Like the prow of a ship, the Granite Mountains rise sharply from the creamy-white playa of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
Here, in rugged terrain owned by the American public, a little-known federal agency called Wildlife Services has waged an eight-year war against predators to try to help an iconic Western big-game species: mule deer.
With rifles, snares and aerial gunning, employees have killed 967 coyotes and 45 mountain lions at a cost of about $550,000. But like a mirage, the dream of protecting deer by killing predators has not materialized.
"It didn't make a difference," said Kelley Stewart, a large-mammal ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno.
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For decades, Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has specialized in trapping, poisoning and shooting predators in large numbers, largely to protect livestock and, more recently, big game.
Now such killing is coming under fire from scientists, former employees and others who say it often doesn't work and can set off a chain reaction of unintended, often negative consequences.
In biological shorthand: Kill too many coyotes and you open a Pandora's box of disease-carrying rodents, meadow-munching rabbits, bird-eating feral cats, and, over time, smarter, more abundant coyotes. You also can sentence the deer you are trying to help to slow death by starvation.
"There is a widespread perception that predators are the root of all evil and I'm tired of it," said Stewart. "More often than not, if you have predation on a mule deer population, you're going to have a healthier population."
Agency officials say controlling predators is a must, especially in the West where livestock graze large tracts of unfenced land. "The intent is not to prevent predation," said William Clay, deputy administrator of Wildlife Services. "All we're trying to do is remove the problem animals."
Killing predators is part of Wildlife Services' DNA, a mission it pursues – along with a wide range of other animal control work – largely outside public view.
Some details, though, can be gleaned from the agency's Web page, where it posts a sea of data showing – species by species – the millions of birds and mammals its employees kill each year. Sift through the numbers and you find that about 560,000 predators were killed across America from 2006 to 2011, an average of 256 a day.
The body count includes more than 25,000 red and gray foxes, 10,700 bobcats, 2,800 black bears, 2,300 timber wolves and 2,100 mountain lions. But the vast majority – about 512,500 – were coyotes.
"When they see a coyote, all they got is one thing in mind: killing it," said Gary Strader, a former Wildlife Services hunter in Nevada. "They don't know if it was a coyote that killed a sheep. It's just a coyote, and it's got to be killed."
While fewer bobcats are killed today, the numbers of three other major predators shot, trapped and snared by the agency have risen. In 1970, agency employees killed 73,100 coyotes, 400 black bears, 120 mountain lions. By 2011, the tally had climbed to 83,200 coyotes (up 14 percent), 565 black bears (up 41 percent) and 400 mountain lions (up 230 percent).
"If you look at their mandate, we could not have written it better for them," said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, who has worked with Wildlife Services employees to promote nonlethal control. "It's all about supporting wildlife conservation and promoting humane tools.
"That's not what is happening on the ground," Stone said. "Unfortunately, in parts of the western United States it just seems like they are still in the Dark Ages. They go at this as a kill mission. They are at war with wildlife."
Most surprising may be the fate of the agency's longtime adversary, the coyote, an animal that Mark Twain once called "a living, breathing allegory of Want."
After several decades of intense federal hunting, there are more coyotes in more places than ever.
"I call it the boomerang effect," said Wendy Keefover, a carnivore specialist with WildEarth Guardians. "The more you kill, the more you get."
In California, researchers have found that having coyotes in the neighborhood can be good for quail, towhees and other birds. The reason? They eat skunks, house cats and raccoons that feast on birds.
"The indirect effects (of predators) are often more important than the direct effects," said Reg Barrett, professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of California, Berkeley. "We just don't know enough about what's going on."
The most dramatic example of how predators shape the land is playing out in Yellowstone National Park where wolves, after a 70-year absence, were returned in 1995 and began preying on one of the densest populations of elk in North America.
Before long, aspen, willows and cottonwoods that had been overgrazed by elk began to thrive again, attracting beavers, migratory songbirds and other wildlife.
Ravens, magpies, eagles and grizzly bears benefited, too, from a smorgasbord of elk carcasses.
But tracking the ecological effects of predators is a fine art not widely practiced. "We could sure use more research," said Barrett.
Last year, something curious caught Stewart's attention in Nevada: an email informing her that a mule deer had tested positive for the plague – a disease sparked by rodent outbreaks and potentially deadly to humans – in an area where Wildlife Services was killing predators.
"It makes you wonder," said Stewart. "In this area where we've been doing rampant predator control, we're seeing a disease show up. Frankly, I'd rather see a deer get eaten by a coyote than show up symptomatic for a disease like plague."
A few years back, Nevada rancher Marti Hoots noticed that jack rabbits were out of control. Then, while rounding up cattle on horseback, she spotted a Wildlife Services plane over her pasture. A man leaned out and began shooting coyotes.
"I was irate," said Hoots. "It was the dead of winter, and I found no reason for them to be shooting because the coyotes weren't bothering anything.
"The jack rabbits were everywhere," Hoots said. "So the coyotes were doing some good, and they were shooting them."
Aerial gunning is the agency's most popular predator-killing tool. Since 2001, more than 340,000 coyotes have been gunned down from planes and helicopters across 16 Western states, including California – an average of 600 a week, agency records show.
"When they take that plane up, they kill every single coyote they can," said Strader, the former Wildlife Services hunter who worked with aerial gunning crews in Nevada. "If they come back and say, 'We only killed three coyotes,' they are not very happy. If they come back and say, 'Oh, we killed a hundred coyotes,' they're very happy.
"Some of the gunners are real good and kill coyotes every time. And other ones wound more than they kill," Strader said. "Who wants to see an animal get crippled and run around with its leg blown off? I saw that a lot."
The agency does not disclose the specific locations where aerial gunning takes place, but records show coyotes are killed on public land in Nevada, including the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. In California, coyotes are hunted from the air in Calaveras, Glenn, Kern, Lassen, Madera, Merced, Modoc, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Shasta, Siskyou and Stanislaus counties.
Clay, the agency's deputy administrator, defended the practice, calling it is a valuable preventive strategy to clear swaths of land of predators in the winter before livestock arrive to graze in the spring.
"If you can remove the predators, you can reduce the losses," Clay said.
But Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services district manager who scheduled coyote-killing flights in Montana, said the cost exceeds the value of livestock protected.
"It absolutely calls for a cost-benefit study," said Niemeyer. "Aerial gunning is very, very expensive. You are talking $700 to $1,000 an hour to be hunting these coyotes.
"If private landowners want every coyote on their property shot, you got no bone to pick with me. But go hire your own helicopter at 700 bucks an hour and do it yourself."
The practice remains popular, he said, because it keeps hunters busy during the slow winter months. "These guys don't have a heck of a lot to do in the winter, so to stay employed, they need to go fly around in a helicopter and shoot coyotes that might kill a sheep next spring," Niemeyer said.
"There is not enough money on earth to kill all the coyotes that might kill a sheep out there."
There is something else about the effort that made Niemeyer skeptical: the coyote itself. No matter how many were killed, there were always more of them.
Coyotes are known for their cunning. But their response to hunting takes craftiness to a new level: They are expanding their numbers and colonizing new territories.
"The more you shoot, the more you need to shoot," said Steve Searles, wildlife management officer in Mammoth Lakes. "We go easy on the gun because if you start shooting up the population, you're not part of the cure. You're part of the problem."
In Nevada, scientists found that when Wildlife Services began killing coyotes to protect deer south of Ely in 2004, the average coyote litter size jumped from one pup to 3.5. In 2007, one coyote killed by a Wildlife Services hunter in Nevada had 13 fetuses in its uterus.
Just how coyotes prosper amid persecution remains a mystery. But many believe they benefit from better dining opportunities that emerge over time as coyotes are killed and rabbits and mice begin to multiply.
"A lot of it comes down to nutrition and competition. When you have fewer animals (coyotes) on the landscape, you have more food available per individual. There is a ton of food on the landscape. Why not have a bigger litter?" said Stewart, the Nevada ecologist.
Many also believe killing coyotes en masse only makes them smarter, through natural selection. "I'm sure of it," said Barrett, the UC Berkeley professor. "How can an animal like that be so successful if there wasn't strong selection for individuals that take care of themselves under intense pressure? You've got to hand it to them. It's pretty amazing."
"We've raised a super race of coyotes," said Bill Jensen, a sheep rancher in Marin County. "There is nothing more cunning than these things now."
Wildlife Services spends about $30 million a year to protect livestock from predators – mostly coyotes. On its Web page, it says losses to predators top more than $127 million a year.
But Niemeyer said those losses, which are based on unverified reports from ranchers, are exaggerated. "To paint this picture that the whole livestock industry is under siege by predators is grossly misrepresented," he said. "There are individuals who sustain losses, but not everyone."
Sheep and lambs are most at risk. "They are easy to kill, and lots of animals key on them," Niemeyer said.
But cattle are less in danger.
"Calves, when they're small, are vulnerable," said Niemeyer. "But it doesn't take very many weeks before they outgrow coyotes. In my 33-year tenure, I have less than 20 calves that I would attribute to being killed by coyotes."
Like a crime scene investigator, Niemeyer journeyed into the field to inspect sheep and cattle that ranchers said had been killed by predators. Often, his verdict was not guilty.
"You start looking and you realize nothing killed this," said Niemeyer. "They died from a multitude of things: birthing problems, old age, bad hooves, cut by barbed wire. There were an awful lot of things attributed to predation that really were not."
Niemeyer is not the only former Wildlife Services employee to raise questions about agency practices. In California, biologist Mike Jaeger did, too, with studies in Mendocino County that showed most coyotes don't prey on sheep at all and those that do are the hardest to kill with nonselective traps and poison.
"The research showed quite clearly that nonselective control doesn't work," said Jaeger, who has since retired. "You can remove a lot of coyotes and have no effect at all. Absolutely none."
But his calls for more selective control often went unheeded, he said, because of a disconnect between the agency's scientific and field personnel – and its close ties to the livestock industry, which helps fund predator control.
"I think there is a lot of political pressure," Jaeger said. "They have to make the landowners happy. And many of them perceive the solution of the problem as population reduction."
Federal officials decline to disclose the ranches on which Wildlife Services employees work. Such information "would cause a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," wrote Tonya Woods, director of the Freedom of Information & Privacy Act office for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "Also, disclosing this information will not shed any light on (federal) duties and responsibilities."
But a document obtained by The Bee provides a look at one Wildlife Services job in Nevada where predators were targeted indiscriminately, and innocent animals died.
The email by a Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist details work on the 3,200-acre Rafter 7 Ranch on the East Walker River in Nevada. "With no evidence of any kind that any predation had occurred Wildlife Services set snares around the area to kill any predators that may wander through," the biologist, Russell Woolstenhulme, wrote.
Officials concluded the snares killed at random, taking the lives of four bears and four mountain lions that had not harmed sheep.
The state is now demanding that Wildlife Services target predators more selectively. "We realize some of this stuff is not publicly acceptable," said Rob Buonamici, chief game warden for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
But Wildlife Services continues to kill nonselectively in many places, including the Granite Mountains north of Reno where the goal is protecting a big-game species – mule deer – and is funded by a predator control fee assessed on hunters.
Stark, majestic and isolated, the Granites loom like an island over the desert terrain. But that beauty is deceiving because the range is a place of rough justice for predators, internal Wildlife Services records show.
After slicing open a mountain lion killed in a federal neck snare in 2008, one agency hunter filled out a handwritten report: "Stomach contained deer hair and bone fragments," he noted. Eleven days later, he cut open another lion with different results: "He had nothing in his stomach."
In some cases, animals had rotted away by the time the agency hunter found them. "Only the skull was saved due to decay. Pelt not saved due to decay/slippage. Decomposition did not allow for accurate weight estimate," he wrote in a series of reports about mountain lions.
In 2009, the hunter found two lions dead in snares close to each other, "most likely" a mother and daughter, he wrote. Coyotes were targeted routinely, including four pups killed in their den in May 2011.
Has the killing been worth it? That is what scientists have asked as they've flown over the Granites, comparing the size and growth of deer herds where predators were killed with places where they were not.
The scientists have packaged their data and findings into reports and presentations filled with biological jargon and complex statistical analysis. But in plain English, it hasn't worked.
"There was no discernible difference," said Tony Wasley, a mule-deer biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "There were several different (population) variables we tested, and none were significantly different than adjacent areas with no predator control."
Two other factors generally have bigger impacts: harsh weather and poor forage conditions. When there is not enough to eat, saving a deer from predation may only delay death by starvation later.
"The simplicity of predator control has broad appeal," Wasley said. "The complexity of the problem is far greater."
A recent study in "Wildlife Monographs," a scientific journal published by the Wildlife Society, reported that most years, coyotes don't prey on deer at all. They're busy eating mice and rabbits. And even when a coyote does kill a mule deer, it generally doesn't have an impact.
"There is a contingent of mule deer that are going to die every year anyway. Often those are the first ones coyotes prey on," said Mark Hurley, a mule-deer biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and author of the study.
"The silver bullet isn't to run out there and kill all the coyotes or all the lions and boom – you get all the deer back," said Ken Mayer, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "It's way, way more complicated than that."
On occasion, Wasley has presented his findings to Wildlife Services managers in Reno. "I've been told my analysis is a morale breaker, that they don't like me because I'm doing objective analysis," he said.
"The director told me he's got a tough time keeping his guys' spirits up when they read what they're doing has yet to demonstrate any measurable benefit," Wasley said.
To read more, visit www.sacbee.com.