Com­plaints on rise over black vul­tures, live­stock pre­da­tion

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - NATHAN OWENS

Black vul­tures have been a prob­lem for Arkansas cat­tle ranch­ers for years. No­to­ri­ous for at­tack­ing baby calves in the spring and fall, the birds re­sult in a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of calls each year, Arkansas wildlife groups say.

Black vul­tures can at­tack cows as they give birth, peck­ing out their eyes, and then at­tack and kill the calf and the cow, said Thur­man Boothe, wildlife ser­vices state direc­tor for the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture in Stuttgart. “It’s be­come a se­ri­ous eco­nomic loss.”

And, it’s got­ten worse this year, Boothe said.

The num­bers of black vul­tures have risen in Arkansas and through­out the east­ern re­gion of the U.S. The in­crease is largely at­trib­uted to the ban­ning of harm­ful chem­i­cals in 1972, Boothe said. Be­fore that, chlo­ri­nated hy­dro­car­bons, such as DDT, caused eggshells to thin, which took a sig­nif­i­cant toll on hatch­ing vul­ture chicks.

Ac­cord­ing to the Avian Con­ser­va­tion Assess­ment Data­base, there are nearly 20 mil­lion black vul­tures glob­ally, with roughly 1.8 mil­lion in the U.S. The now-banned chem­i­cals can last 30-40 years in the en­vi­ron­ment, so now eggshell thin­ning is less com­mon, in­creas­ing vul­ture re­pro­duc­tion.

Boothe said it’s dif­fi­cult to pro­vide an ac­cu­rate count on the num­ber of vul­tures in the state, but the num­ber of calls and com­plaints he’s re­ceived has been on the in­crease.

“We get about 70-90 calls a year on black vul­ture prob­lems,” he said. “About half have in­volved cat­tle.”

PRO­TECTED BY LAW

Black vul­tures are pro­tected un­der the Mi­gra­tory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and can legally be killed only with per-

● mis­sion from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. A doc­u­ment called a depre­da­tion per­mit can be ob­tained through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice to al­low some­one to legally at­tack the birds.

Mike Hoy, district su­per­vi­sor for the USDA’s An­i­mal and Plant Health In­spec­tion Ser­vice in Stuttgart, is sched­uled to speak this month about black vul­tures and how farm­ers can de­ter them. His ad­dress is set for Fri­day at the Arkansas Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion Con­ven­tion and Trade Show in Fort Smith.

Adam McClung, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Arkansas Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion, has been vo­cal about the vul­ture prob­lem re­cently. He said many ranch­ers are misinformed about depre­da­tion per­mits and the re­quire­ments for get­ting them. That has dis­suaded many peo­ple from ap­ply­ing for them. How­ever, McClung and Boothe said there’s never been a per­mit re­quest sub­mit­ted in the state that has been de­nied.

“We want peo­ple to call us,” Boothe said. “We want the prob­lem to be solved. We don’t want any­one to get in trou­ble.”

A com­mon mis­con­cep­tion is that the per­mit cov­ers only a set num­ber of birds no mat­ter the farm or flock size, McClung said.

“The num­ber of birds you can kill is on a case-by-case ba­sis,” he said. A per­mit can be is­sued af­ter an on-site visit by a wildlife ser­vices bi­ol­o­gist who eval­u­ates the prob­lem.

The per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion process in­volves en­rolling in and pass­ing two pro­grams hosted by the USDA wildlife ser­vices — the first on non­lethal so­lu­tions and the sec­ond on lethal reme­dies. Af­ter the prob­lem has been iden­ti­fied, a wildlife ser­vices bi­ol­o­gist as­sesses the vul­ture pop­u­la­tion on a prop­erty. From there, the bi­ol­o­gist will put in writ­ing the steps that can be taken to scare off the birds or, if nec­es­sary, kill them. The ex­tent of the prob­lem varies across the state.

“We got a guy in north­east Arkansas who has got a roost with more than 500 birds,” McClung said.

In Arkansas, 40 peo­ple cur­rently have depre­da­tion per­mits, ac­cord­ing to USDA wildlife ser­vices. Con­sid­er­ing the num­ber of com­plaints that come in, that num­ber is low, McClung said.

About 70 re­quests for as­sis­tance have been filed, and a lit­tle more than half of them have re­sulted in per­mits to al­low the killing of vul­tures, Boothe said.

“In many cases we don’t rec­om­mend a lethal-take per­mit be­cause in many cases it’s not nec­es­sary,” he said.

Travis Jus­tice, chief economist of the Arkansas Farm Bu­reau, said one con­cern that farm­ers have is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice en­cour­ages farm­ers to scare the black vul­tures away, which de­lays or just moves the prob­lem.

“They en­cour­age you to ha­rass them, scare them off some­where else, rather than use a shot­gun. A lot of peo­ple don’t think that’s ef­fec­tive,” Jus­tice said. “There’s prob­a­bly a lot that han­dle the is­sue

with­out go­ing through the ap­pli­ca­tion process.”

Some­one who harms a pro­tected species with­out a per­mit risks hav­ing to pay thou­sands of dol­lars in fines, Boothe said.

DAM­AGE BE­YOND CAT­TLE

Scott Price, a cat­tle rancher near Alma, has about 200 cows year-round. Dur­ing the fall and spring, Price said, he can lose 10 cows per day to vul­ture at­tacks, not in­clud­ing the calves. When a flock of vul­tures gets too close, he said he drives his pickup to­ward them and scares them away. And when that doesn’t work he fires off his shot­gun, he said.

“If there’s some­thing that’s a dan­ger to the an­i­mals I’m rais­ing, I have a right to pro­tect them,” Price said. “I’ve been down there be­fore when 100 vul­tures were at­tack­ing one cow.”

Black vul­tures are not to be con­fused with turkey vul­tures, which have dis­tinct feath­er­less red heads, dark-brown plumage and are na­tive to the state. Turkey vul­tures do not prey on cat­tle.

An­other prob­lem with black vul­tures is that in the hot­ter months, they roost in trees around Greers Ferry Lake and other bod­ies of wa­ter.

Tim Cur­tis, a fish­ing guide for the White River and Bull Shoals Lake, has seen the dam­age that the flocks can in­flict. The vul­tures walk on

nearby ve­hi­cles, peck at the rub­ber and defe­cate on them, which can dam­age the paint. Re­cently, he said, he re­ported dam­age to peo­ple’s ve­hi­cles to the Arkansas Game and Fish Com­mis­sion.

“One pickup truck was scratched so bad it looked like you put 100 cats on it,” he said. And it’s got­ten worse over the past three years, he said.

Since Oc­to­ber 2012, the birds have been a prob­lem at the Bull Shoals Dam. The U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers re­ported an es­ti­mated $120,000$150,000 in dam­age in 2015, said Lau­rie Driver, a spokesman for the Corps di­vi­sion in Lit­tle Rock.

Of­fi­cials used propane pow­ered noise­mak­ers, py­rotech­nics and other de­vices to scare off the birds. Fi­nally, as a last re­sort, the Corps got per­mits from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vices and worked with the Arkansas Game and Fish Com­mis­sion to kill a few vul­tures and hang them on dis­play to ward off other vul­tures, Driver said.

“If you shoot one, hang it up­side down by its legs,” Cur­tis said, “other birds won’t come around it.”

Also, vul­ture defe­ca­tion is at times a prob­lem around the dam and for em­ployee’s ve­hi­cles, Driver said.

It can be “a main­te­nance night­mare to keep the place clean,” she said. “We haven’t had as much con­cen­tra­tion this year at Bull Shoals, but I think that’s just luck.”

Cour­tesy of Bruce Cald­well, U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers

Black vul­tures gather on Bull Shoals Dam in this un­dated photo. The birds, a pro­tected mi­gra­tory species, have been re­spon­si­ble for live­stock deaths across the state.

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