Is HSUS Losing the “Nature Wars”?

GeeseGolfOver the past few decades, Americans more and more have come into conflict with wildlife. Our population has grown, and so has that of animals; the population of whitetail deer, for example, has exploded since the early 1900s. How we manage wildlife issues, whether deer spreading Lyme disease, Canadian geese hitting airplanes, invasive wild boar, or simply critters taking residence in an attic, can draw many (emotional) points of view from species-specific animal groups, hunters, trappers, and residents.

When it comes to this debate, the Humane Society of the U.S., as an animal liberation group, opposes lethal management proposals in a knee-jerk fashion. But is that really what’s best for animals—or people?

This month, a New York town is trying what HSUS would call a “humane” method of deer control—shooting them with birth-control drugs instead of shooting them with arrows or bullets. But this kind of experiment will not likely succeed, for reasons wildlife expert Jim Sterba outlined in The Washington Post:

A lot of people against killing deer say fertility control works and is the humane way to go. And they are right — in certain circumstances. Put deer inside a high fence and use contraceptive darts to inject females regularly, and their birth rates will drop. That’s what the Humane Society of the United States has done on the fenced grounds of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Problem solved — expensively.

But for free-ranging whitetails, it does not work. And it is neither practicable nor affordable.

“Expensive” is certainly an apt adjective. HSUS recently pushed fertility control in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park—and taxpayers would have had to pay almost $200,000 to see this experiment through. And that’s just one park. Imagine trying to expand this HSUS “solution” across the country. Even an HSUS technical advisor has admitted that capture and treatment of deer in a closed experiment on an island cost $500 per animal. (The USDA also notes that “contraception alone cannot reduce overabundant deer populations to healthy levels.)

Sterba is the author of the recently published book “Nature Wars” that looks at a wide range of human-wildlife conflicts and the politics surrounding them. The book raises interesting questions. Do HSUS-backed bans on “inhumane” traps actually lead to worse outcomes for animals? Are HSUS alternatives to killing overpopulations of deer inhumane? After all, if the deer in an area are starving or malnourished, birth control only has a future-generation effect. The current generation will still starve.

This problem has also played out with an HSUS ballot initiative campaign in Massachusetts to ban “inhumane” (lethal) traps to catch beavers in Massachusetts. The Wall Street Journal relates the aftermath:

The result has been exactly what the experts warned. Trappers were driven out of business, and beaver numbers soared. A few former trappers, however, have reinvented themselves as “professional wildlife damage controllers,” charging local governments $150 per beaver for removing “problem” animals. Instead of using the now-banned lethal traps that instantly dispatched a beaver, they have to employ cumbersome and supposedly “humane” live traps that hold the terrified animal for hours until it can be retrieved, bashed on the head and disposed of.

And that’s the cost of letting ideologues like HSUS run the show. Higher costs for taxpayers. Lost jobs. And a worse situation for the animals.

But HSUS wins—not just in pushing its impractical ideology, but in making money. (Of course.) HSUS runs the “Humane Wildlife Services” operation in the D.C. area that uses non-lethal methods—and coincidentally, HSUS helped write a D.C. law that bans many lethal tools, giving HSUS a business edge.

As for deer birth control, HSUS controls the study of one of the drugs, PZP. Would this put it in a position to benefit financially if the drug is commercialized?  It wouldn’t surprise us.

None of this is to say that lethal methods are always appropriate or that nonlethal methods never work. Options should be on the table, but ideologues like HSUS want to take some options off. That could have disastrous results. If we don’t control bird populations—as HSUS has opposed—then we could see more downed planes. The Federal Aviation Administration finds that wildlife strikes of aircraft increased five-fold from 1990 to 2011, to over 10,000 strikes.

When it comes to wildlife, the experts should have the final word. HSUS merely has its own interests at heart, and they may trump animal welfare.