Meet the Professional Shooters the Media Hates

Meet the Professional Shooters the Media Hates

To see firsthand what our federally paid hunters are up to, I once asked Wildlife Service’s public relations department if I could go out into the field with a cougar expert. After weeks of convincing them I was actually a journalist who understood the need for professional hunters, they set up an appointment with Bodenchuk.

The federal government once ran ads to recruit full-time hunters. An ad in a 1963 issue of Outdoor Life magazine read:

“FREE FACTS on how to become a GOVERNMENT HUNTER. Don’t be chained to a desk or store counter. Prepare now in spare time for exciting career in conservation. Many Forestry & Wildlife men hunt mountain lions, parachute from planes to help marooned animals or save injured campers. Plan to live outdoor life you love. Sleep under pines. Catch breakfast from icy streams. Feel and look like a million.”

A seasoned “government trapper” in Utah once told me about this ad. He said it seduced him into signing up. “But the ad left out the mornings you wake up in the high country and find your water is frozen solid. It doesn’t tell you about mules that throw you or the thankless job of killing a cougar that has become a danger to people,” said Mike Bodenchuck, then the head of Utah’s Wildlife Services (WS), a program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that helps solve human-wildlife conflicts.

They no longer advertise in hunting magazines. Actually, they’d rather that most Americans didn’t know they even exist—they are that politically incorrect.

Past experience tells them public attention isn’t a good thing. In the late 1990s the U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly changed the name of its “Animal Damage Control” division to “Wildlife Services.” The politically correct move was designed to give anti-hunting organizations less ammunition. The word “kill” was also expunged from the department’s mission statement, which now reads in part: “The Wildlife Services program carries out the Federal responsibility for helping to solve problems that occur when human activity and wildlife are in conflict with one another.”

Despite its new and softer name, Wildlife Services is still staffed with about 1,700 scientists, professional hunters and more—people who hunt down animals that kill us, eat our livestock or decide airport runways are good places to hang out. At New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport they control goose and gull populations so the birds won’t get sucked into jet engines and cause horrific tragedies; in Texas they averted a major rabies outbreak by airdropping vaccines coyotes found delicious; in Iowa they help farmers find environmentally friendly ways to control crop-eating birds; and in Utah they often deal with mountain lions in the suburbs.

They are federally paid hunters. We couldn’t get along without them, though not everyone sees it that way. Critics have labeled this division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture “cowboy welfare.” They argue that it benefits only a few Western ranchers. But then they get in commercial airliners like the rest of us and don’t even consider that Wildlife Services personnel are killing waterfowl on the runways with subsonic loads so the geese won’t fly into a jet engine and take down their plane. The threat is serious. According to Wildlife Services’ research, wildlife collisions with aircraft cost U.S. civil aviation more than $500 million annually, amounting to thousands of wildlife collisions with civil aircraft each year.

Despite these life-saving deeds, in 1999 the U.S. House of Representatives voted 229 to 193 to cut the program by $10 million, but then reversed itself the next day (232-192) when the NRA loudly told members what they’d voted for.

The name change to “Wildlife Services” was apt. The division had changed since being founded in 1931. Back in the day, they killed wildlife indiscriminately. Wildlife Services personnel helped to wipe out wolves, mountain lions and bears in many regions. Now they target specific problem animals. They no longer slaughter game indiscriminately—just as America’s hunters now manage game, they don’t exterminate deer or goose populations. Without these hunters we’d have no one to call when a bear dens under our porch, a coyote eats our poodle, a beaver dams a roadway or a mountain lion chases us back into the house.

However, even with these professional hunters working all over the country to control predator populations there are still costs. According to the Government Accounting Office:

  • Wildlife damage to U.S. agriculture is estimated at $944 million annually.
  • Livestock losses to wildlife predators, such as coyotes and mountain lions, and feral dogs exceed $138 million annually. More than 647 thousand head are lost to predators each year (cattle, calves, sheep, lamb, goats and kids).
  • Wildlife damage to blueberries, corn and sunflowers cost producers more than $50 million each year.
  • Deer collisions with automobiles injure an average of 29,000 people annually and cause more than $1 billion in damages.
  • Wildlife collisions with airplanes cost U.S. civil aviation more than $700 million each year and put the lives of passengers and crews at risk.

To see firsthand what our federally paid hunters are up to, I once asked Wildlife Service’s public relations department if I could go out into the field with a cougar expert. After weeks of convincing them I was actually a journalist who understood the need for professional hunters, they set up an appointment with Bodenchuk.

Bodenchuk turned out to have the looks to match his macho part. He’s a tall man with a graying mustache, an earned cowboy squint and the round-rimmed hat to top it off. He shook my hand with an iron grip, chuckled, boasted that he’d show me what they do all right, and guffawed that when the trip was over I’d know why we need federal hunters even in the 21st century.

Bodenchuk decided to take me on a hunt in Utah’s Book Cliffs for a particularly troublesome mountain lion. We’d be going into an area that only pales for roughness before the Grand Canyon, but I didn’t know that at the time. We’d be riding mules as we tried to catch up to a cougar that was eating a reintroduced herd of bighorn sheep into extinction. The only chance the bighorns had to establish a sustainable population was predicated on whether Wildlife Services could kill the cougar.

Bodenchuk looked at me, squinted and challenged, “I hope you can ride.”

He dropped this loaded phrase in such a strapping way there was no doubt I’d be emasculated if I said anything but, “Yup.”

Before I left the Wildlife Services’ state headquarters building with Bodenchuk, however, I met an employee in a wheelchair who seemed to be the life of the office. He didn’t seem like he’d been in the chair for long, either. His features looked like they were shaped by hard days on his feet. Indeed, he shared stories with me of daring rides on mules chasing stock-killing bears and cougars.

When we left the office I asked Bodenchuk how the man was injured.

“Mule accident,” deadpanned Bodenchuk.

He squinted at Utah’s red hills as he drove his pickup and sermonized, “I wouldn’t live anywhere else, or do anything else. We worked hard to bring the wild animals back to Utah. Now we have to control our predators to keep them wild. People need us now more than ever. Once was, men like me exterminated predators. Now we manage them. These days, if we weren’t around, those people in those sub-developments all around Salt Lake and across the country wouldn’t have anyone to call when a mountain lion eats their Labrador and starts thinking about them next.”

No doubt about it, he was a straight shooter all right. Riding the mule up cliffs (really, I kept asking where the trail was) was a hair-raising adventure, but we didn’t catch the cougar. A Wildlife Services trapper caught the culprit a few weeks later in a snare. He killed the cougar not for the crime of being a cougar, as the federal government once did, but to protect the herd of reintroduced bighorns until wildlife biologists deemed the herd no longer needed protection.

I’ve joined other Wildlife Services hunters in the years since—in Texas to hunt coyotes eating sheep, in Wyoming where bears and coyotes kill calves and more—and have always found that we need their expertise and quiet professionalism. When used in conjunction with hunters who control wildlife populations and fund much of the conservation in the United States, they perform a necessary tool to stop specific predators from doing harm to us and our livestock and endangered species.