Idaho's View to a Kill

The bizarre plan to kill ravens to save sage grouse which will be killed by hunters


No matter what, the bird gets it in the end.

Yes, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game delayed its plans to kill 4,000 ravens in an effort to "monitor and evaluate" ravens' impact on sage grouse. But while the tens of thousands of people who petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the kill drew a breath of relief this past spring, Fish and Game was quick to say that it has every intention to move forward with its plan to poison or shoot the ravens. Anyone thinking that Fish and Game was a benevolent protector of the sage grouse--which federal officials said in 2010 warranted endangered species status--need only look to Saturday, Sept. 20, when Fish and Game will sanction yet another sage grouse hunting season. According to IDFG estimates, hunters shoot an average of 2,317 sage grouse each year.

"Quoth the raven: knock it off already," wrote John Shea, when signing the online petition.

"Are you insane?" wrote Steve Timm.

"Are you freaking serious?" wrote Cormael Lia.

More than 66,000 signed the online document at the Care2 petition site.

Even Fish and Game biologists don't give the most convincing argument that the raven kill is based on good science.

"We can't directly say that [sage grouse population decline] is from ravens, because we don't have that information," IDFG wildlife biologist Ann Moser told the Twin Falls Times-News last April. "There's anecdotal information."

The Idaho Legislature wasn't anecdotal in its blessing of the raven slaughter. Tucked deep inside of Senate Bill 1171 during the Legislature's 2013 session was a $100,000 appropriation for the project. In fact, every member of the House and Senate save one--Coeur d'Alene Republican Sen. Bob Nonini--voted in favor of the appropriations measure.

IDFG officials convinced lawmakers of the plan to kill the ravens by baiting the birds with chicken eggs laced with something called Starlicide, technically known as DRC-1339.(Editor's note: An IDFG spokesman told BW that the legislature "directed Idaho Fish and Game to conduct the raven study" and didn't convince lawmakers, adding "we carried out a directive given to us by the trustees (IDFG commissioners and the legislature)."

Proponents of the raven kill say DRC-1339 is designed to be expelled by the ravens before they die, so if an animal ate a dead raven, it would not ingest the poison.

A coalition of conservation groups, including the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society, were having none of it, asking U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and USFWS Director Dan Ashe to pull the plug on the plan.

"The [Idaho plan] fails to fully examine the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of using the avicide DRC-1339 across the southern Idaho landscape," the coalition wrote.

DRC-1339 is designed to take effect three days after consumption, but since it is a slow-acting toxicant, a number of dead birds are not found and counted for good data. According to a 2005 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, "the slowness of the toxicant to act, combined with the birds' mobility, leaves researchers with few targets and non-target species to retrieve." Additionally, the 2005 report said, "With respect to the use of [DRC-1339] to control pest bird populations, it is highly problematic, if not impossible to conduct a field baiting study and subsequently determine the number or percentage" of exposed birds.

In February 2008, a Winchester, Ind., man said he picked up five dozen dead or dying starlings in his backyard with a pitchfork after FWS poisoned a nearby dairy feedlot. In March 2008, a Yakima, Wash., woman said she picked up three trash bags full of dead birds following a similar poisoning. And no, the pitchforks full of dead birds were never included in any official study.

Idaho's plan shows a "lack of science," Katie Fite, biodiversity director for the Western Watersheds Project, told the Times-News.

Officials at the College of Idaho are all-too familiar with the effects of DRC-1339. It was used a few years ago, but the poison's toxicity was a bit too effective.

"When the crows started coming, it was a like a remark of The Birds," said Allan Laird, who, as head of C of I Campus Safety, is in charge of managing bird-related problems. "The crows were roosting in the school's trees when there was an influx of starlings. Local farmers placed [DRC-1339] in their feedlots. However, the crows also ate from the same lots as the starlings, and when the crows started returning to their nests on our campus, they would die in the trees and fall to the ground."

According the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, DRC-1339 affects different levels of birds, depending on their sensitivity to toxins. So-called "target birds" are considered "pests" but owls and felines are "known exceptions" to be as sensitive to the bait as the target birds. APHIS is quick to add, however, that toxicity to most mammals is low.

IDFG has pointed to previous studies in Utah and Montana predation management plans to prop up its raven-kill plan.

"Utah and Nevada have been doing this work for years," Todd Sullivan, IDFG eastern district supervisor for Wildlife Services, said in April. "They have shown there have been significant improvements in the areas where they have done the work on sage grouse recruitment."

But that work in Utah and Nevada only pertained to land predators--coyotes and foxes--and even the Nevada Wildlife Commission said it was unsure how significant raven predation was to its sage grouse population.

Meanwhile, in Montana, researchers with that state's Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency wrote in 2013 that that predator control efforts only had "local short-term effects" on the sage grouse, and that nest success and bird survival rates are higher when there is large, intact sagebrush habitat. Instead of future poisoning, Montana FWP recommended to "remove tall structures and attempt to restore the altered habitat," among other options.

One of the nation's only successful studies in increasing sage grouse numbers was not done by a government agency. Instead, it was a Nevada Boy Scout troop that placed so-called "flight diverters" on fences of rural farms. It turns out that sage grouse often fly at night or during low light sunrise/sunset periods during spring breeding season. The diverters--vinyl markers with yellow, green or orange reflective tape--have proved to save countless sage grouse from death against the fences. By December 2013, the scouts had placed more than 5,400 flight diverters across miles of livestock control fencing. According to Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist Ken Wilkinson, studies showed that the diverters could reduce measurable sage grouse mortality by nearly 60 percent.

Nonetheless, IDFG is moving forward with its plan to kill thousands of ravens--they'll be poisoning eggs over two years near the Idaho National Laboratory, the Curlew National Grasslands in Oneida and Power counties, and in Washington County near the Oregon border.

"The raven program is a bit like a Band Aid on a compound fracture," Dr. Eric Yensen, C of I emeritus professor of biology, told Boise Weekly. "The Band Aid can help stop the bleeding and protect the wound, but it doesn't address the fundamental problem."

That fundamental problem--how, or even if, Idaho manages sage grouse and ravens--takes an ironic twist in 2015, as many of those birds ultimately find themselves in Idaho hunters' crosshairs.