WASHINGTON, DC — The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department is reconsidering using airplanes to hunt coyotes in light of its most recent accident. A national coalition of conservation organizations is petitioning the state to end the practice of sending its agents up in aircraft to shoot wildlife (a practice called aerial gunning) in favor of other means of predator control.
On July 30, 2007, South Dakota game agents crashed an airplane during a coyote hunt. Fortunately, the agents walked away from the accident but one suffered a head injury requiring 56 stitches. 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 reviewing whether to discontinue its aerial gunning program.
Beyond South Dakota, the practice of aerial wildlife hunting is drawing flak on a national level. The lion’s share of aerial gunning takes place as part of a $100 million a year federal called Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2005, Wildlife Services killed 34,056 animals by aerial gunning, including badgers, bobcats, red foxes, grey wolves and even domestic housecats.
On June 1, 2007, 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.
The conservation groups contend that aerial gunning is inherently risky because pilots are often distracted, flying 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 cabin’s mechanical workings.
“Chasing animals from low-flying aircraft is so inherently dangerous that it should be stopped before any more public servants die,” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), 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.”
Two states, South Dakota and Wyoming have their own predator control program. They spend an additional $1.7 million and $6 million, respectively, on predator control.
The groups also argue that the coyote hunts are biologically counterproductive, pointing to studies showing that the coyotes compensate by either bearing larger litters or permitting more animals in the pack to breed. Moreover, the groups point to the marginal role wildlife plays in livestock losses.
“The evidence suggests that aerial gunning is a strikingly ineffective way to control coyotes,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu, which 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 signing the petition to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks also include Forest Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Rewilding Institute, Sagebrush Sea Campaign, Mountain Cats Trust, the Humane Society of the U.S. and Western Wildlife Conservancy. In addition, the Sinapu-coordinated network called AGRO: A Coalition to End Aerial Gunning of Wildlife maintains a database of aircraft incidents involving wildlife control.