Wildlife Bounties: Effective Management or Relic of the Past?

Wildlife Bounties: Effective Management or Relic of the Past?

Wildlife bounties have a long, complicated history in American wildlife management. In the early 20th century, state game management agencies commonly placed bounties on predators to protect domestic livestock and restore plummeting game populations. Many hunters and trappers were happy to receive payment for helping achieve those goals.

The widespread use of bounties continued for the next several decades with unforeseen consequences. Bounty hunters targeted mountain lions, wolves and grizzly bears with aggressive hunting, trapping and poisoning. Over time, these large predators were nearly eradicated throughout much of their ranges in the Lower 48.

However, bounties weren’t limited to large predators. When my father was a young hunter in rural Pennsylvania, bounties were placed on everything from weasels to foxes. As a kid, my best friend’s father would nail a red squirrel pelt to a fence post and tie a cord to it. He’d then wiggle it from nearby in order to lure in red-tailed hawks. Each hawk he killed was worth $.50. For decades, pretty much any predator was fair game and bounties were paid out across the country.

This is an archaic practice by today’s standards, but it’s important to understand that wildlife managers of that time period implemented these bounty systems with the best of intentions. From deer to wild turkeys to quail, game populations were still scarce in many places and just beginning to recover from the era of market hunting in others.

Aldo Leopold, widely regarded as one of America’s most important conservationists, once supported eradicating predators. For a time, he was paid to do it. As his understanding of wildlife management evolved, Leopold changed his opinion on the matter.

After spending years killing wolves in New Mexico,  Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac: “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.”

After those wolves had been eliminated, a closer look at the ramifications of his actions gave him a much different perspective. The wolves were gone, but the deer ultimately suffered as booming populations became wildly out of balance with the landscape’s carrying capacity.

“Harmony with the land is like harmony with a friend,” Leopold wrote. “You cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say you cannot have game and hate predators.”

Today, most Americans, including wildlife managers and hunters, now understand the intrinsic value of healthy ecosystems that include predators. In turn, the full-scale assault on predators has largely fallen out of favor. Most state agencies had completely given up the practice of paying out bounties for predators by the 1960s.

That doesn’t mean bounties have disappeared altogether. In many places, bounties are still being paid out to encourage hunters and anglers to reduce predator populations or control the spread of invasive species. The effectiveness of many of these bounty systems is unclear. Some may eventually prove beneficial, while others will likely be considered antiquated, ineffective management practices.

On Oregon and Washington’s lower Columbia River, an aggressive, large-scale fisheries bounty program has been in place for almost 20 years. Anglers there are encouraged to “catch cash and save salmon” by taking advantage of payouts on northern pikeminnows, a native fish from the minnow family.

A fisherman can earn a bounty of $5-$8 for every pikeminnow they catch. The more fish they catch, the more they’re worth. Last year the program awarded anglers over $1.4 million, with one angler pulling in $70,000 alone.

The Northern Pikeminnow Sport Reward Program aims to reduce pikeminnow predation on young salmon.

“The goal of the program is not to eliminate northern pikeminnow, but rather to reduce the average size and curtail the number of larger, older fish,” the program’s website reads. “Reducing the number of these predators can greatly help the salmon and steelhead juveniles making it out to sea.”

Salmon numbers in the Columbia River have been in steep decline for several decades. The fishery is particularly important to sport and commercial anglers, as well as the economy and culture of the Northwest. By most accounts, the downward trend in wild salmon populations is largely due to the many hydroelectric dams that salmon must clear to on their journeys to and from their upstream spawning grounds.

So, the question is, have wild salmon and steelhead stocks benefitted from the pikeminnow project?

The Bonneville Power Administration manages these dams to generate electricity for much of the Northwest. They also fund the pikeminnow bounty payouts.

“We’ve seen a substantial reduction in predation by these fish, which means young salmon and steelhead have a better chance of making it to the ocean and eventually returning to the basin as adults,” said Eric McOmie, manager of the pikeminnnow bounty program for the Bonneville Power Administration, in an interview with the AP.

That’s encouraging, but it’s not like salmon and steelhead have suddenly bounced back. It’s true that hundreds of thousands of pikeminnows are being removed from the Columbia each year, but it’s also true that the very dams that cause problems for salmon also boosted pikeminnow numbers in the first place by creating ideal habitat that didn’t exist before the dams were built.

Salmon must benefit from the program on some level, but after twenty years of bounties and millions in payouts, the success of the program is difficult to measure. There’s no indication that wild salmon runs are making a dramatic comeback and pikeminnow populations in the Columbia show no signs of going down.

Additionally, the lowly pikeminnow isn’t a valuable game fish, which makes it an easy target for fisheries managers. Pikeminnows are one of several fish species in the lower Columbia River that are known to feed on young salmon. Others include non-native game fish like smallmouth bass and walleye, yet no bounty has been placed on these highly-prized species.

In addition to fisheries management, bounties are still being used in an attempt to minimize predator numbers. Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources pays hunters up to $50 per coyote killed. Much like bounty programs of the past, Utah’s goal is to protect cherished big game populations.

The Mule Deer Protection Act, a measure passed in 2012, funds the program. Last year, more than $500,000 was paid out for more than 11,000 coyotes. Despite being popular with many hunters in the state, the program is not without controversy.

Fraud has plagued Utah’s bounty payouts, with coyote scalps being brought in from out state. Many also question whether Utah’s mule deer have actually benefited from the bounty system. After years of studying the effects of the program, a clear answer has not emerged.

“When you are dealing with coyotes, it is hard to tell exactly what impact is happening because we do not know their population,” said Leslie McFarlane, mammals program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in an interview with the AP.

While bounties can help reduce coyote populations in specific locations, any resulting benefits are temporary at best. Mule deer face a number of other significant problems that aren’t temporary. Wildlife managers throughout the West believe that habitat loss, particularly on winter range, is the most serious threat to mule deer. Utah wildlife managers must agree, having invested more than $125 million improving mule deer habitat in the last decade.

Despite the state’s clear recognition of the importance of habitat, Utah is the only state in the country still paying coyote bounties (although South Carolina recently introduced a bill that would put a $75 bounty on coyotes funded by increased license fees). Wildlife managers elsewhere no longer believe coyote bounties are a long term solution for improved herd numbers.

North Dakota ended its coyote bounty in 1961.

“By then, although wolves were extirpated from the state, it was apparent the bounty system was having no real effect on coyote and fox numbers, so the program was discontinued,” said Stephanie Tucker, furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, in an interview with the Bismark Tribune. “In Nebraska, coyote numbers continued to rise although a bounty system had been in place for 68 years.”

There’s no question that bounties were an incredibly effective eradication tool for larger, less adaptable predators like wolves and grizzlies. However, most state agencies have stopped paying bounties for coyotes because they determined it wastes money and isn’t a useful management practice.

Elsewhere, bounties continue to be used in an attempt to control other species. In Alberta, bounties are still paid out on wolves to keep their numbers in check. In Louisiana, where nutria have destroyed critical coastal marshland habitat, the state sponsors a long-running bounty on the non-native aquatic rodents. For the past several years, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has experimented with a limited bounty on invasive northern pike that have spread throughout the upper Colorado River drainage. Booming sea otter populations in Alaska led one lawmaker to suggest implementing bounties to reduce conflicts with subsistence and commercial fishermen, although that is unlikely to happen.

It is unlikely wildlife bounties will ever be completely abandoned. In certain cases, the benefits they provide may be worthwhile. But by and large, bounties are no longer valuable for fish and game management. The consensus from the vast majority of agencies is that outdated bounty practices are simply not worth the cost.

Feature image via John Hafner.

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