Washington, DC — Two federal agents suffered serious injuries in a helicopter crash this month while conducting a coyote hunt in Pecos County, Texas. This accident is the latest in a series of air crashes that has led to growing call to cut off public funding for shooting coyotes using aircraft, a practice called “aerial gunning.”
In the latest incident, pilot Ronald Honaker and passenger Gerald Porter were briefly hospitalized when their helicopter experienced mechanical problems and crashed into a field outside Stockton, Texas, on September 12. On June 1, 2007, two federal agriculture agents died when their plane crashed during an aerial gunning trip in Wayne County, Utah. The June accident prompted twenty-seven conservation groups, led by Sinapu and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), to petition the U.S. Department of Agriculture to halt its aerial gunning program altogether.
The September crash brings the federal government’s aerial gunning accident toll to 52, including 10 fatalities and 30 injuries.
“Aerial gunning is especially risky business because the normal risks of flight are multiplied by low altitude maneuvering in pursuit of agile, quick and very smart animals,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu, which keeps an updated analysis of aerial gunning incidents. “We have documented pilots flying into power lines, trees and cliffs and gunners shooting into the mechanical workings of their own aircraft.”
South Dakota, one of only two states that provides any state funding for aerial gunning, has grounded its planes after a plane crash on July 31, 2007 in which two of its agents were injured. South Dakota is now reviewing whether to entirely discontinue its aerial gunning program after sustaining four such accidents since 1998.
The vast majority of aerial gunning takes place as part of a $100 million a year federal agency called Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2006, Wildlife Services killed 35,503 animals by aerial gunning, principally coyotes but also badgers, bobcats, red foxes, grey wolves, feral hogs and even ravens.
“Public servants should not be risking their necks to strafe coyotes,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is calling for a re-examination of what it calls the “public arsenal for wildlife extermination.” “Conducting aerial warfare against coyotes is not how we should be spending scarce federal wildlife management dollars.”
The groups contend that aerial gunning is an ineffective yet highly expensive method for controlling coyotes. They point to an array of non-lethal methods, such as guard dogs and electric fencing, which are less costly and more effective.