Wildlife Agency Considers Open Season on Protected Black Vultures
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Wildlife Agency Considers Open Season on Protected Black Vultures

Southern Cattlemen Say the Aggressive Birds Are Devastating Livestock

Black vulture pair feeding on a mule deer. Plate 106 from The Birds of America by John James Audubon.

Southern farmers and cattle ranchers want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a broad order allowing them to kill protected black vultures, which they say are devastating herds from Georgia to Texas.

“We want some help,” said Adam McClung of the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association.

Black vultures and more than 800 other species of birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 which makes it illegal to kill the birds without a federal permit.

More than 6,500 black vultures were killed in 2016 in 19 states including Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas under permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Birds can be killed if they are causing economic damage or are a risk to humans.

To get a permit, applicants must explain what nonlethal measures they’ve tried and why they didn’t work. Cattle ranchers and others want more leeway to be able to kill what they say can be problem birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has previously issued orders for people to be able to kill birds such as Canada geese.

ACTION BOX / What You Can Do About It

Call Greg Sheehan, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, at 202-208-4717. Write: 1849 C Street NW, Room 3358 / Washington, D.C. 20240-0001.

Contact your senators or representative.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has spent more than $203,000 on federal lobbying so far this year. The efforts have won some congressional support. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) said the black vulture is “plaguing the Southeast.”

Black vultures have spread north as far as New England in the last four decades because of climate change. About 1.8 million black vultures live in the United States, according to Partners in Flight databases.  Black vultures, which have black heads and white tips on the undersides of their wings, are easily distinguished from more familiar and much larger red-headed turkey vultures.

The black birds are more aggressive than turkey vultures and have been known to target and kill small live animals including lambs, calves, goats, groundhogs and other wild animals.

A flock of black vultures feeds on a horse carcass

“In some cases, the birds have been known to attack newborn calves during birth while they are still in the cow’s birth canal,” said Stan Smith a program assistant at the Ohio State University Extension.

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry estimated that Oklahoma ranchers lost more than $30,000 worth of livestock to black vultures in 2015. Tennessee livestock producers reported losses of 233 cattle to black vultures in 2015.

The Department of Agriculture compensates ranchers who lose livestock to protected birds. Calves can draw up to $1,400  based on weight. Cows can draw up to $1,500.

Vultures in the United States have rebounded after decades of being trapped, poisoned and shot. The birds are in trouble in other countries, however. Asian vultures have declined faster than any bird in history, including the dodo bird.

In India, the number of vultures crashed from about 40 million to less than 100,000 because of a drug given to cattle that poisoned the vultures. The populations of rats and feral dogs grew. So did the number of rabies deaths among humans.

James Beasley, a scientist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, said protecting vultures in states such as Georgia and South Carolina could help prevent an ecological crisis here.

“The loss or decline of scavengers can have cascading impacts within an ecosystem, ultimately affecting human health,” Beasley said.

Featured photo: Black vultures (Photo by Fang Guo, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

August 3, 2017