en masse to reserve more pasture and forage for cattle.
Important habitat-creating species such as prairie dogs have also been decimated because they disrupt the homogenous landscapes desired by cattle operators. All too often the interests of the livestock industry are given lethal precedence over wild animals in their natural habitats.
More than 175 threatened or endangered species are imperiled on federal lands where grazing is promoted, protected and subsidized. Grazing practices are among the greatest direct threats to vulnerable species, affecting 14% of threatened or endangered animals and 33% of threatened or endangered plants in the United States. Wildlife fenced out of native habitat at the behest of meat producers, or pushed off increasingly polluted and degraded public lands, along with many wild plant species are facing a crisis due to the presence of grazing cattle and sheep. Grazing is a serious threat to wildlife and ecosystems, particularly on public lands. The ecological costs of grazing cattle and sheep exceed that of any other western land use.
Wildlife Services shoots, traps, and poisons millions of wild animals to make more room for cows and other farmed animals. This federal killing program is housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and spends millions of taxpayer dollars annually to kill millions of native wild animals like bears, coyotes, foxes, mountain lions and wolves, even on public lands, with minimal oversight or public transparency. Wildlife are destroyed by the most violent and gruesome methods: shot from helicopters, poisoned, gassed, baited with cyanide, torn apart by hounds, strangled in neck snares and caught in leghold traps bringing a slow, tortuous death.
In 2020, Wildlife Services reports show, the program killed at least 1.5 million animals, including 433,192 native wildlife species and tens of thousands of vital native carnivores, including 62,537 coyotes, 2,527 foxes, 685 bobcats, 434 black bears, 381 gray wolves and 276 mountain lions.
A significant proportion of native animals destroyed by Wildlife Services are keystone species, upon which many other species in an ecosystem crucially depend. For example, Wildlife Services kills tens of thousands of beavers annually using cruel slow-death conibear traps. Beavers are considered a keystone ecosystem species, creating thriving wetland habitat for many other species of wildlife. Similarly, every year the program kills tens of thousands of coyotes, another keystone species, who die slow deaths in neck snares and leg traps.
Environmental groups and concerned citizens have taken legal action against the rogue killing program. A 2019 lawsuit in federal court aimed at stopping Wildlife Services from shooting, trapping and poisoning Wyoming's wild animals, asserted that Wildlife Services had killed millions of native predators without completing a legally required “environmental impact statement” covering potential harms of its actions or informing the public about those potential environmental harms, as the National Environmental Policy Act mandates. A 2021 legal victory required federal agencies to conduct such reviews after an environmental organization found the program’s wolf trappers were also harming endangered Canada lynx.
Lawsuits like these have teeth. Wildlife Services killed 364,734 red-winged blackbirds in 2019 but 30,836 in 2020, suggesting that greater legal accountability by this program is vital for the survival of countless species and ecosystems in the United States.
Wildlife Services also kills tens of thousands of “non-target” animals each year via indiscriminate trapping and poisoning. Collateral victims include federally protected golden and bald eagles who frequently die in leg and neck snares, beavers, armadillos, badgers, great-horned owls, hog-nosed skunks, javelina, pronghorn antelope, porcupines, great blue herons, ruddy ducks, snapping turtles, turkey vultures, long-tailed weasels, marmots, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, black bears, sandhill cranes and ringtails; as well as swift foxes, kit foxes and river otters, all the focus of conservation and restoration efforts. Thousands of domestic dogs and cats are also killed each year when they stumble upon traps or poisoned baits.
Lethal control has long been the preemptive paradigm for managing the wildlife/livestock conflict, but its efficacy at deterring predation is not supported by science. A team of researchers performed a meta-analysis of predation deterrence methods used against wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears, followed by a series of randomized trials. They found that, overwhelmingly, nonlethal deterrents were more effective than lethal control in preventing carnivore predation on livestock. Moreover, the researchers found that government culling operations and targeted hunting schemes were often followed by increases in livestock predation, whereas none of the nonlethal methods were followed by such increases.
Coyotes, by far the most targeted predators of these lethal control programs, are believed to have evolved a “colonizing mechanism” in response to lethal pressures, whereby they reproduce in greater numbers. If an alpha female is killed, beta females breed, the original pack disperses and creates new packs, and the coyotes’ overall range and numbers are subsequently expanded. Scientists estimate that in full colonization mode, even a 70% cull rate does not correspond with a decline in total population.
Wild predators play a key role in ecosystem health by influencing the numbers and distribution of other species. When they are subjected to unnatural culling rates, their removal causes cascading impacts down the trophic chain, altering numbers of prey species as well as native vegetation distribution and insect populations.
For example, the reintroduction of previously extirpated gray wolf species to Yellowstone National Park triggered a trophic cascade of positive ecological ripple effects. When the wolves were killed off from the park in the 1930s, native elk populations soared despite the fact that grizzly bears and cougars still preyed on them. With reduced predatory pressure, the elk herds stayed in one place longer, and began overgrazing willow trees. Young willows are crucial feed for beavers in winter, and as the elk browsed them out, beaver populations drastically plummeted. When the wolves were reintroduced in 1995, there was only one beaver population left in the park. Now there are nine. Beaver dams have multiple impacts on stream hydrology, controlling runoff, storing water to recharge the water table, and creating habitat for shade-sheltering species of fish, while healthy willow stands provide habitat for songbirds.
Similarly in Yellowstone National Park, hundreds of wild bison are culled annually on behalf of commercial cattle producers outside the park. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the largest, nearly intact temperate natural and biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, and is the last remaining sizable habitat for wild bison in the United States. This ecosystem has a carrying capacity for far more wild bison than currently exist. Cattle producers claim bison may spread brucellosis to cattle outside the park, yet bison have never been a source of brucellosis in cattle; indeed the disease was originally brought over by cattle. There is overwhelming national support for restoration of bison habitat and protection of bison herds. But cattle producers continue to influence wildlife policy.
Creating a wildlife-friendly, environmentally responsible, biodiverse and ecologically resilient, just food system requires an end to the wholesale slaughter of wildlife on behalf of meat and dairy producers. It also means a shift away from prioritizing nonnative cattle over native wildlife by public lands managers such as the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, but also by the USDA and its Wildlife Services program (and similar wildlife killing programs implemented globally). This will also entail rethinking the pesticides sprayed on public lands, including wildlife refuges, standardizing practices such as range-riders, terminating expired grazing leases on a national seashore (see our case study of devastating impacts to native Tule Elk on Point Reyes National Seashore), and ending the mass culling of native bison in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem on behalf of cattle ranchers.
Wildlife-friendly efforts will continue to require holding cattle grazers accountable to environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act, which are regularly violated by cattle and other livestock operators. Meanwhile, the methods used to resolve the conflict with wildlife created by producers of cattle and other livestock should prioritize nonlethal options and include scientific input from ecological experts, environmental advocates, and other similar bodies, while decreasing the overwhelming stronghold the livestock industry has over public agencies and wildlife-management policies.
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