WASHINGTON — For all of America’s vigilance against terrorists, danger does not always come on two legs.
The threat posed by beavers, woodchucks, deer, blackbirds and other seemingly benign critters has come under federal investigation.
A study ordered by Congress amounts to a compendium of dangers from the feathered, the four-legged and the no-legged.
The General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, studied problems caused by wildlife and the effectiveness of federal actions to protect people, their property and businesses from wild animals.
It was asked to do so by members of Congress involved in approving the budget of the Agriculture Department, which kills some predators and tries to shoo others away.
The study found that nonlethal means of scaring off wildlife show promise, but many animals learn to thwart the best-laid plans.
For example, lamb carcasses were laced with a chemical to make coyotes throw up, in the hope they would steer clear of lambs.
The wily coyotes stopped eating them. But they kept killing them.
Llamas and lasers may be more promising.
Ranchers have discovered that llamas bond with sheep. They will chase coyotes, gather sheep and stand between the two with little or no training. "Guard llamas" also stay on the job longer than guard dogs.
Predators and pesky birds often adapt to loud noise and flashing lights, while rattled people in the area don’t.
But the study says harmless lasers have effectively scattered birds that interfered with the search for evidence in World Trade Center debris at a landfill.
Researchers gave a nod to the large if unspecified economic benefits of wildlife, but it proved easier to quantify losses.
Among them: a $3.5 million annual bite out of Arkansas’ rice crop from blackbirds, millions of dollars in damage through the Southeast and Midwest from beavers, federal aid for 300 New Jersey residents bedeviled by Canada geese, and threats to endangered California species from ubiquitous species like raptors and skunks.
The report wades into a debate between ranchers who suffer expensive losses from predators and groups that say the government is too quick to kill animals that can be controlled in other ways.
It did not settle that debate.
Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the report merely reflected the rationale for using lethal force and underestimated the value of less drastic remedies.
He described the prevailing animal-control ethic as: "If there’s a problem, let’s call out the Army and get a body count."
The study found that the federal wildlife services program, which previously went by the more pointed name Animal Damage Control, spends most of its research budget on ways to keep unwanted animals away without killing them.
"Many nonlethal controls work well, but only in certain situations or locations, and some work only temporarily," it says.
Relocation poses a variety of problems, the authors note. Once moved, bears will immediately come back if they can.
Moving a bear is a bother.
"Not only is a bear large and heavy, it is also double-jointed and thus quite floppy."
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