The first time a vulture killed one of Charlie Besher's cows was in August 2018 on his ranch about 50 miles west of Cape Girardeau in southern Missouri.
When Besher got there, one of his young calves was down on the ground, already dead, with its eyes pecked out. They'd already started on the cow. Besher chased them off, but the cow's internal injuries became infected and she died.
"It just seemed like it was a downfall from there," he said.
The next one was a 250-pound calf. When Besher got there, there were about 30 birds on it, and they'd already pecked its eyes out.
Over the past two years, Besher has lost four calves and the cow to black vultures.
He's not alone. One of his neighbors had a calf that survived having its eyes pecked out. He found it running across the field with no eyes, screaming, and had to put it down, Besher said. Another neighbor managed to save a calf with no eyes.
"It's going to do nothing but keep getting worse, I'm afraid," Besher said.
Black vultures are the most common vulture in the Western Hemisphere, and their range extends from South America, now up to the Lake of the Ozarks, said Sarah Kendrick, Missouri Department of Conservation chief ornithologist.
They've been permanent residents in the southern United States for a long time and were documented by John James Audubon in the 19th century. Their move into Missouri is relatively recent, and it's put them in conflict with cattle producers in the lower third of the state.
They've spread north over the past decade as temperatures have risen and the proliferation of cell towers has given them convenient places to roost, Kendrick said.
Turkey vultures, distinguished by their red heads, are common across Missouri.
Both are scavengers that eat carrion, but they find their food in different ways, Kendrick said. Turkey vultures can smell a dead animal from a mile away, and they use their sense of smell to find food.
Black vultures don't have a strong sense of smell, so they need to hunt based on sight. That can make them more aggressive, and they have been found to attack smaller animals like young cows, sheep and other livestock, though they primarily feed on carrion. They've also been known to rip up cars, boats and buildings in search of food. Last summer, MDC warned of black vultures ripping up cars and boats at the Bagnell Dam Access on the Lake of the Ozarks.
Treaties tie producers' hands
Both black vultures and turkey vultures are protected by a series of treaties the United States has with Canada, Mexico, Japan and Russia, which outlaw the killing of birds that migrate across national borders.
That means when cattle producers see a vulture attacking one of their calves, they can't just shoot it. That's a source of frustration for cattle producers, who have a lot of money invested in their herds and feel the regulations hamstring them and benefit a species of bird that is in no danger of being wiped out.
A 2018 Fish and Wildlife study published in the Journal of Wildlife management estimated there were 4.26 million black vultures in the United States. It also estimated the population could sustain a take of up to 287,000 birds a year, though that level of take likely isn't feasible and may not even significantly limit attacks on livestock.
There's no law against harassing the vultures, and producers are often advised to try things like hanging fake vultures as effigies or using noise-makers to scare them off. That's not always practical for busy producers.
"People's got other things to do besides sit out there and run buzzards off," Besher said.
Some ranchers practice the "shoot, shovel and shut up" method, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does offer permits that allow producers losing cattle to black vultures to take small numbers of the birds.
Getting that permit has made a difference for Besher, who lost four animals to vultures before he got a depredation permit and only one since. His permit allows him to take 30 a year, but he's taken only about 15 in total, he said. Hanging the dead up in effigy has seemed to be an effective means to keep them away, he said.
The permits don't allow producers to reduce the population. Taking vultures is meant to be another form of harassment to drive them away, said Dan McMurtry, USDA APHIS Wildlife Services district supervisor.
Getting a depredation permit is a two-step process for most cattle producers. First, they talk to their USDA Wildlife Services contact. McMurtry said he will usually email producers a form they can fill out in five minutes and send back to him. He sends that form to the Fish and Wildlife Service, along with his recommendation for a permit.
Fish and Wildlife responds very quickly, McMurtry said. It can take about a week for the producer to get a permit, but some of that lag time is from producers getting too busy to get to a computer to fill out the form right away, he said.
The permits cost $100 for businesses and $50 for individuals, and Fish and Wildlife classifies farms as businesses, McMurtry said. Once they get the permit, the producer just needs to renew it annually, paying the fee again.
Black vulture attacks aren't as common in Missouri's region of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which covers the upper Midwest, as they are in the Southeast. The Midwest region can turn around a permit in about two days, the region's Migratory Bird Chief Tom Cooper said.
The turnaround isn't as quick in regions where the birds are more common. In Kentucky, the process has gotten quicker in recent years, but it used to take weeks or months to get a permit, Kentucky Farm Bureau Commodity Director Joe Cain said.
The problem has been growing in Kentucky, too, Cain said. In 2014, producers lost around $400,000 of cattle to vultures, and that was up to around $750,000 last year, he said.
Kentucky and Tennessee are each running a pilot program to try to streamline the permit process. Each state's Farm Bureau has its own permit, and it can give out sub-permits to producers.
Kentucky Farm Bureau's permit allows 1,500 takes, and it can give each producer between two and five, Cain said. Producers don't use all the takes they're allowed. Kentucky Farm Bureau authorized about 1,350 last year, and producers reported around 200, he said.
"Once the birds get shot at a couple times, they don't let you get too close to them," Cain said.
The expedited permit process hasn't reduced the population of vultures or the frequency of attacks, he said. The main benefit has been easing the frustration of producers.
Missouri Farm Bureau has been evaluating the Kentucky and Tennessee programs to see if it's something they could do, Marketing Director Kelly Smith said. Agency staff have done a good job, but farmers are generally more comfortable working with a peer than a government agent, he said.
The process is fairly quick in Missouri, but McMurtry said the Farm Bureau permit likely would speed it up. The main positive of the process is lessening stress by having farmers work with people they already have a relationship with and trust, Smith said.
There are some challenges, as well, as the permit would put Missouri Farm Bureau in the position of a regulatory agency, and it would need to have staff to work through the paperwork that comes with it. If Missouri Farm Bureau decided to go ahead with a similar program, it would need federal approval — and that won't be immediate, as Fish and Wildlife is still reviewing the pilot programs.
Vultures being vultures
To producers who are losing cattle, black vultures are a menace, putting their financial security at risk. At the same time, all vultures play a vital role in limiting the spread of disease from animal carcasses.
Vultures' stomach acids are so strong they can digest diseases like botulism, leprosy and rabies, the ornithologist Kendrick said. When they eat contaminated carcasses, they remove those diseases harmful to humans and wildlife from the landscape, she said.
Kendrick said she understands the serious problems cattle producers are facing but emphasized the vital role vultures play in the ecosystem. In India, vultures died off in large numbers as they were poisoned by an anti-inflammatory drug used in cows, which the vultures ate when they died.
Dogs replaced vultures as the primary scavengers in India, causing outbreaks of rabies that kill thousands of people every year. Besher said he understands vultures play an important role in eating carrion, but he just wants them to stop attacking his cattle.
"We're not wanting to wipe the things off the face of the Earth because they do serve a purpose," Besher said.
While black vulture attacks are becoming more common in Missouri, they're far from the only predator livestock producers have to worry about. A 2015 USDA report found just over 5 percent of reported cattle deaths from predators were confirmed to be caused by vultures. Coyotes are by far the most prolific predator of cattle, accounting for 40 percent of those deaths.
Black vultures are even more common in southern states than in Missouri, and they haven't stopped cattle ranching in states like Florida and Texas there, Kendrick said. It's likely the vultures will keep expanding their range and will probably become part of the cost of raising cattle in Missouri if they continue to expand north, she said.
Along with harassing and occasionally taking the birds, Missouri producers likely will have to look at changing husbandry practices as a long-term solution. One possible solution is bringing calving cows in a defensible area, something she knows might not be practical for large ranchers.
"I'm sympathetic to ranchers who have experienced loss, but black vultures are being black vultures," Kendrick said. "They're not evil; this is how they've adapted."
Producers are still frustrated. They see their cattle being killed, and they can't understand why the bird should be protected, Cain said. Congress could open up the Migratory Birds treaties, but all the other countries involved would need to agree, which isn't likely, he said.
Kentucky Farm Bureau has advocated allowing states to order that producers can take birds without first getting a permit if their livestock are in danger, Cain said. It could be similar to a proposed rule that would let fish producers take crested cormorants, which are known for feeding on hatcheries, he said. They'd be required to report any kills they have, and the orders could be rescinded if it got out of hand.
"If you see that happening — by the time you go get a permit, the calf is dead," he said. "You're leaving your herd exposed by taking the time to get a permit."