Wildlife Services sounds like a benign name, right? Yet this little-known government agency in the Department of Agriculture provides the farthest thing from a “service” to wildlife that you could possibly imagine. Don’t be confused… I’m not talking about the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the Department of Interior agency tasked with recovering endangered species and monitoring all kinds of wildlife. Wildlife Services is diametrically opposed to the FWS. It’s a radically different shadow agency tasked with killing millions of animals each year. I’m not kidding — millions of animals that bear feathers, fur, and teeth. Unfortunately, the bulk of Wildlife Service’s efforts have historically gone into killing predators such as wolves, coyotes and foxes, usually at the behest of the livestock industry which benefits from having fewer wild carnivores on the landscape. And even more unfortunately, they often kill many more species than their intended targets.
Starting last week, the Sacremento Bee published a three-part investigative series on Wildlife Services that was written by veteran environmental reporter Tom Knudson. (Part I, Part II, Part III) According to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, it took Knudson one year to report and write the stories. They detail an agency out of step with science, and out of sync with modern times. For a truly disturbing inforgraphic, check out this one which details all the animals which Wildlife Services killed on purpose, and by mistake, between 2006 and 2010. (And think, this is only what was reported as by-catch… their trappers and agents have a long history of not always reporting nontarget kills, so these numbers are likely the lowest possible estimates.)
Shortly after the series ran, WildEarth Guardians announced they were suing Wildlife Services… which makes me think they were holding off on their NOI to sue until after Knudson ran his stories so they could use them as leverage for public opinion. (Kind of sneaky, but also exactly what I would have advised them to do if I was running their PR dept.)
As most readers of Wild Muse know, I’m intensely interested in predator ecology and predator conservation. With all that is now known about the importance of predators in our ecosystems, it’s sickening to think that a government agency is working to “control” them through lethal means. Even worse that this is occuring despite evidence that Wildlife Service’s own methods aren’t working (see Knudson’s articles for more on that).
In addition to Knudson’s articles and the WildEarth Guardians lawsuit, the American Society of Mammalogists wrote a letter to W.S. this past March asking the agency to redirect its mission from lethal control of predators to more ecologically beneficial control measures such as limiting the spead and establishment of non-native and invasive species, as well as the spread of wildlife diseases. It’s a very intersting letter, and you can read it in PDF form in the link above.
Is the writing on the wall for Wildlife Services? Will Congressional budget hawks say enough is enough and pull or drastically decrease their funding for lethal control measures like aerial gunning of coyotes, body-crushing traps set for beavers, and burying M-44 cyanide canisters meant to explode in the mouths of coyotes? Or will Congress opt to keep the status quo, afraid to deny this long-lived socialized benefit to the ranchers and sheep farmers of their states and districts? Only time will tell. But I, for one, am glad to see such a bright light shone into such a dark and creepy corner of our government. In my opinion, we’ve advanced far beyond the mentality of the time period in which Wildlife Services was first formed. Why hang onto to an anachronism?
What can you do?
Click here to be taken to an action alert pushed by Wild Earth Guardians, asking Congress to investigate and defund Wildlife Services:
If you wish to not use their exact form letter, then below is the letter I tapped out yesterday morning (based on their form letter but altered). You are welcome to use it as a template for your own thoughts:
Wildlife Services, in the Dept. of Agriculture, is an agency from a different era. It was formed at a time when the federal government was trying to advance beef and lamb production in the United States, predominantly in rangelands out West. The agency used federal tax dollars to help private ranchers rid the landscape of predators. They mainly targeted wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bears, foxes, badgers, beavers and prairie dogs.
The trouble is, Wildlife Services has a long history of killing animals other than their target animals. As a result, hundreds of family pet dogs die in their traps each year. Their use of indiscriminate poisons and lethal raps also results in valuable species such as wolverines and eagles being killed by mistake. Although legally the agency has a standard line that their employees are supposed to report these by-catch animals, they also have a culture of double-speak with supervisors instructing their trappers and riflemen to bury by-catch without reporting it.
As a result, the numbers we do have on the animals Wildlife Services have killed by mistake are likely extreme underestimates.
Since Wildlife Services was formed, we now know far more about the important role of predators in maintaining healthy and resilient ecosystems that can resist environmental stresses like disease and drought. Predators such as wolves, mountain lions and coyotes play an integral part in maintaining healthy populations of ungulates, which in turn effects the health of plant communities.
If private ranchers wish to control for predators on their private ranchland using their own time and resources, I can’t argue with that. But we as a nation and a society have far outgrown the time period and mentality of directing our federal government to spend its precious dollars on predator control for private landowners and livestock producers. Furthermore, out nation’s wildlife belongs to all citizens, not the owner of the land the animal happens to be using temporarily.
Please see Sacramento Bee’s three-part exposé on Wildlife Services:
Veteran environmental reporter Tom Knudson spent a year reporting these articles. His reporting uses the agency’s own reported numbers of animals killed intentionally and unintentionally, as well as commentary from former Wildlife Services trappers who now feel they were instructed to do things that were immoral, unethical, and that did not ultimately even solve the supposed “problem” of predators and problem animals on the landscape. Knudson shows that the agency operates outside the bounds of scientific parameters. Scientists in his series comment on the ineffectiveness of wanton and indiscriminate killing
Congress needs to review and investigate Wildlife Services to determine if this agency needs to be phased out, or radically altered in its mission and scope.
The American Society of Mammalogists, a professional organization of scientists who study the biology, ecology and behavior of mammals, has a long history of objecting to the continuation of Wildlife Service’s killing programs. Their most recent letter to the agency, dated March 2012, points out that the agency has failed to keep up with evolving scientific understanding of predator ecology and human-wildlife conflict prevention measures. They also point out that the agency’s skills in targeting specific animals for death could be put to better use by targeting invasive non-native species for control, which would protect America’s natural heritage, but that so far the agency has remained blind to this potential adaptation of their resources.
The effect of Wildlife Services’ actions upon our nation’s wildlife and public lands is no longer acceptable. They are an expensive and unruly agency that is no longer needed. Please hold oversight hearings immediately and bring Wildlife Services to account. Further, please consider defunding the agency’s antiquated and inhumane killing programs. The American public and our wildlife deserve better.
Want more context?
For a detailed history of the campaign to eradicate predators in the West, pick up a copy of Michael J. Robinson’s well-researched and entertaining history, Predatory Bureaucracy.