On a warm fall day in rural McIntosh County and Cassie Wiedel is behind the wheel of her flatbed diesel truck headed to feed and check cattle. Wiedel runs her family’s ranch, with about 150 head of cattle, just outside the tiny town of Hitchita.
As she made the bumpy drive across the pasture, she rolled down the window and hollers a long, drawn-out “come on” – the cue for the cows to follow her to the feed troughs.
“It's just so rewarding,” Wiedel said “You treat these animals with respect. You feed them. You take care of them.”
The moment Wiedel stepped out of her truck, she stopped to look up to the sky where she saw several black vultures circling overhead. She called them predators and said they’re worse than a coyote.
“They're killing our animals,” said Wiedel.
Wiedel said black vultures have killed at least three of her newborn calves in the past few years, up to a $2,700 loss to her operation.
“It's terrible. It makes you feel like, like you didn't take care of them the way you were supposed to. But there's literally nothing you can do to prevent it,” said Wiedel. “I can't be everywhere.”
Scott Alls, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services Director for Oklahoma, said the birds migrated from South America. He said they’ve been in the parts of United States, like Texas, Florida, and Louisiana for decades, but have become more prevalent in Oklahoma in the past 20 years. He tells News On 6 black vultures are primarily in the eastern part of the state right now and said they've killed hundreds of calves over the years.
“I think a lot of people, when they'd find a dead calf and the vultures, they'd think something else happened to that calf, not realizing that the vultures may have actually done it themselves,” said Alls.
Alls said he has been trapping and studying black vultures with the USDA for 15 years.
“The black vulture has a black head, shorter wings, got kind of a white patch on top of their wings,” he said.
Alls said black vultures are different than the common red-headed turkey vultures many Oklahomans are used to seeing, not just in the way they look, but the way they eat.
He said turkey vultures feed on dead animals, known as carrion, which is important to stop the spread of disease. And while black vultures do that, too, Alls said they also prey on living animals, specifically newborn calves and other hooved animals.
“The vultures, I see, as the biggest obstacle in the ranchers way right now,” said Doyle Burden, who owns and operates the Rockin’ D Ranch in Weeletka.
Between Burden and his son, they run about 700 head of cattle on their ranch.
“I like taking care of the cattle. I like seeing the calves born. It's the only thing I've ever done,” said Burden.
His operation has been around about 35 years. He said black vultures fairly new to his ranch, but said they've have already cost him thousands of dollars by torturing and killing a number of his calves.
“They'll peck the rear-end out of a cow while she's having a calf, they'll peck the calves’ eyes out while it's being born. They're that vicious,” said Burden. “My wife and I take turns during the night to go check our cattle.”
Burden said black vultures essentially eat calves alive. And in other cases, he and Alls said the birds work together to attack a newborn calf, knowing the momma will protect it and stomp it to death in the process.
“At first you think that's just happenstance, but if you go back and watch, they're doing it on purpose,” said Alls.
Black vultures are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and killing them has always been illegal. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the USDA have now started issuing depredation permits, allowing ranchers to defend their herd by shooting up to five black vultures a year. Still, ranchers say that's not enough.
“Yeah. Five won't do you any good,” said Burden. “Late in the evening, you can go down in my pasture and I can show you several hundred a lot of times.”
Alls said right now they don't know why the black vultures have moved this far north and they don't know how many are in the U.S., but it's clear the population is growing. He said the birds will likely spread out across the state and that, he said, will lead to even bigger problems because black vultures are also known for tearing things up, even in big cities.
“So they'll get on cell phone towers and start picking at wires, pulling the cover off wires. They'll roost on houses and they'll pull the shingles off the roof,” said Alls. “[They’ll destroy] boat seats, tractor seats, foam mats on patios, they're just so destructive.”
According to Alls, the USDA is currently in the middle of a research project to learn more about black vultures, which could eventually bring cattle ranchers some relief.
“Once we get that info, we can hand that over to Fish and Wildlife Service and that can help them make decisions on how best to manage it,” Alls said.
Until then, it will be more long days and sleepless nights for cattle ranchers who have made it their life's work to protect their herds.