(INDYSTAR.com) - When one of Rollin Bach's cows was partially paralyzed following birthing complications, a veterinarian told Bach she would recover; instead, something horrible happened.
Between 15 to 20 black vultures swooped down on the cow while she lay in the pasture. They proceeded to eat away portions of her back and hind legs. She was still alive. Because she couldn't stand up, she couldn't escape their attack.
The cow was little more than gore by the time Bach chased the vultures away. He had to put her down.
With that fatality, Bach joins a growing list of farmers dealing with a problem that isn't native to Indiana — black vultures.
While turkey vultures are common in Indiana, black vultures are a relatively new and deadly arrival. In the 1990s, there were so few black vultures in Indiana that organizations devoted to protecting migratory birds didn't even have a clear estimate.
Today, their estimated population is more than 10,000 — and counting. Unlike turkey vultures, which eat carrion and do not attack live animals, black vultures target both living and dead animals.
The problem, Bach says, is it's against the law to kill a black vulture without a federal permit.
Bach’s biggest issue with the current permit is the $100 annual fee, of which he said: "The idea of having to apply and pay money to protect your own well being, it's just ..." He cut himself off with a sigh.
He wants that to change the law, but others have tried with little success.
The United States has migratory bird treaties with Canada, Mexico, Russia and Japan. Due to the complex nature of international law, and that many migratory birds often cross international borders, these laws were put in place to stymie over-hunting.
Under the 1918 Migratory Bird Act, it is illegal to maim or kill the black vultures without first seeking a permit. In Indiana, it costs $100 to apply for one and it lasts from April 1 to March 31 of the following year.
Data from the Midwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows depredation permits have been on the rise, with 39 applied for in 2013 and 90 in 2017.
Yet, this doesn't show the entire picture. Like Bach notes, and officials confirm, it isn't uncommon for people in rural areas to kill the birds without a permit.
“I know people have been taking things into their own hands, even though it's a federal crime to do so, but that's the reason why I'm trying to get something done,” said Bach, a farmer in Crawford County. "We want to protect farmers from prosecution. There are people trying to protect their livestock, but there's no legal way of doing so without spending money."
According to data from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency with the United States Department of Agriculture, calls for assistance with black vultures have also risen since 2003.
Between June 2003 and May 2008, only 58 calls were lodged with APHIS, an average of 11 calls per year. From June 2013 to May 2018, that number rose to 219, or an average of 43 per year — a 277 percent increase.
These calls weren’t just for livestock issues, but for all issues pertaining to black vultures. For reasons largely unknown, the birds frequently attack cars and rip off parts of windshield wipers, sunroof seals, and rubber or vinyl parts.
Black vultures survive, like most vultures do, by eating carrion — the remains of dead animals. Integral to the ecosystem, the species can eat the diseased remains of animals that might otherwise carry sicknesses, such as hog cholera or anthrax bacteria.
Unlike typical vultures however, the black vulture attacks living animals as well as those sick or already dead. Calves, piglets, lambs and other smaller livestock are preferred targets.
If a black vulture cannot kill its target, typically via gouging out its eyes or tearing at other soft and exposed tissues, then the animal is often left to bleed out.
Bach himself has lost a calf and a cow to the birds, valued around $1,400 and $800 respectively.
Tom Cooper, chief of the Midwest Regional Migratory Birds Program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said warmer winters and deforestation could be a part of the reason for the move. Black vultures traditionally roost in the southeastern and eastern parts of the country, but have expanded their range in recent years.
"In the southeast, people were used to dealing with the vultures," Cooper said. "This has always occurred. It's something new to states like Indiana, Illinois or Ohio, so it's more noticeable."
Before a farmer can apply for a depredation permit, current law dictates farmers must provide proof of vulture-caused damage. But some argue the process is too time consuming, as once the permit is applied for, it can take anywhere from two to seven days for farmers to receive it.
All the while, vultures are still doing damage to the livestock.
"We have enough problems with Mother Nature from the weather to other little harassments that go on in everyday life without throwing something extra into it," Bach said.
Changing current laws
U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., is currently working to incorporate an amendment into the 2018 Farm Bill working its way through the Senate.
The omnibus bill passed out of the House June 21, eking out a win for proponents of the legislation with a bipartisan vote of 213 to 211. Hollingsworth's legislation, should it stay attached to the Farm Bill, would amend the proof-before-permit practice. Farmers that fall into sanctioned zones would not need to obtain a permit prior to killing the birds.
Various governmental organizations would determine the kill zones prior to calving season, which typically runs from February to March. Some of the zones could encompass southern Indiana. If a farm lies outside one of the zones, a permit would be required to shoot the birds.
Bach, who met Hollingsworth at a town hall, is credited by some with being one of the driving forces behind the amendment, which also would require farmers who kill vultures to report the animal death to authorities.
According to a release, H.R. 2 would not "alter existing prohibitions or regulations regarding the sport hunting of migratory birds," and it does not alter existing prohibitions or regulations on the sale or trade of migratory birds.
Officials say killing should be last resort
Not everyone thinks killing the birds is the right approach. Non-lethal measures have the best long-term results for farmers, said Lee Humberg, state director of Wildlife Services with the USDA.
Humberg, who's worked with Cooper to raise awareness locally on how to deal with these birds, said before seeking a permit, farmers should try to identify what they can do to discourage the birds from returning to their property.
This can be done in several ways, from investing in a cattle dog to scare away birds, cutting down dead trees on the premises — a favored roosting spot for the black vulture — or hanging an already dead black vulture near where the birds gather.
Other recommended techniques include scaring vultures with loud noises or hanging decoys of the vulture's natural predator — hawks and owls.
Vigilance and persistence is the name of the game, Humberg said. The vultures aren't going to go away, no matter how many are shot.
"We recommend (farmers) keep a close eye on livestock the best you can," he said. "The problem is that some producers work full-time jobs in addition to farming. They aren't always right outside the house with constant eye contact on their livestock."
Lesley Kordella, acting Migratory Birds chief with the USFWS, said she doesn't know what effect Hollingsworth's legislation would have on the black vulture population.
Extensive environmental assessments would need to be done first, she said.
"These treaties came about due to over-hunting these birds for the feather trade. The law prohibits injuring or possessing of migratory birds unless it's authorized," she said. "The (current permitting) authorization already allows that."
Kordella and Larry Dean, public affairs specialist with the external affairs office of the USFWS, said there have been a number of attempts at the state and local level to try and circumvent these permits, but due to a misunderstanding of international law, they have failed.
Dean points to Ohio, where the state hosted a workshop on how to deal with the birds. For farmers looking for immediate assistance, the state paid $100 for the first permit while continuing to push for non-lethal methods and further education for farmers about dealing with the birds.
Should Indiana adopt such a policy, Kordella and Dean believe Hollingsworth's amendment would be unnecessary.
Bach said he's heard of the dead vulture technique working for farmers, but to acquire a dead vulture, the $100 permit must first be purchased each year — the very thing he's trying to fight.
He also said the birds are "arrogant" and "persistent."
"Vultures are just like any other animal," Bach said. "After a while, they just learn that you aren't going to hurt them."
Call Jordyn Hermani at 317-444-6579. Follow her on Twitter: @h3rmani.