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California and the West

Humane Society Decries Aerial Hunt

Agriculture: FAA is asked to ban shooting of coyotes from low-flying helicopters. U.S. officials are reviewing predator control program in wake of crash.

April 12, 1998|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Humane Society of the United States has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to ground an agriculture program in which hunters chase and shoot coyotes from planes, contending that the program violates the federal government's rules against aerial hunting.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its own review of the practice on safety grounds, following a crash that killed a government pilot in Kern County last month. It was the fourth such death in 26 months.

The aerial hunting program--in which a hunter fires from a window of a light plane or helicopter as a pilot chases the animals, sometimes near ground level--was suspended for 10 days following the March fatality but has since resumed.

Supporters say aerial hunting is effective in battling coyotes and other predators that attack livestock in rural regions of the western United States.

The Humane Society filed a request with the FAA in Washington on March 27, asking the agency to ban the Agriculture Department program.

Patricia Lane, a former FAA lawyer who recently joined the animal welfare group's legal staff in Washington, contends that the aerial hunting program run by the department's Wildlife Services unit has been operating illegally for years.

"The law says they cannot operate in a careless and reckless manner, they cannot drop objects from an airplane, including shooting bullets, and cannot fly below 500 feet without obtaining a waiver," said Lane, who spent 13 years prosecuting violations of FAA rules.

"Wildlife Services has been doing it illegally all these years because the FAA didn't know about it."

Robin Porter, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, denied the allegations.

"Of course we do not operate aircraft in any careless or reckless manner. Wildlife Services is very concerned about the safety of its pilots and crew," Porter said.

"We are professional biologists who have an important job to do, and we would not endanger the public in any way."

FAA officials declined to comment on the Humane Society's request, pending an investigation.

However, Wayne Pollack, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator heading the probe into the latest fatal crash, said pilots flying government "public use" aircraft, such as those in the hunting program, are exempt from some FAA rules.

The exemption would apply in these cases because "aerial hunting does require flight at a low elevation," Pollack said.

The Agriculture Department's review began after the March 11 crash near the Grapevine in Kern County. The crash killed pilot LaWanna Clark, 51, of Mariposa, a trainee in the program, as she chased coyotes near ground level with a hunter in the rear seat of the plane, according to a preliminary report by the NTSB.

Three other government pilots involved in predator control died in two other crashes while chasing coyotes, in January and October 1996. Those crashes were in Utah.

The safety review by a 10-member panel, which includes aviation experts from outside the USDA, is expected to be completed in June, department officials said.

The four deaths were the first fatalities since a pilot was killed in a 1978 crash in New Mexico. During the 26 years the program has operated, pilots have flown nearly 447,000 hours, Porter said, adding: "We have experienced in that time, thank goodness, only five fatal accidents."

The Humane Society alleged in its complaint that aerial hunters fire into wilderness areas where people may be hiking or camping, swoop low over houses and people and kill coyotes on private ranches without owners' permission. Nothing is done "to warn unsuspecting individuals that shots from a high-powered rifle could be careening over their heads," according to the complaint.

Porter, however, said aerial coyote hunting is done "in very sparsely populated areas" with the written permission of private landowners or public land managers. Hunters, she said, use shotguns, which have a short range, not high-powered rifles that would fire bullets long distances.

Larry Vetterman, western regional aviation manager for Wildlife Services, said the program also obtains permits from state wildlife agencies for hunting missions.

He defended the program as vital to reducing losses from livestock killed by predators, saying an estimated $43 million in U.S. livestock was killed by coyotes in 1996.

Grounding the aerial hunting program would be "absolutely devastating" to the livestock industry, said Peter Orwick, director of the American Sheep Industry Assn. The nation's 80,000 sheepherders lose more than 1 million ewes and lambs to predators every year, he said.

He said an immediate end to the program would be particularly harmful as ranchers go into the spring lambing season.

Peter Bradford, a rancher and wildlife management committee chairman of the California Cattlemen's Assn., called aerial hunting "the most cost-effective program" for predator control.

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