Aerial Gunning Deadly for State Agents and Wildlife

PIERRE, South Dakota, August 21, 2007 (ENS) - Shooting predatory animals from aircraft, called aerial gunning, is a $100 million a year federal program operated by Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Conservation groups are calling for an end to the practice, citing the deaths of agents as well as wildlife overkill.

On June 1, two Wildlife Services agents died when their plane crashed during an aerial gunning trip in Wayne County, Utah. Since 1979, the federal program has experienced a total of 51 accidents that resulted in 10 fatalities and 28 injuries.

On July 30, South Dakota game agents crashed an airplane during a coyote hunt. The agents walked away from the accident but one suffered a head injury requiring 56 stitches.

Now the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department is reconsidering using airplanes to hunt coyotes in light of this and other accidents.

A national coalition of conservation organizations is petitioning the state of South Dakota to end the practice of sending its agents up in aircraft to shoot wildlife in favor of other means of predator control.

This is the fourth such aircraft crash in South Dakota since 1998. After the July accident, South Dakota grounded the remaining plane in its fleet and the agency is deciding whether or not to discontinue its aerial gunning program.

"The evidence suggests that aerial gunning is a strikingly ineffective way to control coyotes," said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu, the conservation group that organized the petition urging South Dakota to end its program. "It makes far more sense to invest in guard dogs or electric fencing than to strafe wild animals."

The groups argue that the coyote hunts are biologically counterproductive, pointing to studies that show how coyotes compensate by either bearing larger litters or permitting more animals in the pack to breed.The groups say coyotes and wolves play a "marginal role" in livestock losses.

The groups signing the South Dakota petition include Forest Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Rewilding Institute, Sagebrush Sea Campaign, Mountain Cats Trust, the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Western Wildlife Conservancy.

The conservation groups contend that aerial gunning is risky because pilots are often distracted, and they fly at low altitudes with little margin for error.

In 106 plane or helicopter crashes recorded by the groups, pilots have flown into power lines, trees and land formations. In some instances, gunners have shot their own aircraft or bullet casings have become lodged in the cabinís mechanical workings.

"Chasing animals from low-flying aircraft is so inherently dangerous that it should be stopped before any more public servants die," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, one of the groups calling for a federal ban on aerial gunning.

"In addition to aerial gunning, our entire public wildlife extermination arsenal sorely needs to be re-examined," he said.

In 2005, Wildlife Services killed 34,056 animals by aerial gunning, including badgers, bobcats, red foxes, grey wolves and domestic housecats.

The Sinapu-coordinated network called AGRO: A Coalition to End Aerial Gunning of Wildlife, maintains a database of aircraft incidents involving wildlife control online at: http://www.goagro.org/

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.