Sunday, April 29, 2012

Let's Increase Sales-No Hunter Education Required

It looks like hunters have found a new way to increase license sales-skip the hunter education requirement for adults as well as for children.

Under the "Families Afield" program launched in 2005, age restrictions have been lowered or eliminated in 33 states with the aim of recruiting children to hunting. One of the requirements typically waived in these programs is hunter education. As long as the new unlicensed "apprentice hunter" is accompanied by a licensed hunter 18 years of age or older, the new hunter does not have to take a hunter education course or go through any formal licensing procedures before hunting. Originally this program was intended for children but adults are now taking advantage of it and being encouraged to do so by the hunting community.

The group behind the Families Afield program recently stated on its website that "[s]ince the launch of the program ... 782,604 'Apprentice Hunting Licenses' have been sold...The program was originally founded to focus on young people, however the Families Afield partners quickly realized that the opportunity to purchase an apprentice hunting license should be made available to people of all ages. States that took this approach found that one-third of their apprentice licenses were sold to adults...While youth will certainly play a significant role in the future of our hunting heritage, our recruitment and retention efforts must evolve beyond just that age group. Whether an apprentice is 8, 18, or 68, they are still a potential new hunter and our community should do everything in our power to eliminate barriers and welcome those individuals into our ranks."

Well, that really is something to think about-an adult who has never hunted before can now grab his gun, call a friend (provided the friend is a licensed hunter), and the two of them can go off together and start shooting deer and bear. No rule book to be read, no vision test to be taken, no target practice test to pass. And apparently this informal arrangement can go on for sometime-three years in West Virginia for example. Is this safe?  Reasonable? Only to hunters themselves and perhaps the state wildlife agencies.

Remembering that state wildlife agencies will not only collect license fees from the new Apprentice Licenses but will also add these new license holders to the total number of license holders in the state- the agency will then be able to increase the amount of federal gun tax money it receives. Since the formula that allocates the gun tax money back to the states is based in part on the total number of hunting license holders in the state, the more license holders of any kind-the more funding (see prior blog post "The Federal Gun Tax" 12/09/09).

It seems the shift to adult apprentice programs is based on studied trends. Researchers from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks department conducted a study to determine how to generate the most revenue from hunting license sales. They examined hunter education and licensing databases and applied matrix population models to conclude that a focused recruitment and retention program targeting older males (aged 31 and up),  would have the most beneficial effect on increasing hunter numbers. The study concluded that hunter recruitment efforts focused on youth should be refocused to older age classes. ("Deer and Elk Hunter Recruitment, Retention, and Participation Trends in Montana"  The Journal of Wildlife Management, Vol. 76, Issue 3, April 2012).

But instead of coming up with an apprentice program appropriate to adults, the wildlife agencies simply allow the programs meant for children to be used by adults. Maybe the agencies should just do away with those pesky licensing requirements entirely. After all, barriers to entry are bad for business.

Prior Blog Posts:

The Structure of our State Wildlife Agency System
9/25/09

Teaching Children to Kill
10/02/09

The Supreme Court and the Culpability of a Child
11/18/09

The Federal Gun Tax
12/09/09

Lead Ammunition
1/14/10

Connecting the Dots of Violence
2/01/10

Man as "Super-Predator"
3/17/10

U.S. v Stevens: What interests are being protected?
4/27/10

Predation Control: to what end?
9/14/10

The Paradox of Killing Wildlife as Population Control
10/24/10

Who Does Wildlife Belong to? (The Public Trust Doctrine)
11/22/10

Lyme Disease: Ticks Without Deer
1/20/11

Taxpayers Footing the Bill to Kill Wildlife
2/15/11

Wildlife Contraception and the Ongoing Population Control Objective
3/31/11

Violence and the Well-being of Children
7/21/11

Wildflowers or Wildlife: the State Environmental Review Process
1/23/12




Monday, January 23, 2012

Wildflowers or Wildlife: the State Environmental Review Process

Nine year old Caleb Burlingame wrote to his local newspaper objecting to the deer killing program proposed for the nature preserve in his neighborhood. He suggested the deer go to a special deer zoo rather than be shot by sharpshooters as planned by the upstate New York college which owns the preserve. A retired professor living on the perimeter of the nature preserve was so outraged by the killing plan that he brought a lawsuit to stop it. And he won. The legal grounds justifying putting the deer kill program on hold was the need for the college to first comply with New York State's environmental review process.

Wildflowers or wildlife is in part, what the review process will demand that the college consider. In a somewhat unusual yet dead-on decision, a judge in New York State's Supreme Court concluded that the deer killing program, or "deer cull" as they are so commonly called, falls squarely within the definition of a "significant environmental event" and therefore, the requirements of the review process must be met by the college. An environmental review is a good first step but may not be enough to adequately address all the issues raised by deer killing programs.

Most states have environmental review laws. The New York State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR), is a body of law passed by the state legislature in 1975 with the "intention that all agencies conduct their affairs with an awareness that they are stewards of the air, water, land, and living resources, and that they have an obligation to protect the environment for the use and enjoyment of this and all future generations." (6 NYCRR 617.1) It goes on to say that in decision making "human and community resources should be given appropriate weight with social and economic considerations...[and] a suitable balance of social, economic and environmental factors" should be made. (6 NYCRR 617.1) This is the backdrop to the environmental analysis of whether a deer killing program is appropriate in any given situation.

The college claimed 90% of the deer in its nature preserve had to be killed because, the college asserted, the deer were eating the wildflowers and shrubs and having a devastating effect on forest regeneration.

This statement raises a number of threshold questions including, how does the college know how many deer are in the preserve? How does one "count" free-roaming animals with home ranges that exceed the borders of the preserve? (The preserve is not an enclosed area.) Won't more deer simply wander into the preserve after the killing program ends? And how will the male/female sex ratios and age distribution of the deer be protected during the shooting and what are the consequences to the herd taken as a whole, if they aren't? Finally, as an over arching consideration, under what circumstances is wildlife sacrificed for plant life and how is such a determination made?

 Similar to the college nature preserve controversy, a lawsuit was brought last year by residents of an upstate community opposed to a neighborhood deer killing program proposed by their town trustees.  Damage to plant life was one of the main justifications given for the cull (although concerns about deer/car accidents was raised and a specious argument about Lyme disease was asserted (see prior blog post "Lyme Disease: Ticks Without Deer" 1/20/11)).

In that case, the lower court ruled in favor of allowing the community deer kill program to proceed and the residents who were opposed to it, appealed.  The town trustees had already conducted an environmental review in that situation but the accuracy and suitability of the study was being challenged. Expert opinions were introduced by residents opposed to the cull on a number of issues. On the issue of plant damage, a researcher from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies stated that "lowering deer densities will not by itself lessen deer impact on habitat and vegetation...[and] the assertion that a deer population size reduction will lessen impacts on ecosystems (habitat and vegetation)...is...insufficient." In addition, just as the environmental review process allows, numerous residents of the community submitted statements outlining their concerns regarding potential adverse emotional and psychological effects of a killing program in their neighborhood as well as safety risks. The case is still on appeal.

Whether these issues can be adequately addressed solely within the environmental review process is questionable because SEQR suffers from the potential for bias and self-interest. The way the process works is to make it incumbent upon the party proposing a project (called the "lead agency") to conduct an environmental study. Yet it is also the responsibility of that same lead agency to make the ultimate determination regarding the environmental impact of their project. An outside agency does not pass on the accuracy or suitability of the environmental study or the worthiness of the proposed project. The law simply says that in order to proceed, the party proposing the action must conduct a study and conclude that "[their] action is one that avoids or minimizes adverse environmental impacts to the maximum extent practicable..." (6 NYCRR 617.11). The potential for a non-objective final determination becomes obvious in this scenario because it's hard to imagine a lead agency that has already proposed a project and conducted an environmental review, not then being hell bent on finding that the project passes environmental muster.

The recourse for citizens who do not believe a project has been properly analyzed is to go to court and request judicial review. However, courts typically only "judge the judgment" so to speak from a procedural perspective. Courts shy away from drawing independent conclusions as to the merits of proposed programs believing doing otherwise would be a breach of the separation between the judicial and legislative functions of government. The court will limit its inquiry to whether the lead agency has taken what is called a "hard look" at the environmental impacts of the proposed action. The judiciary will not substitute its judgment for that of the lead agency as to the merits of the project so long as it appears the agency has conducted an adequate environmental analysis.

Under these circumstances, are the interests and rights of citizens adequately addressed by the environmental review process alone? It is not at all clear that they are. A larger issue can be raised under these circumstances questioning the relationship between government action, reasonableness and the interests of citizens. (The upstate college is a state school and therefore considered a governmental agency and local governing boards are of course governmental agencies. )

 Since deer are in essence a public asset belonging to all of us, a broader examination of the issue is warranted. The deer are not "owned" by the college or by any of the communities proposing to kill them. Wildlife is a natural resource belonging to the public and held and managed by the government in trust for our benefit and mutual enjoyment (see prior blog post "Who Does Wildlife Belong To? (The Public Trust Doctrine)" 11/22/10).  In the words of the Supreme Court "...the fundamental principles upon which the common property in [wildlife] rests have undergone no change...the power or control lodged in the State, resulting from this common ownership, is to be exercised...as a trust for the benefit of the people, and not as a prerogative for the advantage of the government...or for the benefit of private individuals as distinguished from the public good." (Geer v. Connecticut, 161 U.S. 519 (1896); later modified on the issue of interstate commerce in Hughes v. Oklahoma, 441 U.S. 322 (1979)).

Under this common law theory, there exists something not unlike a "negative use restriction" implicit in all wildlife, including deer, that prohibits its killing except under circumstances deemed necessary for the health and well being of citizens. (Although recreational hunting has traditionally been accepted, by some, as a proper "use or enjoyment" of wildlife.)

But where is the forum to examine the issue of whether the underlying reason given for a deer cull is valid, given the outcry of so many who are opposed? The judiciary is in fact the ideal party to examine these competing interests, evaluate the expert testimony and make a final determination. 

An analysis beyond the confines of the state environmental review process is required in deer killing cases. Maybe herein lies the next wave of lawsuits on the topic. A topic which for so many upon first blush appears to be about animal cruelty and community infighting, but may in fact raise some deeper and wider issues involving personal rights.

Prior Blog Posts:


The Structure of our State Wildlife Agency System
9/25/09

Teaching Children to Kill
10/02/09

The Supreme Court and the Culpability of a Child
11/18/09

The Federal Gun Tax
12/09/09

Lead Ammunition
1/14/10

Connecting the Dots of Violence
2/01/10

Man as "Super-Predator"
3/17/10

U.S. v Stevens: What interests are being protected?
4/27/10

Predation Control: to what end?
9/14/10

The Paradox of Killing Wildlife as Population Control
10/24/10

Who Does Wildlife Belong to? (The Public Trust Doctrine)
11/22/10

Lyme Disease: Ticks Without Deer
1/20/11

Taxpayers Footing the Bill to Kill Wildlife
2/15/11

Wildlife Contraception and the Ongoing Population Control Objective
3/31/11

Violence and the Well-being of Children
7/21/11

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Violence and the Well-being of Children

How paternalistic is the government when it comes to the health and safety of children? Well, it depends on the specific issue being considered because inconsistencies abound. Unfortunately, exposure to violence is an area where children are increasingly unprotected. Through actions taken by state legislatures with regard to youth hunting and recently by the Supreme Court with regard to violent videos, the trend is toward the political interests and biases of adults and away from the well-being of children.

The politically motivated push to allow young children to hunt continues to spread. Since first writing on the topic in late 2009 (see "Teaching Children to Kill" 10/2/09 and "The Supreme Court and the Culpability of a Child" 11/18/09), four more states have passed legislation reducing or completely eliminating minimum age requirements for hunting. Michigan and New York are the latest states to jump on the bandwagon.

New York for example is in the process of amending state law to allow 12 year old kids the right to kill "big game" such as bears with extremely sharp and powerful bows and arrows. Picture it. According to the American Bear Association a male bear weighs an average of about 250 pounds and a female about 150 pounds; an average 12 year old child weighs about 90 pounds. I'm not sure they should have anything to do with each other.

The mental, physical and emotional appropriateness of encouraging children to take lethal weapons into the woods and kill animals for "sport" and pleasure continues to be troubling.

There are numerous examples of seriously dangerous consequences to allowing children to hunt. About eight months ago a seven year old Virginia boy was accidentally killed by his 10 year old brother while hunting. A few months later, an eight year old in the second grade in Colorado accidentally killed himself when his hunting rifle went off in his hands. Then a nine year old girl was killed in May by her 11 year old friend while they were rabbit hunting together in Alaska; followed a few weeks later by a nine year old girl in Texas who was accidentally killed by her grandfather during a family hunting trip. In April of this year a five year old child in Wisconsin was accidentally shot (but not killed), by her father while turkey hunting and a month later, a 10 year old Virginia boy was shot by his uncle while hunting. And these are just a sampling of the tragic incidents easily found on the internet concerning children hunting.

In addition to these accidental shootings, there was a 10 year old boy from Ohio who, earlier this year, took his hunting rifle and intentionally killed his mother. A similar incident occurred two years ago in Pennsylvania where another 10 year old boy took his child sized hunting rifle and used it to kill his father’s pregnant girlfriend. About three months prior to that incident, an eight year old Arizona boy took the rifle he used to shoot prairie dogs and killed his father and his father's co-worker. The physical and emotional safety of children hunting is questionable at best.

The state has an interest in protecting our youth. This paternalistic approach is evidenced in many current laws and is so strong in certain circumstances, it can trump parental control. Presumably this state interest in the well being of youth is why there are child labor laws, for instance. Even if a family wanted its children to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week because they desperately needed the money, the state has determined it would be illegal to do so because of the harm it would cause the child. In addition, even though it might be convenient for you to have your 14 year old drive your 10 year old to school, or run down to the store and pick up a bottle of wine for dinner, the law prohibits it thus protecting the safety of the child and others in society.

Governor Cuomo signed the New York bill that will allow 12 year old children hunt bears. What adolescent developmental change has he become aware of that would convince him the hunting age should be reduced? In researching the background to this bill, nothing regarding the health, safety or well being of New York youth was discussed. What was discussed however was the decline in hunter numbers and the concomitant fear that the "sport" is losing participants.

The politics behind this issue is obvious. Increasing youth hunting was started with a program initiative by the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and the National Wild Turkey Federation. This “Families Afield” program (as it is called), is supported by the National Rifle Association and a group in Congress called the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. Unfortunately, opposition to youth hunting falls into a black hole somewhere between the gun control lobby and the animal welfare groups. There is no organized effort fighting the might of hunters and the NRA on this topic.

The Families Afield website makes it clear that encouraging children to hunt is to bolster the popularity of the sport and ensure its continued viability and economic benefit. The website states in an incredulous tone that “ In some states, laws actually prohibit parents from introducing their young sons and daughters to big-game hunting. Youths may be restricted until age 10 or 12 or even later, and subjected to stringent coursework requirements, before they can legally join an adult mentor for a hunt. These barriers cause many youths to lose interest in hunting and they too often settle for other activities like video games or ORGANIZED SPORTS. Eventually... hunting itself ... could be compromised”. (Emphasis added).

The Supreme Court was recently asked to consider the effect of violent material on children. A case was brought challenging a California law prohibiting the sale and rental of violent video games to minors (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association et al (bench opinion 6/27/11)). The law was struck down by a majority of the Court concluding it was a breach of freedom of speech under the First Amendment. The opinions of the justices (five in the majority, two concurring on different grounds and two dissenting), contain much discussion and dissent about violence, children and the role of government.

The majority starts off its opinion by discussing a prior case, U.S. v. Stevens (see blog post "U.S. v. Stevens: What interests are being protected?" 4/27/10). Referring to the Stevens case, the Court says "...[t]hat holding controls this case." This is a curious jumping off point for the Court because the Stevens case has nothing to do with children. It is a case involving a law that prohibited the sale of "crush" videos which are videos of scantily clad women who maim and kill animals for the sexual titillation of viewers. The Stevens Court held prohibiting these videos was a breach of freedom of speech and the law was struck down.

Eventually the Court in the violent video case turned to the issue of children and discussed an important precedent, Ginsberg v. New York. In the Ginsberg case the Supreme Court upheld a law prohibiting the sale of sexual material to minors. The New York statute in Ginsberg and other similar statutes throughout the country have been upheld even in the face of First Amendment challenges. To explain this, the Court in the violent video case drew a distinction between sexual material and violent material by saying that since "obscenity" was already an established exception to the First Amendment, prohibiting children from viewing sexual material was merely an extension of this prohibition and therefore legal. Since violence is not an established exception to the First Amendment, the Court concluded violent videos could not be kept from adults or from children. (Although it is worth noting that our movie rating system already prohibits children from viewing violent movies with an NC-17 rating. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, a movie earns an NC-17 rating based on violence, sex or any other element considered too strong for viewing by children. The Court did not discuss movie ratings.)

The Court's First Amendment analysis appears rational on its face however, the reasoning enunciated by the Ginsberg court applies equally-if not more so- to the issue of shielding children from violence. The basic reasoning of the Ginsburg case is that the state has an interest in protecting the well being of its youth. The Supreme Court says in Ginsburg “…we have recognized that even where there is an invasion of protected freedoms ‘the power of the state to control the conduct of children reaches beyond the scope of its authority over adults’…[t]he well-being of ... children is of course a subject within the State’s constitutional power to regulate, and in our view,…[t]he State also has an independent interest in the well-being of its youth.”

But the bottom line is the current Supreme Court says sexy stuff can be kept away from children while the violent shouldn't be held back. This distinction has some historical roots but appears to be based mainly on "strict constructionist" dogma because there is little basis in reason or common sense for prohibiting the sexual material but allowing the violent. (It is interesting to note that the sexual material in the Ginsberg case involved nudity and was not actually considered "obscene" for adults but was accepted as obscene for children.)

Similar to child labor law considerations, focus on these issues should be centered on the well being of the child. The Court in the violent video case spent some time grappling with this concept and did note “[t]he Supreme Court has recognized that ‘there is a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors.’" The Court however had difficulty with the issue of "proof" between a child's exposure to violence and psychological harm.

The psychological harm caused by violent video games or by sexual material is indeed hard to prove. And so is the psychological harm that can be done to a young child who is encouraged to find pleasure and satisfaction in purposely killing an animal. In fact, one of the reasons the violent video law was struck down by the Court was this failure of proof. Apparently the studies presented by the State showing the harmful psychological effects to children of violent video games were perceived as flawed and the Court rejected them. The Court conceded that while a correlation between aggression and violent video game playing can be shown, causation cannot. The Court said "[t]he State's evidence is not compelling...[t]hey do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively..." (However, Justice Breyer in his dissent compiled a list of approximately 115 peer-reviewed articles showing the psychological harm resulting from playing violent video games and he contrasted this with a list of only about 34 articles which refuted the thesis).

It’s hard to imagine that the studies in the Ginsberg nudity case were much better. In fact, the Supreme Court noted in Ginsberg that “…the growing consensus of commentators is that ‘while these studies all agree that a causal link has not been demonstrated [between sexual material and harm to children], they are equally agreed that a causal link has not been disproved either.’ We do not demand of legislatures scientifically certain criteria of legislation.”

There are numerous studies that show childhood animal cruelty can lead to adult violence. Courts might find these studies persuasive or flawed. As evidenced by the Supreme Court in Ginsberg, at some point we admit as a society that certain behaviors fall outside the purview of what the average person considers acceptable, healthy behavior-hard and fast science or not. There are approximately 19.4 million people in New York State, 4.5% are hunters; would the average New York resident for example, find it a positive experience for a 12 year old child to take a lethal weapon and kill a two hundred pound bear for "sport"? No one eats bear last time I checked; it is simply killing for pleasure. Seems like a form of violence to me-perhaps even a step ahead of the pretend world of violent videos. Justice Breyer in his dissent to the violent video case points out that the studies he reviewed "...say that the closer a child's behavior comes, not to watching, but to acting out horrific violence, the greater the potential psychological harm."

Of course the true interests of the child, in the end, are not of primary concern in these matters; it is the interests of the adult. In Pennsylvania for example, they are trying so hard to recruit new hunters that a bill was introduced to allow hunting on Sundays. Motivation for the bill couldn't be more clear from it's preamble which reads in part "... Pennsylvania has experienced consistent declines in hunting participation ...over the past several decades...youth participation is vital to maintaining the long-standing tradition of hunting in Pennsylvania, we can effectively double the number of hunting days for youths during the school year by offering Sunday hunting...". I wonder what Sunday school teachers and religious observers will think about this one.

Post script: The New York Times reported that the mass killer Anders Behring Breivik of Norway listed on his Facebook page that some of his favorite activities include hunting and playing the video games World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare 2.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wildlife Contraception and the Ongoing Population Control Objective

When I first learned that serious scientific research has been conducted for decades on wildlife fertility control, I questioned the underlying premise. To an extent, I still do. The need for wildlife contraception stems from the belief that many species are overabundant, and without human intervention in the form of population control, the animals will wreak havoc on plant life, other species, on our limited natural resources and on the ecosystems the animals live within. With 40 years of lethal animal population control, it appears that certain wild animals are continuously thought of as too numerous.

The early contraception studies of the 1960's focused on birds with the goal of finding a chemical to inhibit egg hatching. Interestingly, one of the bird species these early studies tried to control was the red-winged blackbird; the same species the USDA Wildlife Service still targets today as overabundant with just under a million killed by the USDA in 2009 (see prior blog post "Taxpayers Footing the Bill to Kill Wildlife" 2/15/11). Avian contraception was soon joined by mammal research emphasizing population control for deer, horses, dogs, coyotes, elephants and bears. But much of the research today is devoted to finding fertility control specifically for deer and wild horses. (Wildlife Fertility Control Technical Review 02-2, The Wildlife Society, 2002). Deer are a focus due to the widespread interest in suburban deer culls and wild horses are a focus due to their population numbers in the western United States.

The goal of current contraception research is perfection of an immunocontraceptive vaccine. The vaccine most widely used is the porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccine. The PZP vaccine is derived from proteins naturally occurring in pig ovaries although research to find a synthetic substitute is ongoing. The PZP vaccine works by causing the animal to produce antibodies that prevents the egg from being fertilized by sperm thus blocking pregnancy and reproduction. The vaccine has been thoroughly tested and is available for use however; some practical and regulatory considerations remain (Science and Conservation Center website, www.zoomontana.org/science-and-conservation-center/).

While proven successful in zoos and game parks in South Africa, delivery of the vaccine to free roaming animals such as deer and wild horses can be problematic. The vaccine must be injected into the animals muscle tissue at its rump or hip area to be effective. This requires personnel to be relatively close to the animal for accuracy. As an alternative, the animal can be captured and restrained however, since the animal's natural fight or flight response could be triggered, tranquilizing would also be needed.

Since remote darting is the preferred delivery method, focus has been on perfecting a dart gun that properly delivers the vaccine to the animal from a reasonable distance without causing injury. In addition, the environmental issue of spent darts was a concern but studies have shown the darts are easy to see when left on the forest floor and are typically retrieved. Delivering contraception orally through the use of food plots has been rejected due to the high risk of consumption by non-target animals ("Wildlife Contraception" by Douglas Fox, Conservation Magazine, Oct/Dec 2007).

Another practical consideration involving delivery of the vaccine is the need for multiple injections. Currently, the PZP vaccine requires two shots (and perhaps, subsequent boosters). This raises the issue of identifying the animal that was originally inoculated and finding it at the appropriate time to properly deliver the subsequent shots. Methods have been developed that permit a harmless identifying color spot to be created on the animal at the vaccination site. A time release pellet would be helpful and is being researched. The current cost of a dose of PZP is minimal however labor costs, for the reasons outlined above, can be meaningful ("Immunocontraceptive Reproductive Control Using Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) in Federal Wild Horse Populations" (Third Edition), by Jay Kirkpatrick, 2010).

Because PZP is primarily protein it is not in the flesh, the saliva or the feces of an animal and does not contaminate the meat of the animal. If the animal is subsequently consumed by humans, other animal predators or scavengers, it will not cause illness.

The complete sterilization of an animal by surgically removing its ovaries has also been widely researched. Again, the resources needed to capture, tranquilize, operate and release free roaming wild animals probably makes this option of less practical use.

The regulatory framework for wildlife contraception is somewhat complex. Overall authority currently rests with the EPA under the curious category of "pesticide" (authority was previously held by the FDA but transferred recently to the EPA). PZP has been officially registered with the EPA however; other governmental agencies must also approve usage of the drug including state wildlife agencies regarding deer and the Bureau of Land Management for wild horses. And this is where much of the politics begins.

The push to bring wildlife contraception products to market has been fueled by a number of interests, many of which have roots in hunting. Recognizing that public acceptance of lethal animal control may be waning, and not wanting to miss the bandwagon on continuing their control of wildlife, state wildlife agencies, the USDA Wildlife Services, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the natural resource departments of various public universities, have all funded research and conducted studies on wildlife fertility control.

The Humane Society of the United States has spearheaded multiple fertility studies seeking nonlethal means to control both deer and wild horse populations. HSUS conducted a well known and successful deer study on Fire Island, New York in partnership with the National Park Service (www.nps.gov/fiis/naturescience/deer.htm) and continues to be actively involved in the push for nonlethal control of wild horses.

But the literature on the development of wildlife contraception acknowledges the various conflicts of interest that have stymied bringing product to market. "Wildlife agencies and biologists have been reluctant to acknowledge the potential applicability of fertility control for managing wildlife populations, in part because the techniques available have been publicized as a replacement for sport hunting....[however,] agencies recognize that people representing a variety of views are legitimate stakeholders in management, and the public is demanding to have their concerns addressed-one of which is that managers seek nonlethal means for the management of wildlife" (Wildlife Fertility Control, Technical Review 02-2, The Wildlife Society, 2002).

With so many agendas, it is not surprising that the road to market for wildlife contraception has been a long one. But there may be other considerations as well. While current research has concluded wildlife contraception does not negatively affect the health of the animal, what impact does it have on their social order? How is the social hierarchy impacted when females in a herd reach an age where they would otherwise naturally mate and reproduce but are not? In addition, what species specific traits are being interfered with by tampering with the natural selection process? These are difficult questions to answer and perhaps should be more seriously considered when evaluating how necessary it is to contracept our wildlife.

Taking a quick look at the complicated situation regarding wild horses in the western states, one can see the quandary of management. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for managing certain public lands and for managing the wild horses that live there. According to BLM's website, there are approximately 38,000 wild horses and burros on these lands. This, according to BLM, is about 12,000 too many animals for the health of the land therefore, annual removals are necessary (sometimes via helicopter round ups). Before there was a strong public outcry against it, the horses were killed. Now the animals are kept in holding stalls for sale and/or adoption. BLM reports that holding costs for these animals amounts to a little over half their annual $64 million horse and burro budget (a budget suggested to reach $75 million for 2011)(www.blm.gov/wo/st/en.html).

The BLM (an agency within the Department of the Interior) and USDA Wildlife Services (an agency within the Department of Agriculture), have similarities. The agencies kill or remove wild animals in the name of ecosystem health (while BLM is asking for $75 million this year, USDA spends about $121 million). BLM says "[w]ild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd size can double about every four years. As a result, the agency must remove thousands of animals from the range each year to control herd sizes." (Interestingly, almost the same claim is made by state wildlife agencies explaining why deer culls are necessary). It is notable that the herd size has remained relatively constant for the last 14 years. According to the BLM website, there were approximately 42,000 wild horses and burros in 1996 (the earliest date available on their website) and there are approximately 38,000 today.

The thought of letting nature take its course appears ignorant and abhorrent to wildlife agencies. BLM makes the somewhat odd assertion on its website that "[t]here is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea that wild horses will automatically limit their own population...if left unchecked, Mother Nature would regulate the wild horse and burro population through the classic boom-and-bust cycle, where the population increases dramatically, food becomes scarce, and the population crashes through starvation."

If nature has a built in population cycle, why would decades of killing, capturing and now possibly contracepting wildlife, necessarily be better? It is unclear whether our governmental agencies will ever implement large scale wildlife fertility programs or in fact, whether they should. Perhaps if it comes to a point where they can no longer shoot or capture the animals, they may turn to contraception...then they can at least ensure their line item in the national budget.

Prior Blog Posts:

The Structure of our State Wildlife Agency System
9/25/09

Teaching Children to Kill
10/02/09

The Supreme Court and the Culpability of a Child
11/18/09

The Federal Gun Tax
12/09/09

Lead Ammunition
1/14/10

Connecting the Dots of Violence
2/01/10

Man as "Super-Predator"
3/17/10

U.S. v Stevens: What interests are being protected?
4/27/10

Predation Control: to what end?
9/14/10

The Paradox of Killing Wildlife as Population Control
10/24/10

Who Does Wildlife Belong to? (The Public Trust Doctrine)
11/22/10

Lyme Disease: Ticks Without Deer
1/20/11

Taxpayers Footing the Bill to Kill Wildlife
2/15/11

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Taxpayers Footing the Bill to Kill Wildlife

The federal government kills wildlife all the time and we’re paying for it. The program is called Wildlife Damage Management and its run by the unlikely Department of Agriculture (the USDA). Through the USDA agency, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division called Wildlife Service has the mission to:

“… provide Federal leadership in managing problems caused by wildlife… an important public resource greatly valued by the American people… [W]ildlife is a highly dynamic and mobile resource that can damage agricultural and industrial resources, pose risks to human health and safety, and affect other natural resources. The Wildlife Service program… [helps] solve problems that occur when human activity and wildlife are in conflict …” (United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website, last modified August 24, 2010).

In carrying out its mission, Wildlife Service says one of its goals is to provide high quality wildlife damage management services and protect agriculture, wildlife and other natural resources using methods that are biologically, environmentally, and socially sound. Let’s see how they’re doing.

In 2009 (the most recent year information is available), Wildlife Service killed a total of 4,120,295 animals. The majority of the animals killed were birds but included in this total were approximately 82,000 coyotes, 34,000 feral pigs, 28,000 beavers, 13,000 prairie dogs, 1,775 bobcats, 443 bears and 342 cougars, to name just a few of the species targeted. That’s a lot of damage control.

The operation has an annual budget of about $121 million which is a combination of federal appropriations and payments from customers. Primary among Wildlife Service’s customers are farmers and ranchers (which helps explain why it is part of the Department of Agriculture instead of an agency of the Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service).

The general public was given a window into the work of Wildlife Service last month when thousands of birds were reported to have mysteriously died in South Dakota. Upon investigation it was admitted by the USDA that poison bait had been set out for the birds after a local farmer complained that the birds were defecating in his animal feed. Dead birds were also reported “falling from the sky” in Arkansas and Louisiana into residential areas and parks. As to whether this was an unusual occurrence, a USDA biologist said the agency does not typically poison animals, but they felt it made sense in this case and that lethal means are always a last resort. The biologist continued by saying this was a situation where it was what they had to do. (“USDA Acknowledges Poisoning Birds in South Dakota” by Hugh Collins, AOLNews, 1/21/11).

But Wildlife Service’s record does not support the claim that lethal means are an infrequent or unusual occurrence. The birds in question were starlings and red winged blackbirds. In 2009 1.3 million starlings and 966,000 red winged blackbirds were killed by Wildlife Service using a combination of lethal means, mainly shooting and poisoning. And the year before that, a total of about 2.5 million starlings and blackbirds were killed. Apparently these birds have been targets of Wildlife Service for awhile; one of their fact sheets says “[b]lackbirds and starlings damage grain crops and eat livestock feed, causing significant economic losses to agricultural producers.”

Wildlife Service claims its programs strive to develop and use wildlife damage management strategies that are biologically sound, environmentally safe, and socially acceptable. However, this may be nice talk wrapped around the disturbing truth that poison seems to be one of the management strategies of choice.

The poison used to kill the blackbirds and starlings that fell from the sky is Compound DRC-1339. DRC-1339 is a slow acting toxicant that causes renal damage and death by uremic poisoning. It is fed to birds through bait plots of rice treated with the poison. Wildlife Service states the poison has a high specificity for birds and presents minimal hazard to non targeted animals. The poison is also used on pigeons, gulls, magpies and ravens in addition to blackbirds and starlings. Millions of birds are killed annually by Wildlife Service, the majority by Compound DRC-1339.

Another poison used by Wildlife Service is M-44 Cyanide which contains the deadly ingredient sodium cyanide. This poison is mainly used to kill coyotes, foxes, and feral dogs that could prey on livestock. M–44 works by ejecting a sodium cyanide capsule of powder into the mouth of an animal when the animal pulls on a baited unit. The sodium cyanide powder reacts with the moisture in the animal’s mouth, releasing hydrogen cyanide gas. Death is supposed to occur from 10 seconds to 2 minutes after the device is triggered. (“The M-44 Cyanide Ejector Mechanism,” September 2002, aphis.usda.gov).

Wildlife Service claims the M–44 is safe to use and poses an insignificant risk to the environment. Their website says that if, for some reason, the contents of the capsule spill onto the soil, the active ingredient dissipate into gas rapidly due to soil moisture; and if there is no moisture, the sodium cyanide filters through the soil, where it is readily degraded by micro-organisms or other mechanisms.

The folks at Wildlife Service also claim the risk of unintentionally killing non targeted animals is very small since field personnel use their expertise in animal behavior patterns when placing the M-44 units. Wildlife Service may claim this to be the case, but in fact, according to their own website, 12,000 coyotes, 242 raccoons, 206 fox, 48 opossum, 32 dogs, 31 skunk, 3 bobcats and 1 black bear were unintentionally killed due to M-44 poisoning in 2009.

Sodium cyanide is a Category One toxicant indicating the greatest degree of acute toxicity. Many environmental groups and wildlife advocates are working to ban this lethal poison as both extremely dangerous and inhumane. A bill has been introduced in Congress (H.R. 5643) seeking to prohibit the use of sodium cyanide in predator control programs. In the meantime, Wildlife Service continues to use it.

Wildlife Service also carries out nonlethal wildlife management through the use of such tools as motion activated sound and light alarm systems, livestock protection dogs and non-toxic repellents. Millions of animals are dispersed annually using nonlethal methods. One wonders why this isn’t adequate.

What is really the point of killing all these animals year after year? (4.1 million in 2009; 5.0 million in 2008; 2.4 million in 2007; and 1.6 million in 2006). When you look at the numbers the program starts to look more like an annual public works project offering steady employment and job security rather than a necessary and defensible federal expenditure. How is success defined and measured? Maybe we should consider just paying the farmers and ranchers directly for their losses instead of killing millions of animals. And to what extent is the public responsible anyway for paying for such losses? (Really, instead of poisoning the birds defecating in the farmers feed lot, how about building a cover?) Wildlife Service serves some valuable functions like testing animals for disease; maybe that should be the focus of their work.

There is something futile about the entire killing operation. As discussed in my 10/24/10 blog post, “The Paradox of Killing Wildlife as Population Control” nature has a way of compensating for human manipulation of animal populations. Such is the issue currently being played out around geese.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that 1,676 geese were killed over the summer by federal officials in the name of air safety. Wildlife Service rounded up geese in the New York City area and parts of Nassau County and gassed them claiming it was necessary to ensure air safety. But Wildlife Service has been killing geese for years and yet air collisions can still occur. The year before the U.S. Airways flight landed in the Hudson River after colliding with geese, Wildlife Service had killed over 14,000 geese.

The Times article ends by saying “[t]he geese’s numbers rebounded quickly after the round-ups…so the Agriculture Department is gearing up for another round of goose removals this year…focusing on more sites and extending the hunt…” ("1,676 Geese Were Killed Last Summer for Air Safety" by Alice Speri, New York Times, 2/9/11).

What a business. First Wildlife Service is called in as the expert to assess the problem, and then its hired to fix it. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

Prior Blog Posts:

The Structure of our State Wildlife Agency System
9/25/09

Teaching Children to Kill
10/02/09

The Supreme Court and the Culpability of a Child
11/18/09

The Federal Gun Tax
12/09/09

Lead Ammunition
1/14/10

Connecting the Dots of Violence
2/01/10

Man as "Super-Predator"
3/17/10

U.S. v Stevens: What interests are being protected?
4/27/10

Predation Control: to what end?
9/14/10

The Paradox of Killing Wildlife as Population Control
10/24/10

Who Does Wildlife Belong to? (The Public Trust Doctrine)
11/22/10

Lyme Disease: Ticks Without Deer
1/20/11

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lyme Disease: Ticks Without Deer

Although the term "deer tick" is often used, in actuality there is no such thing. The tick that carries Lyme disease feeds on approximately 50 species of mammals and about 70 species of birds. It is the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) that causes Lyme disease when the tick is infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi.

When an infected tick attachs itself to an animal to feed (including a human), it can pass Lyme disease to the host. Deer however, do not become infected with Lyme disease even when infected ticks feed on them, nor do deer pass the disease onto other animals. What deer can do is provide the tick with a blood meal typically during the tick's last stage of life (the adult stage) before the tick drops off and lays eggs for the next generation. The misnomer "deer tick" came into use because early studies of Lyme disease did not adequately understand its complex ecology and incorrectly associated the blacklegged tick primarily with deer. Studies have since shown there is a myriad of other animals that provide blood meals for the blacklegged tick and an abundance of deer does not correlate to a high incidence of Lyme disease ("Lyme Disease: the ecology of a complex system" by Richard S. Ostfeld, Ph.D., Oxford University Press, 2011).

The disease was originally named after the town Lyme, Connecticut where a resident suffered from the illness possibly as early as the 1950's. Early on Lyme disease was confused with other illnesses sharing common symptoms like juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Research on Lyme disease began in earnest in the 1970's focusing on the Connecticut area however it was researchers on Long Island not Connecticut who identified the Lyme disease bacteria while conducting research on another tick borne disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever. But it remained unclear at the time whether the specific species of tick that spread Lyme disease was the same or different than the ticks that spread other tick borne illnesses.

The basic life cycle of ticks was and is well understood. First is the larvae stage followed by the nymph stage and finally the adult stage (Lyme disease is usually transmitted during the nymph stage). In early studies on Nantucket in 1976 and 1977, all three stages of tick life were found on deer so the tick was given the name Ixodes dammini or "deer tick". Deer were thought to be the keystone host for the Lyme disease tick and from that point on deer reduction became the focus of much research.

But a comprehensive study published in 1993 clarified this issue and established that there was a lack of evidence for a DNA differentiation between the blacklegged tick and the supposed "deer tick". It was discovered that the Lyme disease carrying tick was in fact the blacklegged tick and it lived successfully on as many as 125 vertebrates such as squirrel, fox, voles, opossum, raccoon, skunk, mice and other rodents. The fact that all three stages of tick life were found on deer in Nantucket in the early studies was later attributed to a dearth of alternative hosts on the island at the time (Ostfeld, 2011). The theory that deer were the keystone hosts for Lyme disease ticks was rejected and the notion of a "deer tick" was scientifically invalidated, although use of the term persists today.

More recent studies have found that deer reduction often results in tick populations either remaining the same or sometimes increasing. Furthermore it has been found that after deer reduction, there is often no corresponding decrease in Lyme disease (Ostfeld, 2011); ("Effects of Reduced Deer Density on the Abundance of Ixodes scapularis and Lyme Disease Incidence in a Northern New Jersey Endemic Area" by Robert A. Jordon et al., Journal of Medical Entomology, 2007).

Researchers have been exploring the implications of the existence of multiple tick host animals besides deer. An interesting study found the elimination of deer actually caused tick "hot spots" or high concentrations of ticks on small areas of land (much the size of residential properties). This was because deer served as "dilution hosts" carrying ticks away from the smaller area and dispersing them. Once deer were eliminated, other wildlife such as rodents brought infected ticks into the area resulting in tick concentrations. ("Localized Deer Absence Leads to Tick Amplification" by Sarah E. Perkins et. al., Ecology, 2006). In Richard Ostfeld's recent and exhaustive book on the ecology of Lyme disease (see book reference above), study after study is cited showing that deer reduction has not led to Lyme disease elimination. The theory that ticks will simply shift to other hosts in the absence of deer is becoming well established.

In many parts of the eastern and central United States there are abundant tick populations but relatively few cases of Lyme disease. An interesting nuance in the Lyme disease transmission chain is the fact that not all hosts become infected with Lyme disease even though an infected tick feeds on it (humans and mice do become infected for example but deer and gray squirrels do not). The reason for this is still unclear but it has led scientists to focus research on not only how to control total tick population size but more importantly, how to contain the spread of the Lyme disease bacteria with or without regard to total tick numbers.

Researchers are trying to determine which hosts are better "reservoirs" for the bacteria, in other words which animals easily contract and pass on the Lyme disease bacteria. And the white footed mouse appears to be at the top of the list. Mice are consistently shown to be very efficient reservoirs for Lyme disease because 75% to 95% of the ticks that feed on mice become infected with the Lyme disease bacteria and then the ticks in turn, infect other animals (Ostfeld, 2011). This is why it probably makes more sense to encourage people to clean up leaf litter and dry out basements, rather than shoot deer if they want to try to keep Lyme disease at bay. (A researcher at Harvard agrees, "...hunting deer won't effectively combat Lyme disease because ticks also depend on another key host animal: white-footed mice." Tamara Awerbuch, Ph.D., Harvard School of Public Health).

It isn't entirely clear why the dogma blaming deer for the spread of Lyme disease continues today. The disease can be confusing which creates fear and contributes to the perpetuation of misinformation. Unlike most other infectious diseases, Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose because it shares common and general symptoms that can be mistaken for other sickness. Compounding this is a high rate of both false positives and false negatives from the diagnostic blood test. And since a vaccine to prevent the disease is not available, and since the body cannot naturally fight the disease without the help of antibiotics, people panic at the mere thought of potential exposure.

Public fear has a way of taking on a life of its own and persistent falsehoods can endure even in the face of contradictory truths. This may be the case with Lyme disease much the same way the fear of autism led many to turn away from childhood vaccines. Just as the early studies linking autism to childhood vaccines have recently been unequivocally renounced and discredited, the hope is that deer will stop being vilified for crimes they aren't committing. But I have my doubts...my neighbor just told me she isn't vaccinating her new baby-she is worried about the vaccine's connection to autism.

Prior Blog Posts:

The Structure of our State Wildlife Agency System
9/25/09
Teaching Children to Kill
10/02/09
The Supreme Court and the Culpability of a Child
11/18/09
The Federal Gun Tax
12/09/09
Lead Ammunition
1/14/10
Connecting the Dots of Violence
2/01/10
Man as "Super-Predator"
3/17/10
U.S. v Stevens: What interests are being protected?
4/27/10
Predation Control: to what end?
9/14/10
The Paradox of Killing Wildlife as Population Control
10/24/10
Who Does Wildlife Belong to? (The Public Trust Doctrine)
11/22/10

Monday, November 22, 2010

Who Does Wildlife Belong to? (The Public Trust Doctrine)

Well, to the extent that a living being can "belong" to anyone, the answer is...you. Actually, you and me. Wildlife is held in trust by the state for the benefit of the public. This concept is called "The Public Trust Doctrine" and it applies to wildlife law in very much the same way it is commonly understood. Assets (wildlife), are held by an entity (governmental agency, often the state), for the benefit of a third party (the public).

Historically in Europe, wild animals were believed to be owned by the king for the use and enjoyment of the aristocracy. But during colonial times, Americans rebelled against this class-based theory and instead adopted the concept that wildlife is for the benefit of all people. American wildlife law has developed around this notion that wildlife is a public resource, much the same as any other natural resource and should be managed for the common good.

However, early in American history with virtually unrestricted access to "game" (i.e. hunted wildlife, typically deer and fowl), animals were killed for sport or profit on a year round basis presenting the potential for total annihilation. Fearing the supply of animals would eventually disappear, a movement began in the late 19th century to develop conservation laws to protect animals from over hunting.

Battles ensued between those who wanted unrestricted use and enjoyment of wild animals and those who wanted limits placed on these activities. The court cases from this era made it clear that a fundamental principle is that wild animals are the common property of the people and reasonable restrictions and limitations can be placed on their destruction. In 1896 the Supreme Court stated that "...the fundamental principles upon which the common property in game rests have undergone no change...the power or control lodged in the State, resulting from this common ownership, is to be exercised...as a trust for the benefit of the people, and not as a prerogative for the advantage of the government...or for the benefit of private individuals as distinguished from the public good." (Geer v. Connecticut, 161 U.S. 519 (1896)).

After these initial court cases, a series of conservation laws were enacted leading to today's current set of laws. State legislatures created state wildlife agencies and gave them responsibility for overseeing and enforcing wildlife laws. These wildlife agencies are typically divisions within larger state environmental protection or natural resource agencies and are responsible for, among other things, the days hunting seasons open and close, what types of weapons can be used, and the number of animals which may be killed.

But herein lies the rub: in order to insure a reliable funding source, the framers of the state wildlife agency system provided for permanent funding from hunting license fees and revenue generated from gun and ammunition sales (see prior blog posts: "The Structure of our State Wildlife Agency System" 9/25/09 and "The Federal Gun Tax" 12/09/09). Since conservation laws were developed at a time when preventing uncontrolled hunting was the objective, this financial arrangement made sense. Conservation laws were developed to protect the supply of game animals for hunting. Little attention was given to the notion that animals have intrinsic worth, are essential to bio-diversity or that game and non-game animals alike are needed for a balanced ecosystem. Yet there is no other state agency empowered to protect wildlife. "Conservation" is a misnomer in today's wildlife agency system. The mandate to safeguard our wildlife for the public at large is a virtual impossibility when a majority of funding for this purpose is derived from hunting licenses and gun sales.

A rash of state constitutional amendments have recently passed seeking to protect the right to hunt as a constitutional entitlement. These NRA backed amendments currently exist in 13 states and appear to be in response to a perceived threat which may have its roots in The Public Trust Doctrine. As the doctrine becomes better known and understood, the fear may be that emphasis will turn toward the protection of wildlife for the benefit of the environment and the public as a whole, and away from its use by the 4% of the population who hunt.

Interestingly, the leading organization of wildlife professionals, The Wildlife Society, has recently confirmed that The Public Trust Doctrine forms the basis of our wildlife law. In one of its recent publications, they say "The Public Trust Doctrine...is an essential element of North American wildlife law. The Doctrine establishes a trustee relationship of government to hold and manage wildlife...for the benefit of the resources and the public." (The Public Trust Doctrine, Implications for Wildlife Management and Conservation in the United States and Canada, Technical Review 10-01, Sept. 2010). However, the Society goes on to express concern about potential threats to the strength of the doctrine by saying "The underpinnings of the [doctrine]and [it's] future relevance and successful application...may be at risk due to recent changes in society, government policies, and case law." The threats to The Public Trust Doctrine the Society lists however, sound a lot like perceived threats to the future of hunting; the threats they point to are "...inappropriately claiming ownership of wildlife as private property; unregulated commercial sale of live wildlife; prohibitions on access to and use of wildlife; personal liability issues; and a value system oriented toward animal rights.." (emphasis added). I don't know, but the last time I looked, people supportive of animal rights were considered part of our society.


Prior Blog Posts:

The Structure of our State Wildlife Agency System
9/25/09
Teaching Children to Kill
10/02/09
The Supreme Court and the Culpability of a Child
11/18/09
The Federal Gun Tax
12/09/09
Lead Ammunition
1/14/10
Connecting the Dots of Violence
2/01/10
Man as "Super-Predator"
3/17/10
U.S. v Stevens: What interests are being protected?
4/27/10
Predation Control: to what end?
9/14/10
The Paradox of Killing Wildlife as Population Control
10/24/10