Fear & Loathing
Travis County says goodbye to a coyote-killing machine
If you live in Central Texas, chances are you have a coyote story to tell. Perhaps you've encountered the native predator on a walk, or looked outside your living room to see one trotting along the street. Those in outlying parts of Travis County often cook dinner as coyote howls float on the breeze.
These versatile carnivores have lived on the North American continent for about a million years, primarily in rural spaces. And since the Sixties they've also been colonizing within our cities, where they enjoy an abundant supply of pet food and rodents. Their ubiquity and resulting interactions with humans, pets, and livestock have led municipalities and counties around the U.S. to devise a variety of ways of dealing with them, such as shooting them with paintball guns, killing them in traps, or reimbursing ranchers for guard dogs.
Beginning in 2005, Travis County outsourced its coyote and "nuisance" wildlife management to Texas Wildlife Services, a state office of a highly criticized federal government program that uses taxpayer dollars to kill millions of animals annually. But that agreement ran into trouble last September when county commissioners fielded complaints about the transparency and practices of TWS, and began deliberating whether or not to renew its contract.
Over the next three months, a somewhat surprising alliance emerged between Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the court's lone conservative, and liberal County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who both wanted to keep TWS on board for constituents who value the agency, while doubling the cost by also contracting with Austin's Animal Services Office, which focuses on education over killing. "I believe we have expertise both in the city and [in TWS] that would greatly benefit us," said Eckhardt.
Their preferred approach didn't appeal to a majority of the court, however, and on Dec. 5, a vote by Brigid Shea, Jeff Travillion, and Margaret Gómez resulted in the county ditching TWS in favor of the city's wildlife management program – believed to be the first time a Texas county has parted ways with TWS due to concerns about the agency's operations.
Despite its name, Texas Wildlife Services is affiliated with neither the generally beloved Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, nor the conservation-focused U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, which originated as the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1915 to kill predators for the livestock industry. Once wide-scale poisoning and trapping led to the collapse of wolf populations, the Bureau's focus turned to coyotes, with Texas congressman and ag industry champion James Paul Buchanan asking it to "wipe them out" in five years. In 1931, one year after the American Society of Mammalogists opposed the government's predator control, Congress passed the Animal Damage Control Act with support from ranching interests. Coyotes have since become what writer and historian Dan Flores describes as the "most persecuted large mammal in American history."
Wildlife Services now operates within the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Still acting under the same 86-year-old statutory authority, the agency has killed 1.7 million coyotes over the last 21 years, and as many as 5 million total animals in one year. Its existence depends on federal and state appropriations, county contracts, and funding from private entities like ranching associations. In 2016, with a budget of more than $142 million, the agency's employees killed almost 77,000 coyotes, 407 black bears, more than 21,000 beavers, 997 bobcats, 3,803 foxes, 332 mountain lions, 535 river otters, 14,654 prairie dogs ... the list goes on and on. The majority of animals killed were red-winged blackbirds and invasive European starlings. WS also disperses millions of animals each year. WS says it kills these animals to protect agriculture, natural resources, property, and human health and safety.
Texas Wildlife Services is the largest of the agency's 53 offices. Curiously (some say intentionally), TWS is presented like a state or Texas A&M entity, when it is really a hybrid federal program. With a 2016 budget of almost $13 million, TWS received about 60% more federal funding than state funding. Some TWS personnel are categorized as state employees, while others, including most supervisors, are federal employees.
Though the Texas Legislature put TWS under the A&M AgriLife Extension Service in 2003, it is TWS Director Michael Bodenchuk, a federal employee, who tells AgriLife how to distribute money throughout the program. AgriLife Director Doug Steele said WS oversees daily TWS activities and that all employees – federal and state – report to Bodenchuk, who does his own hiring, firing, and evaluations. When speaking about the unique structure of the agency, Steele said, "There might not be another one like it in the country."
In 2016, TWS provided wildlife advice through email or phone calls approximately 3,200 times, held 228 instructional sessions, assisted 48 civil and military airports with controlling birds, conducted wildlife disease samplings, and participated in the Texas Oral Rabies Vaccination Program along the Mexican border. That same year it also killed 476,000 animals, including 18,000-plus coyotes, more than half of which were strangled in neck snares; another 4,200 were poisoned with sodium cyanide devices called M-44s.
Because the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's mission does not include managing human-wildlife conflict, local governments in Texas often hire their own biologists or contract with TWS. Travis County's relationship with TWS came about after a heated Commissioners Court meeting in 2004, in which Northwest Austin residents noted frequent sightings of coyotes and a report of three attacking an off-leash dog. Though coyotes have been implicated in 142 attacks on humans across the U.S. and Canada during a 20-year period, and only two deaths in modern history, they unsettle many people and do occasionally kill pets.
So beginning in 2005, Travis County funded TWS to educate residents and kill coyotes and other wildlife using poison, firearms, neck snares, and steel foothold traps. This went on somewhat quietly until the summer of 2013, when TWS killed three coyotes in South Austin's Blunn Creek Preserve, which some residents saw as hasty and unreasonable. While TWS claimed it had received numerous calls of increasingly aggressive coyotes, the neighbors obtained 311 records and said there were only four calls: two placed by the same person and two reporting nonaggressive behavior.
The ensuing uproar led to a citywide coyote management policy in 2014 that still guides Austin today. While maintaining the option of killing a coyote if it threatens a human, the policy does not allow the killing of coyotes that threaten just pets or just livestock. It focuses on nonlethal conflict management, such as keeping pets on leashes, removing attractants like outdoor cat food, and hazing coyotes with tactics to instill in them a wariness of humans.
Matters of Transparency
The city hired Tawny Hammond as its director of the Animal Services Office in the summer of 2015. She looked closely at the TWS arrangement and did not like that the agency was using traps and firearms without official permits and was unwilling to share important information. "A Texas Wildlife Services biologist would determine privately and independently that lethal means were needed, but we wanted to have a conversation about the incident," said Hammond, who since left town for a job with the Best Friends Animal Society. "And we asked for [incident] addresses because if we have a public safety concern in the city of Austin, Animal Services wants to know. They would never give us addresses."
The lack of transparency is part and parcel with TWS. The agency, citing an unnamed court order, also wouldn't provide addresses to both Travis County and Austin Water Utility. And in my own reporting, I received none of the Wildlife Services records requested under the Freedom of Information Act by the Department of Justice's recommended deadline. While TWS Director Bodenchuk was cleared to talk to me on the phone about certain topics, all other questions – particularly those about lethal removal – had to be emailed to a WS spokeswoman. "I don't want to be a pain in the ass here," Bodenchuk said, "but the agency has told me what I am and am not allowed to talk about."
ASO eventually removed Austin from the county's TWS contract and, Hammond said, tried streamlining by negotiating a more cooperative agreement directly, but TWS never responded. (TWS said they did respond by rejecting the offer because it would have constituted abandoning WS's federal decision-making authority.) So last October, she moved coyote management to her staff. Some neighborhoods, like Allandale and Zilker Park, generally support the city's program, or have noticed no difference since the city took over. But Joyce Statz of the Northwest Austin Civic Association said her neighborhood was always pleased with TWS and doesn't agree with ASO's coyote behavior scale. "The city would remove a bold coyote much later than we would like to see it happen," she said.
ASO developed its metrics around 2015 based on peer-reviewed research and input from Humane Society urban wildlife biologists. They consist of 13 steps of coyote interactions that progress from observations, sightings, encounters, incidents, to attacks. Once a report is classified as an incident (say a coyote nips at a human without contact or injures a pet in a yard) it is evaluated for human health and safety concerns.
ASO currently has no formalized partner to remove "bold" coyotes. It has had zero reports of coyote attacks on humans and says it has never needed to remove a coyote. In fiscal year 2016, it received 457 coyote calls and 68 incident reports, followed by 339 calls and 20 incidents in 2017, numbers that could reflect calls made by the same person as well as the activities of one coyote. ASO interim Director Lee Ann Shenefiel stressed that reports are sometimes based on what a person believes happened. "A missing pet may be assumed to be taken by a coyote," she said, "but it could have been picked up by a well-meaning person, taken by a large bird of prey, or hit by a car."
TWS uses its own seven-point behavioral score code and says it considers removing coyotes as soon as they're observed chasing pets on residential streets or in yards. But TWS typically doesn't share its behavior classifications associated with specific removals. TWS metrics are based on two researchers' interpretation of increasingly aggressive coyote behavior, which was published nearly 20 years ago as a proceeding of the annual Vertebrate Pest Conference. While Bodenchuk encouraged me (and county commissioners) to refer to these proceedings for scientific information, Stan Gehrt of Chicago's Cook County Coyote Project cautioned that they are not peer-reviewed. "In some cases, there's some kind-of-interesting papers that are pretty reliable," he said. "But then there's an equal number of papers that are absolutely not reliable. It's people who have an agenda or some kind of politics that they're trying to push."
The tally of animals intentionally killed by WS joins additional criticisms that it kills thousands of animals unintentionally with equipment that doesn't discern between species or targets. In 2016, WS reported nearly 2,800 nontarget animals killed across the country, 31% of which were killed in Texas by TWS. While WS failed to provide FOIA-requested records on nontarget deaths in Travis County, TWS traps and snares have been confirmed in catching and injuring at least one domestic cat in Austin and killing deer on Austin Water property. Willy Conrad, a former manager of Austin Water's Wildland Conservation Division, said he received reports from a game warden that the deer had been caught in feral hog snares on a weekend despite the TWS trapper saying he would disable all equipment if it couldn't be checked daily. "We were so frustrated with their lack of performance on the management techniques we had agreed to, that we just terminated the agreement," Conrad said.
A few years later, after pressure from former ASO Director Abigail Smith, Austin Water reluctantly agreed to let TWS back onto its land to trap coyotes. But when staff asked TWS to shoot the coyotes instead of trapping them or using M-44s (in an effort to prevent harming pets), Conrad said Gary McEwen, a recently retired TWS district supervisor, "became very enraged. ... They were very, very resistant to altering their means and methods."
As for its most controversial killing tool, a spokeswoman told me that WS uses its M-44 cyanide devices in a way that "prevents most nontarget risks." But M-44s have been implicated in a number of deaths and injuries, some of which are discovered only after filing FOIA requests, including a Fort Stockton man's death in 1966; a 2003 injury of a man in Utah; a 2011 death of a family dog in Texas that was found near TWS devices; another 2011 death of a pet dog in Marshall found near TWS devices, some of which were placed a quarter-mile from a home; and an incident in March in Idaho where a WS device injured a teenage boy and killed his dog. M-44s are banned in several states, and a bill currently before Congress would ban them from being used in predator control nationwide.
Of the 50 U.S. states where WS had offices in 2016, TWS killed the most animals with M-44s and the second most when adjusted for square mileage, and more than half of the coyotes killed in Travis County by TWS were poisoned with M-44s. According to documents provided by the Texas Department of Agriculture under a public information request, TWS employees have received a total of nine pesticide violations from the TDA since 2003. The TDA investigated both 2011 dog incidents and filed several violations against the TWS trappers, including one for placing the M-44s in "areas frequented by humans or domestic dogs and where exposure to the public and family pets is probable."
While one of the employees no longer works for TWS, a spokeswoman said his departure had nothing to do with the dog incident. In fact, Bodenchuk wrote letters to TDA defending the trappers, contesting the findings, and claiming a "difference of opinion" with TDA regarding record-keeping for M-44s. He also disagreed with TDA's determination that M-44s placed less than six-tenths of a mile from the dog owners' home constituted "probable" exposure to them, and he argued that because the WS database allows dogs to only be categorized as "feral/free-ranging" and not "wild," the trapper who categorized the family dog as "feral/free-ranging" was in line with the EPA's use restrictions, which allow for M-44s to only be used against "wild dogs."
These incidents don't surprise Rex Shaddox, who says he encountered a culture of killing while working for Wildlife Services in Texas from 1979 to 1980. One day at the city dump in Uvalde, Shaddox recalled witnessing his WS colleagues testing M-44s by forcing them into the mouths of pets, which wailed and coughed up blood. "They killed a whole truckload of domestic dogs with collars on from town and told everybody they were feral," Shaddox said. "So that was my big turning point."
The WS spokeswoman confirmed the Uvalde event, claiming the dogs were "feral and free-ranging" and that the "testing" would not occur today. Charles Brown, the WS supervisor who Shaddox says was poisoning the dogs, was later promoted to director of Wildlife Services' eastern region where he served until retiring in 2016. WS denied my request to interview him.
When I told Shaddox, who now works in state wildlife law enforcement, that TWS had listed zero nontarget animals killed in Travis County in all of 2016 and the first three quarters of 2017, he replied, "That's impossible." He said they were told to document a select few nontarget kills, to toss bodies in the brush for the buzzards, and to bury the collars. "They have killed thousands of domesticated animals, and hardly any of them are ever reported."
A Never-Ending Cycle
Wildlife Services officially claims it recognizes the importance of coyotes in the ecosystem and says its equipment is able to selectively remove just the problem animals. But it often enacts lethal control when livestock losses can't be verified. In 2016, the agency killed more than double the annual number of coyotes killed in the Twenties when Bureau agents were actively trying to eradicate the species. In fact, WS killed more than 90,000 coyotes as recently as 2007, and in the last two decades at least, there has never been a consistent downward trend in coyote deaths.
Bodenchuk said he supports nonlethal methods when appropriate. "It's not our job to kill coyotes. It's our job to solve problems." But other than developing and supplying landowners with a vulture effigy that causes vultures to move their roosts, TWS limits its nonlethal intervention to providing information. "I like it when ranchers talk to other ranchers and decide whether or not to do something," Bodenchuk explained. "We don't have the government resources to do everything."
Wildlife Services runs a well-regarded National Wildlife Research Center, but TWS hasn't implemented any of the nonlethal management techniques studied there, in part because it says they would be uneconomical or temporary. In 2016, TWS killed more than 18,000 coyotes – a five-year high and not far from its 20-year record of 20,628 in 2009. During the 12 years that TWS worked for Travis County, it killed 680 coyotes, an average of 57 a year. Though TWS doesn't disclose how many animals it kills on an individual property, documents obtained from the TDA indicate TWS has killed as many as 12 coyotes on a single ranch during a two-month period.
Research has shown that removing coyotes on such a wide scale might actually make the situation worse. Gehrt of the Cook County Coyote Project is one of America's leading coyote experts. He explained that coyotes adjust their litter sizes to the local landscape's capacity, having more pups when lethal removal causes vacancies, and that solitary transient coyotes will also fill such vacancies. Additionally, losing alpha females causes young females of the same group to mate at a much younger age. So if you remove non-problematic coyotes, they can be replaced by coyotes with more problematic behavior. "Indiscriminate killing is costly," Gehrt said, "and you'll never be able to quit doing it. When you remove coyotes, you won't be able to reduce their population for any length of time."
Why would WS be interested in killing so many coyotes? Most critics say it's because the agency aims to please agricultural interests, which the 1931 Animal Damage Control Act directed it to protect. In 2014, TWS spent 52% of its total budget on defending livestock, and many ranchers value and believe in the subsidized removal of predators that account for some of their annual losses. (Conservation organizations note that weather and disease typically kill many more cows, sheep, and goats each year than predators do.)
Shelby Sultemeier is a member of this agriculture industry that is still a big part of Texas' heart and soul. He runs a 1,100-acre Hill Country ranch in Travis and Blanco counties that has been in his wife's family for three generations. In the early 2000s, coyotes were constantly killing their sheep. In addition to trying guardian llamas and donkeys, they put out neck snares and also used TWS trappers, who set M-44s and leghold traps and shot coyotes.
"When we used them they were a very worthwhile organization to help control the numbers," Sultemeier said, noting that their efforts still couldn't keep the coyotes at bay, especially when they worked off the ranch during the day. They eventually sold the sheep to run cattle, which he said need no protection from coyotes. Asked if the trappers selectively killed problem coyotes, he said, "I think it was more to thin it out. I don't know if they really ever targeted. I don't know how you could target a single one with a dog like that." (Sultemeier later emailed to say the trappers sometimes targeted specific tracks coming to his flock.)
Every expert interviewed for this story stressed the importance of removing specific coyotes in urban as well as rural scenarios. Dr. John Tomecek, an assistant professor and wildlife specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, said the goal of wildlife damage management should be to control the behavior. "You don't necessarily want to get rid of the animal because it has trickle-down effects we all know about."
Tomecek travels around the state advising landowners and cities. He said guard dogs and good, tight fencing can help protect livestock on some properties, but that lethal control can be warranted when an animal becomes so habituated to humans that it can't be scared off with hazing. In these cases, he said, trappers should do a thorough forensic investigation, confirming that the coyote was actually aggressive (sometimes people misinterpret animal behavior) or that it was indeed a coyote that killed any livestock, as well as getting physical descriptions of the problem animal so you can be selective.
"It involves spending a lot of time just watching that animal, seeing when it comes up and when it doesn't," Tomecek said. "Folks experienced in doing this are pretty quick at it. You've got to be very confident that you've got that animal patterned well enough to get a trap on it without catching something else."
Among the six Travis County farmers and ranchers interviewed for this story, most control coyotes with a mix of selective lethal and nonlethal strategies, which some say are more effective in smaller pastures. When Jenna Kelly-Landes moved out to 65 acres near Manor to start the Bee Tree Farm and Dairy, coyotes came onto her back porch looking for cat food and took chickens from the yard, and even killed a couple of male goats. While her husband periodically shot a coyote when he saw it intruding, Kelly-Landes also raised four livestock guardian dogs with the goats. Since the puppies matured, she has never lost a goat that was in a pasture with the dogs, two of which remain with the herd at all times while the other two patrol the pastures. "This is how people have herded goats for centuries," Kelly-Landes said. "I feel totally safe having my goats anywhere on the property because they're always together. The dogs are very territorial and they're larger so the coyotes don't even try."
The 90-acre Coyote Creek Farm in Elgin has lost chickens and as many as 18 lambs to coyotes. Owner Rob Cunningham said he's mostly solved this by putting the chickens in the chicken house an hour after sunset – a method also successfully used by Munkebo Farm in Manor – and bringing the sheep closer to the house at night. Sometimes he'll shoot a coyote that he sees trying to take a loose bird, but mostly he fires his shotgun into the air to scare them off. "They're so prolific and they're such successful mammals that I could kill a thousand coyotes a year and I would not dent the population barely at all," Cunningham said. "If I kill every one of 'em that's on the farm, I'm just creating a vacuum for the next pack that comes along."
Early in the new year, the city will hire a temporary employee to work 40 hours a week in Travis County. In voting to end Travis County's relationship with TWS, Commissioner Travillion explained that he hadn't received satisfactory information from TWS on its activities and results. "The issue for me is, what am I buying?" he asked. "What steps are going to be taken? How do I understand that the program that I'm putting in place is going to actually address the problem that I'm seeing on the ground?"
A review of all invoices sent by TWS to the county for the past four years found no itemized explanations of work performed. While TWS did send quarterly progress reports with hours worked, these figures amounted to an average of 10 hours a week in 2016 – about $100 per hour – and nine hours a week in the first three quarters of 2017. Making it impossible to discern that this small amount of time reflected work done under the Travis County contract, these reports included information for other agreements, such as a $250-per-day contract between TWS and the City of Austin Aviation Department for controlling birds at the airport. TWS told Travis County that its contract funded a little over 50% of its full-time employee's salary, benefits, and equipment, but because TWS doesn't get precise in making work line up with funding, he worked in the county much less than 50% of his time.
Commissioner Brigid Shea, who voted against the TWS contract, said she opposed using taxpayer money to support the operations of private businesses. While many Texas counties share the cost for TWS with ranching associations, Travis County footed the annual $40,000-65,000 bill independently (with $10,000 from Austin until FY 2017). Just in the last year, TWS killed a mockingbird in the Pflugerville Wal-Mart, several beavers that a property management company reported to have damaged "pond structures," and two coyotes that were suspected of killing high-dollar deer in a private breeding facility that had holes in its fence.
In commissioners meetings leading up to her vote to use both TWS and the city, Judge Eckhardt mentioned her concern for taking TWS services away from rural residents, with the city planning to handle livestock damage by providing information on animal management practices that discourage predation. "We have considerable ranching and agricultural communities that still exist in that remaining three-quarters of the county, which have a very different view that we have to balance," she said.
According to figures from the Texas Comptroller's Office and Travis Central Appraisal District, Travis County ranks 233rd out of 254 counties in agriculture-exempted land, with a total of 235,000 acres. Data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service shows that it ranked almost dead last in head of sheep and in the bottom half of cattle-producing counties. None of the six Travis County ranchers and farmers interviewed for this article currently use TWS, and all but Sultemeier said they are uninterested in government predator control.
Eckhardt also said she worried that the city's metrics would create a new public safety concern – "that if we go to a methodology that responds predominantly with management, we may be down the road where people in outlying areas don't feel the response is adequate to address their concerns and will take matters into their own hands." After the vote was taken Dec. 5, Eckhardt told the court she wants to speak with small-city managers and revisit the matter in three to six months, raising the possibility that this issue is not yet settled.