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story.lead_photo.caption Black vultures gather on Bull Shoals Dam in this undated photo. The birds, a protected migratory species, have been responsible for livestock deaths across the state.

Black vultures have been a problem for Arkansas cattle ranchers for years. Notorious for attacking baby calves in the spring and fall, Arkansas wildlife groups say they get a significant number of calls each year about the big birds killing livestock throughout the state.

Black vultures can attack cows as they give birth, pecking out their eyes, and then attack and kill the calf and the cow, said Thurman Boothe, wildlife services state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Stuttgart. "It's become a serious economic loss."

And, it's gotten worse this year, Boothe said.

The numbers of black vultures have risen in Arkansas and throughout the eastern region of the U.S. The increase is largely attributed to the banning of harmful chemicals in 1972, Boothe said. Before that, chlorinated hydrocarbons, such as DDT, caused eggshells to thin, which took a significant toll on hatching vulture chicks.

According to the Avian Conservation Assessment Database, there are nearly 20 million black vultures globally, with roughly 1.8 million in the U.S. The now-banned chemicals can last 30-40 years in the environment, so now eggshell thinning is less common, increasing vulture reproduction.

Boothe said it's difficult to provide an accurate count on the number of vultures in the state, but the number of calls and complaints he's received has been on the increase.

"We get about 70-90 calls a year on black vulture problems," he said. "About half have involved cattle."

Protected by law

Black vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and can legally be killed only with permission from the federal government. A document called a depredation permit can be obtained through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow someone to legally attack the birds.

Mike Hoy, district supervisor for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Stuttgart, is scheduled to speak this month about black vultures and how farmers can deter them. His address is set for Friday at the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association Convention and Trade Show in Fort Smith.

Adam McClung, executive vice president of the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association, has been vocal about the vulture problem recently. He said many ranchers are misinformed about depredation permits and the requirements for getting them. That has dissuaded many people from applying for them. However, McClung and Boothe said there's never been a permit request submitted in the state that has been denied.

"We want people to call us," Boothe said. "We want the problem to be solved. We don't want anyone to get in trouble."

A common misconception is that the permit covers only a set number of birds no matter the farm or flock size, McClung said.

"The number of birds you can kill is on a case-by-case basis," he said. A permit can be issued after an on-site visit by a wildlife services biologist who evaluates the problem.

The permit application process involves enrolling in and passing two programs hosted by the USDA wildlife services -- the first on nonlethal solutions and the second on lethal remedies. After the problem has been identified, a wildlife services biologist assesses the vulture population on a property. From there, the biologist will put in writing the steps that can be taken to scare off the birds or, if necessary, kill them. The extent of the problem varies across the state.

"We got a guy in northeast Arkansas who has got a roost with more than 500 birds," McClung said.

In Arkansas, 40 people currently have depredation permits, according to USDA wildlife services. Considering the number of complaints that come in, that number is low, McClung said.

About 70 requests for assistance have been filed, and a little more than half of them have resulted in permits to allow the killing of vultures, Boothe said.

"In many cases we don't recommend a lethal-take permit because in many cases it's not necessary," he said.

Travis Justice, chief economist of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said one concern that farmers have is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service encourages farmers to scare the black vultures away, which delays or just moves the problem.

"They encourage you to harass them, scare them off somewhere else, rather than use a shotgun. A lot of people don't think that's effective," Justice said. "There's probably a lot that handle the issue without going through the application process."

Someone who harms a protected species without a permit risks having to pay thousands of dollars in fines, Boothe said.

Damage beyond cattle

Scott Price, a cattle rancher near Alma, has about 200 cows year-round. During the fall and spring, Price said, he can lose 10 cows per day to vulture attacks, not including the calves. When a flock of vultures gets too close, he said he drives his pickup toward them and scares them away. And when that doesn't work he fires off his shotgun, he said.

"If there's something that's a danger to the animals I'm raising, I have a right to protect them," Price said. "I've been down there before when 100 vultures were attacking one cow."

Black vultures are not to be confused with turkey vultures, which have distinct featherless red heads, dark-brown plumage and are native to the state. Turkey vultures do not prey on cattle.

Another problem with black vultures is that in the hotter months, they roost in trees around Greers Ferry Lake and other bodies of water.

Tim Curtis, a fishing guide for the White River and Bull Shoals Lake, has seen the damage that the flocks can inflict. The vultures walk on nearby vehicles, peck at the rubber and defecate on them, which can damage the paint. Recently, he said, he reported damage to people's vehicles to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

"One pickup truck was scratched so bad it looked like you put 100 cats on it," he said. And it's gotten worse over the past three years, he said.

Since October 2012, the birds have been a problem at the Bull Shoals Dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported an estimated $120,000-$150,000 in damage in 2015, said Laurie Driver, a spokesman for the Corps division in Little Rock.

Officials used propane-powered noisemakers, pyrotechnics and other devices to scare off the birds. Finally, as a last resort, the Corps got permits from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and worked with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to kill a few vultures and hang them on display to ward off other vultures, Driver said.

"If you shoot one, hang it upside down by its legs," Curtis said, "other birds won't come around it."

Also, vulture defecation is at times a problem around the dam and for employee's vehicles, Driver said.

It can be "a maintenance nightmare to keep the place clean," she said. "We haven't had as much concentration this year at Bull Shoals, but I think that's just luck."

SundayMonday Business on 08/06/2017

Print Headline: Complaints on rise over black vultures, livestock predation

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