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Wildlife Advocates Criticize Safety of Aerial Hunts

RENO, Nevada (AP) - Wildlife advocates are accusing federal officials of doing little to improve the safety of a program designed to protect livestock from coyotes and other predators.

Their criticism follows an announcement earlier this month by the Wildlife Services branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it has launched a safety review of its methods of killing livestock predators.

The agency began the review following the deaths of two people killed in June when their small plane crashed in Utah as they shot coyotes from the air. Their deaths marked the ninth and 10th fatalities related to Wildlife Services operations since 1979.

The review is expected to be completed next June, agency spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said Wednesday. The agency hasn't conducted a safety review in 10 years, she said.

But critics say past reviews have been incomplete and brought about few changes.

``If your newly announced review follows the pattern of past internal reviews by WS, we fear that you will simply continue to perpetuate unnecessary and unwarranted dangers to the public, the environment and to the non-target wildlife that your agency purports to serve,'' the leaders of two groups wrote in a letter to William Clay, the agency's deputy administrator.

Wildlife advocates Wendy Keefover Ring and Jeff Ruch are calling on the agency to open its safety review to public scrutiny.

``They just have this history of being completely opaque and rogue and unaccountable to the public in everything they do,'' said Keefover Ring, director of Sinapu, a Colorado-based organization dedicated to wildlife preservation in the Southern Rockies.

She argues that the review should be conducted by outside experts.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington D.C., noted that the agency also has mishandled the storage of dangerous biological agents and pesticides. Two recent audits by USDA's Office of Inspector General faulted the agency for inaccurate inventories, lack of controls against theft and unauthorized sales and violations of bioterrorism regulations, he said.

Wendy Keefover Ring said the agency's traps and techniques have been linked to inadvertent deaths of wild and domestic animals.

Dr. Don Molde, a retired psychologist and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society, said he's had little success getting answers from the agency about why so many coyotes are killed in Nevada, where a nation-high 4,665 coyotes were killed in the aerial-gunning program last year. The agency killed 87,000 coyotes nationwide last year.

``I've been fussing with them for 30 years or so about killing of coyotes and mountain lions and trapping and poisoning and snaring, all the miserable stuff they do,'' Dr. Don Molde said. ``They are kind of secretive. They don't like scrutiny of what they do, which is basically go out and kill things.''

Carol Bannerman said the agency intends to make the findings of the review public, but did not know if public comment would be incorporated. Bannerman said experts from outside the agency would be involved in the review.

``We certainly respect the fact there are people who don't necessarily agree with lethal control. But we also know there are farmers and ranchers that depend on us,'' Bannerman said.

During 2004, Wildlife Services killed 75,000 coyotes across the country, 32,000 of them through the aerial-gunning program, Bannerman said. That same year, 231,000 sheep, lambs, cattle and calves were lost to predators, she said.

``Studies show without effective livestock protection, both lethal and non-lethal, those numbers would be much higher,'' she said.

Bannerman said she didn't agree with critics who say the agency didn't make any significant changes after a 1998 review. She said the review prompted improvements in training and oversight of aerial-gunning crews.
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