BATESVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas has always been home to vultures, but a breed that began a resurgence roughly a decade ago has begun to spread, and Arkansas ranchers say their livelihoods are literally being eaten alive.
Eyes to the Skies, Prepared to Spot a Predator
“See em up there?” she said, poised on her front porch with a pair of binoculars in hand.
Ranchers like Ginger Sandy keep a watch on the skies; their eyes are peeled for predators as cows begin to enter calving season in pastures across the state.
“That calf they’re on is the second calf they killed,” she said.
The white speck on a hilltop one hundred yards out is the carcass of a calf that never made it past the first few hours of life. Over the past few years, black vultures have become a growing problem for cattle farmers in Arkansas and across the southern states.
“These are predators. If you ever saw one you would know they are built for killing,” Sandy said.
North America is home to two types of vultures: the red-headed turkey vulture and its soot-colored cousin the black vulture. Turkey vultures feed largely on road kill and carrion.
“Turkey vultures really don’t cause a lot of damage or problems now they will be taught bad habits by their kin,” said USDA wildlife specialist Michael Kearby.
Kearby has seen calls for black vulture problems boom over the past decade as the birds have moved up from the south, with many deciding to stay.
“With vultures, we are seeing it seems like an increase in service calls per year,” Kearby said. “And most of the farmers who call are shocked that these vultures will actually attack a newborn calf to eat them.”
Black vultures won’t turn down dead or dying animals, but if opportunity isn’t there the winged raptors create it.
“Eyes will be picked, the out nose picked on, soft-tissues on the rear end will be picked on,” Kearby said. “That’s a tell-tale sign you have had vulture activity on a calf.”
“They’ll kill the calf before it ever gets out of the mother,” Sandy said. “Once, when I tried to run the vultures off from the calf, they began chasing after me. There were 20 of them, so it was more than I could handle by myself.”
Profits Eaten Alive
Sandy and another half dozen ranchers we spoke to in the area said their livelihoods are literally being eaten alive. Each cow or calf they lose is potential income that will take months to recover, if they ever do.
“Have you ever seen a newborn calf? They’re a beautiful thing and the thought of them being ate alive is a horrible thing,” Sandy said. “And if you want to look at it mercenarily, that’s a loss you can’t claim or deduct, because you’re growing those animals. The costs for feed, medications for the mother, all of that is a loss. Plus, you have another 11 months you have to wait to get another calf out of that cow.”
When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack presented the 2014 Farm Bill to the House Agriculture committee, Tennessee Representative Scott DesJarlais noted that the black vulture is “plaguing the Southeast”.
As part of the 2014 Farm Bill, the livestock indemnity program became a fixed program, offering payments to farmers who lose livestock to birds that are federally protected from being lethally harmed. Farmers can go to the local Farm Service Agency Offices and file a claim. Calves can draw up to $1,400 based on weight by the 2015 reimbursement rates. Cows can draw up to $1,500.
“The government knows this is happening. It’s willing to pay you for the loss because they know these birds can kill these animals,” Sandy said. “I would rather see taxpayer money saved and allow us to protect our own animals.”
“Some of these ranchers will have, say, 100 head they calve. If they lose three or four to vultures, that’s probably their profit going down the drain,” Kearby said. “So, we understand that this is a loss and hardship for these farmers. That’s why we’re here to help them go through the process they need to go through.”
Because black vultures are considered migratory, even if they pose an active threat, farmers like Sandy can’t shoot them without a depredation permit under the Federal Migratory Bird Act Treaty. The population was drastically reduced back in the 1970s after decades-long use of pesticides containing DDT, which caused egg-thinning that decreased successful reproduction.
Permit to Protect
After losing two calves and a cow this season alone, Sandy requested a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is why Kearby ended up at her farm. Kearby responds to applications, surveys the farms and sees if farmers have taken the initial steps to curb vulture activity that are required before a permit can be approved.
“It takes some type of non-lethal harassment to get a depredation permit,” Kearby said. “A lot of times, that’s our first step in working with these farmers. We take a look at what non-lethal methods they’ve tried to use. We attempt to come up with a plan to enhance that, if need be. But there’s nothing that keeps farmers from being able to harass these birds as much as they want with non-lethal methods.”
Fireworks, propane cannons and gunshots in the air are all disbursement tactics farmers are encourage to use. Since 2010, the USDA has reported more than 220,000 black vultures being disbursed in more than 20 states.
“I knew we couldn’t shoot them I knew legally we have no rights,” Sandy said. “But you just can’t be there all the time when cows are calving. It’s just not feasible to always be there.”
When harassment fails, farmers must chalk up a hundred bucks, and they can face several months waiting for permit approval.
“Really, this time of year, for some of the ranchers, the permit will be for next year – a year down the road,” Kearby said. “We’re in the renewal period from the first of the year through about April. Once they get their permit, though, they can renew it each year.”
Only federal action, through a control or depredation order, could alleviate requirements farmers currently face. Orders have been issued for resident Canada Geese, black birds and other “nuisance” breeds in the past.
Sandy may have to put down another cow in her heard, which was attacked by vultures as they consumed her calf shortly after birth. She’s wondering if lawmakers she’s personally reached out to can give the reform efforts she wants a leg to stand on in Washington.
“Our federal lawmakers have got to change the law for us to have any protection and it’s getting worse,” Sandy said. “I’ve contacted state lawmakers, Arkansas Game and Fish, the Cooperative Extension. They all say their hands are tied, that it has to be a federal change.”
Lawmakers in Virginia took action, presenting a bill that would allow black vultures to be taken, despite the protections under the act.
When Working 4 You initially reached out to the Arkansas Congressional Delegation, Senator John Boozman’s staff said constituents hadn’t made many complaints to his office regarding the birds, since February they they have heard from at least one person.
“Senator Cotton is aware of the issue, and he is exploring ways to help Arkansans,” said Dylan Haney, spokesperson for Senator Tom Cotton.
Working 4 You also reached out to Rep. Rick Crawford, who represents Sandy’s district. He’s chair of the Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management and was present at the Agriculture Committee meeting in 2014 when issues about the black vulture impact were raised.
Crawford said in a written statement, “I’ve received several complaints in the past few weeks from cattle farmers in the 1st District who are rightfully concerned with the vultures and attacks on their livestock. I’m bringing the issue up with several of my colleagues in the House, and we’ll plan on working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to allow ranchers themselves to mitigate the damage to their cattle under a depredation order.”
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