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California and the West

Crash Probed in Coyote Program

Wildlife: Pilot is fourth to be killed while chasing animals in eradication effort.

April 01, 1998|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal agricultural officials are launching an investigation this week into the death of a government pilot, the fourth killed in a 17-month period while shooting coyotes from a low-flying plane as part of a little-known federal program.

LaWanna Clark, 51, of Mariposa, Calif., was killed March 11 when the plane she was piloting crashed during a pursuit of coyotes on a cattle ranch near the Grapevine in Kern County. A co-pilot instructor survived with a broken leg and multiple bruises.

The death followed a January crash in Utah that claimed the life of a 13-year veteran of the federal-state Wildlife Services Program who was hunting coyotes from a leased helicopter. In October 1996, two animal control fliers died in another crash in Utah.

All were employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shoot coyotes and other livestock predators from aircraft under a program that dates back to 1949.

The Agriculture Department's inspector general has appointed a special team to investigate the accidents and review the aerial coyote hunting program, said Larry Vetterman, western regional aviation manager for the department's wildlife services program.

Vetterman said the program provides a valuable service. "If you're talking to the ranching and farming industry, we're the greatest people in the world," he said. The investigation, set to begin Friday, will be led by Richard Williams, chief pilot for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and includes a team of aviation experts from other federal agencies, Vetterman said.

Clark was the first female pilot in the program, which uses 25 aircraft in 17 Western states. She had started training for the program two months before the crash.

Vetterman called Clark "a very highly experienced pilot" who had logged nearly 4,000 hours of flight time, much of it as a contract pilot for the U.S. Forest Service, including low-level flying over wildfires.

"She was not a novice pilot," he said.

The crash, about eight miles north of Lebec, occurred "during performance of authorized aerial hunting activities," according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The left wing of the low-flying plane struck the ground as it banked into a turn, the report said. Andy Williams, 53, a 29-year veteran with the department, was in the back seat shooting coyotes, according to the report. He is recovering from injuries at his Mariposa home, said Gary Simmons, director of California Wildlife Services.

Federal and state laws have outlawed hunting from aircraft for 40 years, but there are special exemptions for programs to kill animals that prey on livestock.

On Jan. 15, another accident killed Shane Comwall, 38, of Payson, Utah, a 13-year department trapper. A contract pilot who owned the 1969 helicopter used on the hunt told investigators they were flying in a remote area covered with deep snow near Spanish Fork, Utah.

Pilot Allen H. Carter said he "heard a clunk" and the craft went down tail-first. Carter, who was slightly injured, waited in the snow with the wreckage and his dead co-worker for 17 hours before rescuers reached the scene.

The 1996 accident--the first fatalities in 20 years in the department's animal control program--occurred when a government-owned Piper 18-150 nose-dived into the ground while chasing two coyotes, according to a safety board report. Pilot Jeff Yates, 41, of Nephi, Utah, was undergoing instruction by Darwin Mabbutt, 69, of Delta, Utah. Both were killed.

According to a local sheriff's report, a shotgun "was pointed out the left rear window and had five rounds in its stock and one in the chamber." That indicated the veteran hunter in the rear seat was about to fire when the plane crashed, the panel concluded.

Investigators noted that "running ground tracks of at least two coyotes" were found at the scene. The day before, the airborne hunters killed five coyotes, records show.

Throughout the West, more than 28,000 coyotes were shot from the air in 1996, a decrease from a peak of 37,000 in 1993, the agriculture department said. Aerial hunting--as well as poisoning and trapping--were used to all but wipe out wolves in the United States, populations of which other federal officials are now attempting to restore.

Government workers are not trying to eradicate coyotes but kill animals only "on ranches that have requested our assistance because they have livestock being depredated upon," Vetterman said.

The agriculture department, facing increasing criticism of wildlife management programs from environmentalists, killed about 82,000 coyotes by all methods in 1996, down from a peak of almost 100,000 in 1992.

Many animals were trapped or poisoned, methods that are increasingly being outlawed in states through voter initiatives. A California initiative, sponsored by ProPAW, a Los Angeles animal rights group, was certified by the secretary of state on Monday for the Nov. 3 statewide ballot. The measure would ban the use of some traps and poisons.

Vetterman said such regulations are hard on U.S. farmers and ranchers, who lose about $43 million in livestock to coyotes each year. "The die-hard environmentalist--the radicals, I call them--don't understand where food comes from," he said. "It doesn't come from the market."

He said ranching cooperatives work with federal, state, county and local officials to fund activities such as the aerial gunnery program.

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