Washington, DC — A crew out hunting coyotes crashed their helicopter near Denio, Nevada, according to records released today by WildEarth Guardians and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The April 11th accident adds to a rising total of crashes and fuels growing calls to end aerial shooting of coyotes and other predators.
In this latest incident, the helicopter lost power as it circled a wounded coyote in an attempt to inflict a fatal shot. Because it was hovering at only twenty feet above the ground at the time of the crash, the gunner and pilot escaped without reported injuries. The National Transportation Safety Board incident report states that the flight originated from a private ranch near Denio in clear weather and operated without a flight plan for the purpose of “predator control”.
This crash would be the ninth aerial gunning accident recorded in Nevada since 1990. The lion’s share of aerial gunning takes place as part of a $100 million a year federal program called Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agricultures. In 2006, Wildlife Services killed 35,505 animals by aerial gunning, including badgers, bobcats, red foxes, grey wolves and even domestic housecats. In 2006 (the latest available data), Wildlife Services in Nevada reported 4,665 coyotes killed through aerial-gunning, the highest such total for any state.
Despite or due to its prevalence, the practice of aerial wildlife hunting is drawing critical attention across the country:
- On June 1, 2007, two Wildlife Services agents died when their plane crashed during an aerial gunning trip in Wayne County, Utah. On September 12th Wildlife Service agents crashed a second time that year. Since 1979, the federal program has experienced a total of 51 accidents that resulted in 10 fatalities and 28 injuries;
- In 2007, the State of South Dakota suspended aerial gunning after its agents had a crash and two other incidents occurred that year by private entities;
- In November 2007, Wildlife Services announced a “nationwide safety review focusing on aviation and aerial operations” and other aspects of the controversial program.
“The sheer number of accidents involving aerial gunning of wildlife is stunning,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring of WildEarth Guardians, which organized the petitions urging both South Dakota and Wildlife Services to end their programs, pointing out that aerial gunning may actually make problems worse by causing coyotes to compensate for deaths by either bearing larger litters or permitting more animals in the pack to breed. “Apart from being inherently dangerous, aerial gunning is one of the least effective and efficient ways to minimize any coyote-related losses.”
In aerial hunts, pilots are often flying at low altitudes with little margin for error. In 107 plane or helicopter crashes recorded by the groups, distracted pilots have flown into power lines, trees and land formations. In some instances, gunners have shot their own aircraft or bullet casings have become lodged in the cabin’s mechanical workings.
“The wisdom of strafing wildlife from aircraft becomes more questionable with each new accident,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting federal statistics documenting the very marginal role wildlife plays in livestock losses. “Aerial gunners should be grounded until the national safety review is completed.”