By Megan Feeney
Standing in the pasture he planted with native grasses, Charlie Besher scanned gray autumnal skies as cows with swollen bellies lowed in the valley below. He hoped for rain. He hoped for safety for his herd. For now, the cellphone tower on the near horizon was empty, but by evening, black vultures would roost there again, often by the dozens.
If a cow had its calf overnight, there would be time for it to clean its baby up, to get rid of the afterbirth, before the black vultures took flight in the early morning. Maybe that would make it less attractive to the birds.
Besher and his wife raise cattle in two southeast Missouri counties. They’re among a growing population of producers who say they are losing calves and mother cows to black vultures that target soft tissues, such as the eyeballs and anus, until an animal dies or must be put down.
Some bird conservationists express skepticism that black vultures can depredate livestock, but Tom Cooper with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said black vultures have always been both scavengers and predatory.
What’s new is that black vultures have expanded their range in the U.S. to include southern parts of Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. Cooper said it’s likely happening because of warmer winters or the construction of cellphone towers, which make excellent roosting sites.
Producers lament the monetary loss — which can average $1,000 per calf — but they also grieve the violence of the death and the wasted time and effort.
“There’s nothing more gut-wrenching than a fresh-born baby with its eyes ripped out, bawling,” producer Jeff Reed said. “They either rip the navel out or the eyes. It’ll bring you to tears.”
Reed is growing his cattle operation on a century farm in Wayne County, Missouri. He had been excited about a newborn calf that had the same markings as its mother, and was killed by a black vulture.
“That one tore at me pretty good,” he said. “because that’s the genetics you want to move forward and then you come back and that’s stripped away.”
Black vultures have a 5-foot wingspan and weigh about four pounds. Although black vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a $100 kill permit is available through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Producers who want to get a permit need to take two steps. First, they must get in touch with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services to create a management plan. If that plan calls for a lethal take, they’ll need to apply to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the permit.
The fact that there are two federal agencies involved is enough to strengthen some producer’s conviction that they’re better off following the “three S” approach — shoot, shovel and shut up.
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