The killing agency: Wildlife Services' brutal methods leave a trail of animal death
[A] branch of the federal Department of Agriculture called Wildlife Services, has long specialized in killing animals that are deemed a threat to agriculture, the public and – more recently – the environment.
Since 2000, its employees have killed nearly a million coyotes, mostly in the West. They have destroyed millions of birds, from nonnative starlings to migratory shorebirds, along with a colorful menagerie of more than 300 other species, including black bears, beavers, porcupines, river otters, mountain lions and wolves.
And in most cases, they have officially revealed little or no detail about where the creatures were killed, or why. But a Bee investigation has found the agency's practices to be indiscriminate, at odds with science, inhumane and sometimes illegal.
• With steel traps, wire snares and poison, agency employees have accidentally killed more than 50,000 animals since 2000 that were not problems, including federally protected golden and bald eagles; more than 1,100 dogs, including family pets; and several species considered rare or imperiled by wildlife biologists.
• Since 1987, at least 18 employees and several members of the public have been exposed to cyanide when they triggered spring-loaded cartridges laced with poison meant to kill coyotes. They survived – but 10 people have died and many others have been injured in crashes during agency aerial gunning operations over the same time period.
• A growing body of science has found the agency's war against predators, waged to protect livestock and big game, is altering ecosystems in ways that diminish biodiversity, degrade habitat and invite disease.
Using WS’s own reported kill data from fiscal years 2000 through 2010, WS agents have killed more than 2 million native wild mammals in the United States in those 11 years, including 915,868 coyotes, 321,051 beavers, 126,257 raccoons, 83,606 skunks, nearly 70,000 ground squirrels, 50,682 red and gray foxes, 43,640 prairie dogs, 29,484 opossums, 25,336 marmots and woodchucks, 19,111 muskrats, 4,559 bears, 4,052 mountain lions, and 3,066 endangered gray wolves, nearly all of these intentionally.
The number killed per year of many of the primary targets of WS lethal control and of certain other carnivores is remarkably constant, with coyote numbers always between 72,000 and 90,000; beavers between 25,000 and 32,000; raccoons between 9,700 and 15,000; red foxes between 2,000 and 3,000; cougars between 330 and 462. The consistency of these numbers, year after year, implies either that the killing is creating population sinks that quickly fill, or that reproduction is compensating for the increased mortality. However, we have no real data on the effects of this lethal control on the populations of target or non-target species because there is very little monitoring being done. Nevertheless, it is clear that the ongoing slaughter has not brought about any long-term solution to the perceived problem; instead, it is estimated that at least 5 taxpayer dollars are expended to kill every coyote that is deemed responsible for the loss of one dollar’s worth of livestock, and this figure does not count the damage to the range and lost forage for the livestock caused by any compensatory increases in jackrabbits when coyotes are removed (Alcock 1990).
In contrast to the constant numbers of kills of the long-running staples of WS’s extermination business, the number of gray wolves killed has actually increased steadily over this same time period, reaching 480 in FY2009. This number has increased much faster than even the claims of cattle depredations by wolves in the recovery area; in Wyoming, for example, confirmed wolf depredations of cattle and number of packs depredating has declined steadily since 2006 (USFWS 2012). Cattle losses to all predators account for only 5.5% of total mortality (USDA 2012) and even in the northern Rocky Mountain wolf recovery zone, wolf predation accounts for only a small fraction of predator losses (USFWS 2012). Seventy-seven percent (33,608) of prairie dogs killed during 2000-2010 were killed in 2009 and 2010. In 2010, a wolverine was unintentionally killed in a WS trap; the USFWS service ruled that year that wolverines warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, but listing was precluded, ironically, due to limited resources and higher priorities. In times when fiscal constraint is demanded, we believe programs that carelessly kill rare species and indiscriminately kill a great diversity of non-target species should be defunded and discontinued, especially given that those programs work at cross purposes to federal and state programs (e.g., endangered species recovery) starved for funds to restore these same species and ecosystems. It occurs to us, as mammalian biologists, that killing large numbers of carnivores of many species may be a reciprocally self-canceling action. For example, reducing wolf populations causes “mesopredator release” and increases coyote predation (Prugh et al. 2009). A massive campaign to exterminate wolves and coyotes across the West was begun in the early 1900s; by the 1920s, rabbits had so overpopulated the region that another massive campaign was begun to reduce their numbers (600,000 rabbits were killed in one year in Idaho by government hunters; Hawthorne et al. 1999). Apparently WS never did make the obvious connection between coyote control efforts and rabbit population numbers. Mass extermination programs to eliminate prairie dogs also began in the early 1900s and their loss has had cascading effects on the quality of grassland ecosystems. Not only have species associated with prairie dogs declined, but their loss has resulted in the invasion of desert shrubs into North America’s grasslands (Jones 2000, Weltzin et al. 1997). These and other examples suggest to us a somewhat blind approach by WS, with slaughter of wildlife as the end and not the means to any scientifically justified goal. The majority of this killing is complaint-driven, not science-driven. There is an obvious emphasis on mammalian carnivores and other perceived pests of agriculture, including especially, ranching interests. Prairie dogs, ground squirrels, and beavers are major targeted species. In effect, much of the annual $85 million (FY2012) budget of WS represents another federal taxpayer subsidy of an already heavily taxpayer-subsidized industry (Ketcham 2012).
More recently, there has been evidence that WS sees another role for itself, and that is to increase the population density of certain favored game species such as elk, ostensibly by targeting entire wolf packs for extermination by aerial gunning in areas where sport hunting groups, without scientific basis, argue that their quarry is not abundant enough (and that the only reason for a perceived but unproven paucity is “too many wolves”; Robbins 2011). As much as we oppose the wastage of our native wild mammals to benefit a relatively few ranchers (especially those grazing at well-below-market fees on our federal public lands), we feel this new perceived obligation by WS sets a dangerous precedent. We adamantly oppose this new direction by a federal agency that appears to be picking winners and losers among the wildlife-consuming public, and in so doing the agency is unscientifically, and perhaps unintentionally, picking winners and losers among species of native wildlife, themselves. The U.S. public, which WS and other agencies should serve, is extremely diverse in its interests, and millions of citizens generate over $100 billion in economic activity to observe native wildlife in its native habitats (Leonard 2008), especially on our federal public lands, where much of WS’s work is conducted. Wolf watching alone has been estimated to generate $70 million annual economic impact on the Greater Yellowstone Area (Stark 2006).
Even if there were a proven benefit of the targeted killings of mammals by WS, their 2000-2010 kill data reveal several striking examples of waste and inefficiency in WS’s lethal control efforts. Badgers are targeted in most states where they occur, but fully a third (185 per year) of those killed during the period were, by WS’s own statistics, killed unintentionally. Ninety-five percent of the kit foxes killed during this period (316) were killed unintentionally—having been caught in a neck snare or leghold trap or killed by M-44 cyanide capsules set for coyotes—as were 99.5% of the swift foxes killed (198). The latter is particularly unfortunate as the swift fox was nearly driven to extinction by the 1930s as a result of non-target mortality from federal coyote and wolf control programs. Pronghorn are almost never targeted by WS, but an average of 3 per year are accidentally killed by WS neck snares.
Eighty-six percent of the 33 ringtails killed over this period were killed unintentionally, as were 97.8% of the 2,179 collared peccaries killed. Perhaps the most glaring example of waste in the WS data is that 80% of the 5,643 river otters killed by WS from 2000-2010 were killed unintentionally, most likely by conibear traps set for beavers and snares set for muskrats. The image of the federal government accidentally killing hundreds of river otters each and every year is especially unfortunate in light of the money and effort expended in at least 21 states in recent years to reintroduce this member of their native mammal fauna, which had become extirpated or severely reduced due to trapping, pollution and habitat degradation (Raesly 2001). Including the abovementioned examples, in all, we have found that 13 species of carnivores and several species of non-carnivore mammals killed by WS are state-listed (as endangered, threatened, rare, or special concern) in one or more U.S. states, and that 10 species of mammalian carnivores killed by WS are on the federal list of endangered and threatened species (S.R. Sheffield, unpubl. data).
Finally, WS has a poor record of safety of its agents and pilots, with several deaths and injuries from its aerial gunning actions—which are often conducted against carnivores in federal wilderness areas remote from any livestock issues (Ketcham 2008)—and of safeguarding the many toxic chemicals it deploys across the country (see Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Press Release, 27 July 2006). The Society has
previously (2002) strongly urged the U.S. EPA to withdraw USDA’s permit for the use of the extremely lethal and highly non-selective sodium cyanide in M-44’s. We continue to be adamantly opposed to its use, and to that of other poisons, because of the widespread lethality to non-target mammals and birds, some of which are state or federally threatened or endangered.
Originally posted by smyleegrl
I appreciate and agree with your posts, but maybe add a graphic image warning to the title? I could have gone all day without that pic.