Over 7,000 wild animals were shot or killed in traps, gunned down from helicopters or poisoned with cyanide bombs on public lands in New Mexico in 2019 by the USDA Wildlife Services, according to numbers released by the agency. Most were predators that posed a risk to livestock, but the voluminous list also includes hundreds of ducks, jackrabbits, prairie dogs and other animals.

WildEarth Guardians, the Santa Fe-based wildlife advocacy group, wants the killing to stop.

It filed a lawsuit against the federal agency late last week in the US District Court in New Mexico alleging that the USDA's practices violate National Environmental Protection Act laws by relying on outdated scientific data and studies, some dating as far back as the 1970s and '80s.

"This is a problem because our understanding of ecosystems and wildlife and lethal wildlife management, et cetera, have pretty drastically changed over the years," says Chris Smith, an advocate with WildEarth Guardians.

Coyotes, the species most commonly killed by Wildlife Services, cause substantial financial losses for ranchers in New Mexico. Yet some recent studies indicate that killing them may not be as effective in protecting livestock as other methods.

This year, Congress awarded Wildlife Services $1.3 million to evaluate and move forward with nonlethal depredation tools in pilot programs in 12 Western states, including New Mexico.

However, without substantial new scientific research into the impacts of both lethal and nonlethal methods on the wider ecosystems, Smith worries the agency might not change its practices for the better.

"The lack of scientific knowledge means that we don't know what the repercussions are for our ecosystems when thousands of wildlife are killed by Wildlife Services," Smith tells SFR.

In 2019, the New Mexico Legislature outlawed coyote killing contests after public outcry against the cruelty of the practice. The ban hasn't stopped the indiscriminate killing of coyotes by landowners and agency staff.

Wildlife Services' database shows the agency killed 2,808 coyotes in New Mexico in 2019.

Foothold traps are a common method used to catch and kill coyotes in New Mexico. Wildlife Services used the device to kill 420 coyotes in the state in 2019.
Foothold traps are a common method used to catch and kill coyotes in New Mexico. Wildlife Services used the device to kill 420 coyotes in the state in 2019. | Mary Katherine Ray

Scientific research about the impacts of killing predators is sparse, but some studies suggest that indiscriminately killing predators may actually increase predation because it disrupts the animals' social structures. Killing one pack of coyotes that has established its territory in a certain area, for example, could create a vacuum in which several other packs all enter the area and prey on livestock at once.

Killing predators may also cause unforeseen problems such as overpopulation of wild prey species or invasive species, or greater likelihood for pandemics to spread among crowded prey populations.

Yet the dearth of research on the topic means it is also unclear whether nonlethal methods could lead to an overpopulation of predators, an outcome that could have its own unintended ecological and economic consequences.

Randell Major, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, says wildlife advocates do not take into account the negative impacts that an overpopulation of predators can have on ranchers and on rural ranching economies that rely on the industry to support schools, roads, and other services.

"Oftentimes it feels like it's the ranchers being pitted against the wildlife, but that's not how we see it," says Major. "We don't want to eradicate coyotes, we just want to manage them. I've seen a lot of times, if these populations aren't managed, they just grow out of control and begin to cause chaos, especially during calving season."

Major runs a family ranch near Magdalena, a small town in Socorro County. On more than one occasion, he says, he's gone out in the early dawn hours to check on a birthing cow only to find her paralyzed and bloody, with bite marks on her backside where coyotes pulled the calf from her body. Other times, he says, a young calf will be taken when its mother leaves its side to drink water after hours of standing guard.

Each time a rancher loses a calf, it represents a serious financial loss.

Major is skeptical that nonlethal depredation methods will be effective in the long run.

"Trying to scare away the coyotes or distract them, that's all well intentioned but it just doesn't work that well. They're smart animals and they'll get smart to your tricks and pretty soon they won't be scared anymore," he tells SFR.

One method, however, has already shown success for some New Mexico ranchers, and it may be slowly shifting public opinion about how to control predators among rural communities, according to a recent story from NM Political Report. The story focused on ranchers and sheepherders who use dogs to protect their livestock.

Wildlife Services is also slowly getting its nonlethal predation experiment off the ground.

Fladry, a technique that relies on putting up colored flags that flap in the wind and scare off predators, is one technique under investigation by Wildlife Services New Mexico, agency spokeswoman Gail Keirn tells SFR. She says the agency is filling the state's nonlethal methods specialist position and one other position in the program.

"Once fully staffed, we plan to participate more thoroughly in the multi-state study," she says, adding that techniques being researched in other states include hiring people to stay with cattle on the range and tracking the habits of predators with camera traps.

Whether the program will find notable benefits from these methods remains to be seen.

In addition to coyotes, in 2019 Wildlife Services in New Mexico intentionally and unintentionally killed 23 foxes, nine bobcats, five beavers, four badgers, two cougars, and one bear, along with hundreds of birds, rodents, and small mammals.