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Study: Time To Reform Rogue Wildlife Agency

Feet of a dead coyote in Nevada
Feet of a dead coyote hung on a barbed wire fence in Nevada, January 2000 | Photo: Chris Clarke

Commentary: In a month in which environmental activists are lauding federal agency staff people with renewed vigor, one agency is being shut out of the lovefest: the controversial Wildlife Services division of the US Department of Agriculture. And a new report published by a national environmental group is adding momentum to the movement to reform the agency.

Wildlife Services, established under the name "Animal Damage Control" in 1931, is essentially the federal government’s exterminator. Much of the division’s work involves important public safety measures such as frightening birds away from airport runways, tracking and countering wildlife diseases such as rabies, and working to stem the spread of invasive species.

But the core of Wildlife Service’s mission, the purpose for which the 1931 Animal Damage Control Act was enacted, is killing predators and other native wildlife, generally as a service to farmers and ranchers. Since its founding the agency has killed tens of thousands of predators a year. The chief target of Wildlife Services’ predator control program has long been coyotes, but gray wolves, foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions have all contributed to the toll the agency takes on North American wildlife.

A report recently released by the group WildEarth Guardians, War on Wildlife, details the most recent available statistics on Wildlife Services’ activities in the United States, and holds that the program bases its predator control work on outdated science. Not only does the agency still use indiscriminate killing methods such as snares, poisoned baits, and aerial gunning to reduce predator numbers rather than dealing with individual problem animals, says the report, but the agency views wildlife as a “problem” rather than as rightful occupants of the landscape whom humans might best learn to live with.

As an aside, it’s not just innocent members of the target species du jour that suffer from Wildlife Services’ methods. Each year the agency racks up a considerable number of “unintentional” kills — 2,733 in 2015 — of such species as raccoons, river otters, and household pets.

According to statistics published by the USDA Wildlife Services killed more than 3.2 million native animals in 2015, the targeted animals coming from all 50 states and several U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico. The agency holds that it used non-lethal means to deter or disperse nearly seven times as many animals as it killed that year, but that’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. A stroll through the stats shows that the more than 99.5 percent of the 21,017,960 animals the agency dispersed in 2015 were birds that congregate in large flocks. Starlings alone made up more than 43 percent of the total animals dispersed. Counts of dispersed animals will necessarily be less accurate than similar counts of killed animals, in part because estimating the number of birds in a large flock is always imprecise and in part because the same individual birds might be dispersed on many different occasions.

Wildlife Services’ dispersal program is so heavily aimed at birds that if you rank the more than 600 species of animals affected by numbers of animals dispersed, mammals don’t even make the top 100. (The agency’s most-dispersed mammal for 2015 is the California sea lion, coming in in 122nd place with 2,331 individual sea lions dispersed.)

When you look at Wildlife Services’ 2015 statistics for animals killed, however, mammals become much more prominent. Coyotes were Wildlife Services’ seventh-most killed animal of any kind in 2015; the agency reports more than 68,000 killed coyotes in 2015, almost certainly an undercount since the agency doesn’t include estimates of coyote pups buried alive when their dens were destroyed.

Other native mammals toward the top of Wildlife Services’ kill list for 2015 include beavers (21,557) and prairie dogs (nearly 21,000 killed outright, with an unknown number destroyed in their dens). Farther down the list are raccoons, deer, squirrels of many species, and skunks.

Texas is by far the largest recipient of Wildlife Services’ lethal services, with more than ten percent of nationwide kills in 2015. California’s stats are much lower, but they offer a glimpse into the scientific criticisms of the agency’s work. Wildlife Services’ most-killed animal in 2015 in California was the red-winged blackbird, a native inhabitant of the state’s remaining wetlands, Farmers revile them for their habit of eating crop seeds, but the birds mainly subsist on insects and weed seeds, meaning that removing them can cause more problems than the birds themselves create.

And at second and third place on the agency’s 2015 California kill list are 5,432 California ground squirrels and 3,952 coyotes. Ground squirrels are a favored food of California coyotes, which suggests that Wildlife Services might be creating a ground squirrel problem by killing off their main predators. Kill fewer coyotes, and the agency might well have fewer ground squirrels to worry about.

Part of the reason that California’s totals are lower than they could be is that activists have been working to persuade California counties to sever their contracts with Wildlife Services and pursue more non-lethal methods of predator control for local ranchers, such as penning livestock during lambing and calving season, employing livestock guard dogs, and other common-sense methods. So far, Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties have rethought their relationships with Wildlife Services. Monterey County is currently being hauled into court by Project Coyote, the Center for Biological Diversity, and other environmental groups for failing to assess the environmental impact of renewing its Wildlife Services contract.

WildEarth Guardians’ report comes at an opportune time for wildlife activists seeking to change Wildlife Services’ mission. As the authors put it;

It is long past time that Wildlife Services’ policies and practices comport with the best available science and reflect the fact that killing is often a counterproductive strategy. The program must be reformed to require the use of the multiple and varying array of proven successful non-lethal wildlife management techniques currently available to Wildlife Services’ and its cooperators. Lethal control has no place on our public lands and should only be implemented on private land in a very limited manner if multiple attempts with non-lethal methods have failed.

An adjustment to the Wildlife Services’ scientific underpinnings is long overdue. Even before the agency was founded in 1931, researchers were calling into question the notion that indiscriminate killing of predators served any beneficial purpose. Twenty-two years before the agency was founded, in fact, a young U.S. Forest Service ranger with a newly minted degree in forestry took part in a Forest Service wolf hunt in the Apache National Forest in Arizona. He would later write:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

It’s now 108 years since Aldo Leopold watched the green fire die in that wolf’s eyes and began to realize that the federal policy of eradicating predators was ill-considered. Leopold went on to influence predator policy in a number of federal wildlife agencies. Most such agencies now recognize that broad-spectrum killing of predators, or indeed any native wildlife species, rarely solves more problems than it creates. It’s well past time Wildlife Services got with the program.     

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