USDA and Better Golfing By Shooting Hawks

Remember the red-shouldered hawks gunned down in Florida to clear the way to and from the nineteenth hole for golfers? I sent email feedback to both USDA and the US F&WS, as I know several of you also did.

I don’t know about any of the rest of you, but I just received an email response from the USDA about the incident. The fumes of post-hoc rationalization are pretty strong here. More below the fold.

Subject: Re: Florida red-shouldered hawk extermination incident
To: “Wesley R. Elsberry”
Message-ID: <ofe2d91520>
Date: Wed, 19 Apr 2006 14:27:01 -0400

Thank you for writing to the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning the removal of two red-shouldered hawks from the Villas of Grand Cypress Golf Resort in Orange County, Florida.

We recognize your concerns and appreciate the opportunity to provide you with further information about this situation. Our Wildlife Services program works to resolve conflicts between people and wildlife when human health and safety, or agricultural and natural resources, are jeopardized. In this particular case, the Villas of Grand Cypress Golf Resort requested assistance from our Florida Wildlife Services office (Gainesville) in responding to two red-shouldered hawks that had attacked 12 employees and guests of the resort and were continuing to display aggression towards people.

We must emphasize that we value wildlife as a natural resource, and we work very hard to create a balance that better enables people and wildlife to coexist. However, our foremost priority in conducting wildlife management activities is to ensure public safety. We realize that the outcome of the situation at Villas of Grand Cypress Golf Resort is upsetting, and that many people would have preferred we relocate the hawksb^Y nest to resolve the matter. We certainly agree that nonlethal methods such as relocation are the most preferable actions to take in managing and resolving conflicts caused by wildlife. In all of our wildlife management operations, our officials consider a variety of factors and recommend or use nonlethal methods whenever safe, practical, and effective. In fact, prior to this recent incident, Florida Wildlife Services officials had not used lethal measures to control birds of prey in more than a decade.

Unfortunately, nonlethal management methods do not work in every situation. In this case, the height of the tree in which the hawksb^Y nest was located made it unduly hazardous for our officials to attempt nest relocation. Moreover, the hawks were actively nesting; disturbing the nest likely would have heightened their aggression and provoked even more serious attacks on people in the surrounding area, including our officials. Other nonlethal options, such as expanding the cordoned area or tranquilizing the hawks, proved equally problematic. The hawks had attacked well beyond the cordoned area, and it was unlikely that expanding this area further would be successful in controlling the situation, even temporarily. Stun darts were not an option because the hawks could not be approached closely enough to ensure the accuracy of this method. Further, dart guns that are accurate and powerful enough to reach flying hawks would also likely kill them. Because the hawks posed an immediate, ongoing safety hazard, there was not sufficient time to plan and implement trapping activities. While we regret the necessity of lethal actions taken in this case, we assure you that we considered all nonlethal methods first in determining how to address this situation. We continue to believe that our actions were necessary to resolve the problem humanely and protect the public from further harm.

With regard to our authority in this situation, red-shouldered hawks are listed as a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Interiorb^Ys Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). However, the Act contains provisions that allow individuals, groups, and Federal entities such as ours to obtain permits for the removal of otherwise protected bird species to manage damage to agriculture or other natural resources or threats to human health and safety. Wildlife Services has a permit from FWS authorizing our officials to conduct depredation activities in Florida involving red-shouldered hawks. Our wildlife control operations at the Villas of Grand Cypress Golf Resort were conducted in full compliance with the provisions of this depredation permit, as well as all other applicable Federal, State, and local laws and procedures.

We hope this information is helpful in explaining our actions in this unfortunate situation.

The original news article by Kevin Spear in the Orlando Sun-Sentinel indicated that the time course from USDA agents arriving on the scene to dead shotgunned hawks was on the order of a couple of hours. That’s a mighty short time frame for all the careful weighing of options implied in the response above to take place in, especially since included in that was the whole reported confusion over whether relocating the nest would require a permit that the USDA did not have.

Another Kevin Spear article discusses the outcome:

Audubon staffers critical of the decision said the Agriculture Department’s failing went beyond shooting the hawks. Agency participants didn’t climb to the nest to look for eggs or chicks, deciding instead to stay 40 feet below and make an inspection with binoculars.

Two days later, they returned to the golf resort, climbed a ladder and found no chicks or eggs in the nest, which they then destroyed.

“The hawks wouldn’t have defended their nest so ferociously if they didn’t have chicks,” said Audubon’s White. “Anything could have eaten them.”

This makes hash out of the “no ladder tall enough” line in the response.

It seems to me that the USDA people did not finish the job they started if nestlings were left behind to die of dehydration, starvation, or predation. They could have at least spent a couple more shotgun rounds to make the end quick for the chicks they doomed, but apparently that would have taken too much effort.

In other words, no, I’m not buying the USDA “we did what was necessary, practical, and permitted” line. At all.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

8 thoughts on “USDA and Better Golfing By Shooting Hawks

  • 2006/04/19 at 2:22 pm

    Amazingly, I just received the same form e-mail on this issue. And I agree: I don’t buy it. This whole situation is more than upsetting and disappointing, including their recent theft of a red-shouldered chick from the nest of another pair who were also found to be inconvenient.

  • 2006/04/19 at 2:33 pm

    I think what is most disturbing is the steadfast refusal to admit that the decision was a mistake.

  • 2006/04/19 at 9:28 pm

    Naturally these clowns would have never heard of a dho gaza, nor would they have the humility or sense to ask an austringer who might have mentioned that technique, or caught both birds for them in about 15 minutes. Any hawk that will swoop a prey item, decoy or person can be quite easily caught in a section of mist net supported between two collapsing poles.

    I also suspect that being caught and handled, then released on-site, would have greatly reduced the birds’ interest in bombing golfers. A year or two back I had an especially enthusiastic male crow who owned my front yard around his nest, and who began making divots in the top of my head. While I would never defend capturing or harassing such a songbird, somehow this crow found himself with 8 brightly-painted pink toenails, which amazed him for days. After that, he stayed a good 10′ overhead.

    Dart gun, brilliant.

  • 2006/04/19 at 9:55 pm

    Yeah, if the birds are supposedly so ferocious, they’d be simple to trap. I’m still frothing over the report that the USDA guys somehow figured out how to get up to the nest two days after the shooting. It seems to me that two days of downtime for a particular walkway would not have been an overwhelming inconvenience for the golf resort. I sure hope the Audubon and birder recommended boycott gives them a memorable reminder of their short-sighted approach to wildlife interactions.

  • 2006/04/20 at 8:13 am

    Golf courses aren’t exactly known for being nature-friendly. You should turn 10,000 moles loose on their property. And maybe some giant Canadian geese (they make millions of giant slimy turds).

    btw Wesley, this month’s (5/2006) issue of Natural History magazine has an article about aplomado falcons in the Southwest.

  • 2008/06/18 at 8:59 am

    I suppose the “threat to human health and safety” rule is inacted when the birds are a threat to the completion of a golf course. Obviously the birds would have been no threat if they did not have to be removed to build such.

  • 2008/06/18 at 9:53 am

    It’s coming right for us!


  • 2008/11/17 at 2:54 am

    Or in the German version of South Park:

    “Es kommt direkt auf uns zu” Bang! :)

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