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California and the West

Better Safety Urged in Coyote Control Program

Wildlife: Probe of federal aerial hunting crashes, in which four pilots died, recommends more funding and training.

July 27, 1998|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A problem-plagued government program to shoot coyotes from low-flying aircraft has been woefully underfunded and has paid too little attention to training and safety factors, leading to a rash of crashes and the deaths of four pilots and hunters in the past two years, a panel of federal aviation experts concluded last week.

The panel recommended that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and cooperating Western states increase spending on the aerial hunting program from the annual $2.7 million to $6.4 million.

"This program was really running on a shoestring and did not have adequate funding to do the job right," said the leader of a 10-member team that conducted a three-month probe into the deaths of four government pilots and hunters during a 17-month period that ended in March.

The findings irked animal protection activists, who want the predator control program halted, not better funded.

Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, called the hunting "a cruel and wasteful control program."

"What they really need to do is ground their air force and stop killing the public wildlife for the benefit of a few wealthy ranchers," he said.

The four pilots and hunters died in three aircraft crashes as they chased coyotes, with the hunters shooting at the animals from a cockpit window.

Three deaths occurred during training exercises, which the investigative team found to be inadequate. Training exercises were suspended after the last of the crashes near Bakersfield in March.

But the aerial shooting has been halted only intermittently and allowed to continue.

"Generally, what we found was a good program in place but in which obviously some safety had been compromised," said Richard K. Williams, chief pilot for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, who led the investigation.

The bottom line, he said, is that the Agriculture Department needs to spend more money on its aerial hunting program, operated by its wildlife services section.

In addition to the four fatalities, the study detailed 10 nonfatal accidents during the past five years.

It called the number of incidents involving piston-engine helicopters "alarmingly high."

Four accidents were reported in the first three months of this year, including two fatalities.

In January, a 13-year veteran of the wildlife services program died in the crash of his leased helicopter in Utah. Within an eight-day period, two other contract helicopter accidents occurred but did not cause serious injuries, according to the report.

Aerial operations were temporarily suspended pending a review of those incidents, but soon resumed.

Then, on March 11, LaWanna Clark, 51, of Mariposa, Calif., was killed when the plane she was piloting crashed during a pursuit of coyotes on a cattle ranch near the Grapevine just north of the Los Angeles County line in Kern County. A veteran pilot, she was the first woman to train for the program. Her flight instructor suffered a broken leg.

After that crash, the aerial program was again suspended for 10 days, and the pilot training program halted indefinitely.

Wildlife services deputy administrator Bobby Acord called for an independent review of the department's aviation activities.

The report that resulted calls for immediate steps to improve pilot training, aircraft inspections, maintenance checks and monitoring of flight operations. The most urgent recommendations include hiring an aviation safety and training officer, and an aircraft maintenance chief. The report also recommends that the department switch immediately from piston-engine to jet-turbine engine helicopters.

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Agriculture officials said they plan to follow the recommendations but are uncertain how they will get the money.

"We don't have an answer yet," said department spokeswoman Robin Porter. "There is not a lot of federal funding in place. But we are going to implement the recommendations."

A portion of the program's costs are paid by the governments of the 12 participating Western states and by ranching cooperatives that contract with the federal agency to reduce growing coyote populations.

Opposition to the hunting program has intensified in the past few months.

The wildlife services research offices in Washington, D.C., and at Washington State University have been firebombed.

The Humane Society and other groups have been lobbying to block funding.

And a Tucson-based organization working to halt aerial hunting has launched a letter-writing campaign. The organization, Wildlife Damage Review, began its effort after 67 coyotes were gunned down from aircraft during five days in April in an effort to reduce the coyote population by 20% on 400 acres in northern Arizona.

Some of the hunting occurred over ranchland owned by the family of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, according to Arizona state officials.

The hunt was authorized and funded by the Arizona Game and Fish Department to protect fawns in a dwindling population of pronghorn antelope, said department spokesman Pat O'Brien.

He said the number of antelope fell drastically during a four-year drought while the coyote population increased and the state is "trying to balance the imbalance between the predator and prey."

The department plans to repeat the program during the fawning season for the next two years.

Pat Wolff, spokeswoman for Wildlife Damage Review, said, "Coyotes are once again being blamed for problems caused by man," which she said includes the loss of habitat from cattle grazing and development.

O'Brien countered: "A lot of wildlife species would go out of the picture if we let nature take its course."

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