Agriculture's Misunderstood Program
August 9, 2013
The following letter from Kevin Shea, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), was submitted July 25 to the New York Times for publication on its Opinion page. It responds to an editorial in that paper, published on July 17.
If you don't live in rural America or work in agriculture, it could be easy to misunderstand the important work the Wildlife Services (WS) program at APHIS does every day to help U.S. farmers feed our country and much of the world. But in rural America, the fact is that our WS program, local authorities and farmers and ranchers themselves must sometime kill wolves, coyotes and bears that prey on livestock, as well as birds that can devour a field of sunflowers or a pen of farm-raised catfish in a morning.
But readers of your July 17 editorial, Agriculture's Misnamed Agency, were left with the wrong impression. We want to be clear: lethal control is our last resort. We would much rather chase animals away or dissuade them from approaching a meal. The statistics are clear in this regard - last year WS dispersed 8 out of every 10 animals it encountered in damage situations. But that's not always a long-term solution or possible in every case. So when we do conduct lethal control, we target just those animals causing the damage. Our biologists comply with law and regulations and we report all of our actions on our agency's website.
For those living in urban areas, it is important to understand the reason for our work. Annually, predators account for the loss of more than a half-million head of livestock valued at $138 million. That's after ranchers invest nearly $190 million annually in fencing and other ways to minimize losses from predators. Birds cost catfish, rice and sunflower farmers up to $50 million a year. Most often the ranchers and farmers needing our help are small producers, who are the least able to absorb losses due to wildlife.
But it is not just about farmers or ranchers far from mid-town. Overall, protection of agriculture accounts for less than 40 percent of WS mission. What your editorial failed to mention was that the WS program does much across the country - including the New York area - to help many Americans. Property protection accounts for almost 40 percent of WS work, ranging from residential property to aircraft, roads and bridges. In New York, our efforts around airports to keep airline passengers safe have dramatically reduced bird strikes. Nationally, the program protects more than 100 threatened and endangered species, including piping plover and least tern in New York.
We weren't surprised by the criticism of WS, but we were disappointed by the lack of understanding of the program as a whole and the ways we have improved the program over the years. We bring our expertise and professionalism to bear to help not just our nation's farmers and ranchers, but all Americans, including many reading this letter today.
The full article, as well as the original editorial, are available on the American Sheep Industry Association's website at www.sheepusa.org/Headline_News.