THE USDA’S DIRTY SECRET: A CENTURY-OLD WILDLIFE KILLING MACHINE

The adage ‘red in tooth and claw’ usually engenders visions of bloodthirsty predators, like man-eating lions and crocodiles, but at present it more aptly describes the agents of the Federal branch of the USDA known as Wildlife Services, whose primary job is to ‘manage’ those same predators, along with the rest of our nation’s wildlife. Wildlife Services who, you say? That is the response from the vast majority of Americans who have never heard of the agency who describes their mission as providing “expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist”. That may sound downright pleasant for all involved, but if you lift the veil of their propaganda (which includes a cute coyote amiably sniffing noses with a lamb on their website) you will find accounts of wildlife extermination –  such as the one of publicly celebrated animal abuse – that are a more scandalous read than Fifty Shades of Gray. Despite this, their budget remains in the black thanks to unwitting taxpayers and an accommodating administration.

WS logo

By all accounts WS officials behave more like a secret good ol’ boys club than a federal agency. Established in 1895 as ‘Animal Damage Control’, and governed by APHIS (U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), the department was green-washed and renamed Wildlife Services (WS) in 1997. APHIS says they are “responsible for protecting animal health, animal welfare, and plant health”, though they spend much of their WS department budget on what they call their Operational Program in charge of wildlife damage management and predator control.

What this program amounts to is a lot of time spent killing wildlife, much of it accidental, under-reported, or unsolicited by the general public. Though the agency would have you believe they are only eliminating individual animals proven to be an immediate and repeat threat to human welfare, livestock, or agriculture, such is hardly the case. For example, many agents report being sent into remote wilderness to kill as many predators as possible, especially coyotes. Thousands of mountain lions, coyotes, bears, and entire endangered wolf packs are killed because ranchers (both private landowners and leasers of public land) simply don’t want them within a several mile radius. Bears, foxes, bobcats, badgers, raccoons, beavers, otters, skunks, kestrels, red-tailed, Cooper’s, and Swainson’s hawks, vultures, owls, and other animals are trapped, poisoned, drowned, and shot by the many thousands because they are perceived as pests, and nothing more.

USDA_Cougar_Heads
This photo was taken by an employee of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, these animals were among 24 lions killed by Wildlife Services in the Wilderness Area of the Galiuro mountains. They weren’t connected to any livestock killing.

A watchdog group in NYC, responding to repeat culls of Canada geese in their city by the feds, characterizes WS as “a for-profit agency that works at the behest of big industry, and preys on the fears and whims of communities intolerant to wildlife…” There has been no evidence supporting the claim that the thousands of geese exterminated nationwide are a health risk, though a good chunk of WS’ fees come from contracts just like those that pay for the geese roundups, generally known as ‘extermination contracts’. In 2011 one investigation concluded similar contracts with corporations and local government agencies totaled over $72 million in fees paid to WS. Private businesses and academic institutions – including those that have developed non-lethal and humane methods of dealing with ‘nuisance’ wildlife –  complain they are easily out-competed by the feds who prefer fast, aggressive, and lethal methods over more sustainable ones.

In 2012 WS reported killing 3.4 million animals, everything from endangered wolves and eagles to hundreds of species of migratory birds to pet dogs. Regardless of whether they are aerially gunning mountain lions on public lands or using deadly traps to catch raccoons and wayward pet cats in San Diego’s wetlands, their budget is funded largely by tax dollars, though they are short on details of exactly how that money is spent. This federal agency reportedly killed almost 19,000 animals in San Diego alone in the past few years. Given their increasing notoriety for lack of transparency and refusal to adequately respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, however, one wonders just how accurate this tally of wildlife deaths are, and just how many protected species killed accidentally have gone unreported.

One former WS employee stated that they routinely avoid counting non-target kills, which would include endangered species and house pets. According to former agent Gary Strader, “There’s not a fraction of the non-target kills reported by the guys in the field. Figures lie and liars figure.” Jim Baca, former director of the Bureau of Land Management in the 1990s, called Wildlife Services, “a carpet bomber of the West because of the scale of indiscriminate killing of native wildlife.” He added, “If Congress is serious about saving money, this is where they should start.”

If this isn’t enough to raise more than eyebrows, consider this disturbing excerpt from University of Colorado Professor Emeritus Marc Bekoff’s update on the agency,

“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.” 

AERIAL-GUNNING USDA airplane
USDA Wildlife Services airplane after fatal crash during aerial gunning for wildlife. 10 WS agents have died in such crashes.

In 2011 WS reported killing 76,611 coyotes, over 26,000 via aerial gunning, a method which according to reports cost between an estimated $200 and $800  per coyote. Between 2006 and 2011, Wildlife Services killed 2,800 river otters, admitting that 2,350 of those deaths were by mistake, and this mostly done via traps deemed cruel and inhumane even by the likes of the hunter-friendly Sierra ClubMany suspect these numbers are more conservative than the actual truth, though the reported numbers are sufficiently alarming. Last year’s article from Voice of San Diego confirmed that there are more questions than answers when it comes to this agency’s actions, and considering that San Diego county has the highest number of endangered and threatened species of any in the contiguous U.S., one would think the county’s residents would be demanding better oversight of wildlife killing going on under the radar. It’s difficult to tell whether the accidental endangered species kills are due to apathy or incompetence or both, but it seems to be something they can’t stop doing. Just last January a WS agent shot a highly endangered Mexican gray wolf, a species whose total wild population number fewer than 100. This wildlife professional claimed it was an accident, he ‘thought it was a coyote”, begging the question why this agent is shooting any wild canines in Mexican wolf territory.

In 2012 Rep. Susan Davis (D-San Diego) attempted to increase transparency of the agency by introducing H.R. 6302, but the bill didn’t get enough attention to move out of committee. At the same time two Congressmen formally called for a congressional investigation of the federal government’s wildlife damage control program.

One of those making the request for an audit, Rep. John Campell (R-Irvine) told Fox News.com, “This agency has become an outlet for people to abuse animals for no particular reason. It is completely out of control and they need to be brought into the 21st century.”

When interviewed by the Sacramento Bee, Campell said “Why won’t they let anyone go with them to see what they are doing? Why is there such a shroud of secrecy? Whose interests are they serving? That is the sort of thing we need to find out.” Unfortunately, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is none other than Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who is apparently otherwise occupied trying to impeach President Obama and deny global warming via his own investigation of what he has predictably named “ClimateScandal”.

raccoon bodygrip trap
In 2012 WS reported killing over 12,000 raccoons, including juveniles like this one.

It isn’t just the lack of accurate reporting or their penchant for death that is being criticized, the killing methods themselves often have little oversight or simply go unquestioned. Trappers often report not re-visiting traps until days after setting them; and some of the cheapest and thus most popular trapping methods, such as snares, leg-hold traps, crush traps, and cyanide poisoning, are undeniably cruel. Aerial gunning, another favorite method, involves shooting animals from low-flying aircraft on private and public lands, including San Diego’s own Cleveland National Forest.

Gary Strader, a former WS agent, was interviewed by Fox’s Cristina Corbin and related a typical day on the job at a remote site in Nevada: he arrived to find nine coyotes caught in snares he had set days before. As was routine, Strader commanded his dogs to attack. His supervisor, who was with him that day,  reportedly “watched and laughed as the dogs circled the coyotes and ripped into them”, Strader said. “That was regular practice.”

Strader told Corbin one of his main responsibilities was to kill as many coyotes as possible in remote areas, including pups in dens. He described how he would lower his stethoscope into the hole and listen for breathing or whining from the coyote puppies. Then he would drop a phosphorus bomb into the den and cover its opening with dirt.

“The bombs burn so fast and so hot that it sucks all the oxygen out of the hole. They suffocate. I had to kill hundreds of coyote pups and pregnant females,” Strader said. “If you found a coyote den, you just bombed it.”

In 2007 Strader went to his supervisors to complain of coworkers illegally shooting several mountain lions from a plane. He was accused of fabricating the story and his employment was subsequently terminated.

Though certainly not due to sulfur bombs, Wildlife Services is starting to feel the heat as scandals and cover-ups are being investigated by conservation organizations like WildEarth Guardians and Predator Defense, including a soon-to-be-released documentary that shines an ugly light on the agency’s predator control program. Though still widely unknown, WS’s unscrupulous activities are increasingly making the headlines (including in the New York Times), while scientists and others ask for an audit of the rogue agency.

Zoey_dog_trapped_by_Federal_agent
WS agent Files was arrested for felony cruelty after setting traps for his neighbor’s dog, complaining she ‘kept coming in his yard’. Zoey the dog survived and continues to recover.

One of the more publicized scandals revolves around WS agent Russell Files, who was arrested for felony cruelty after ensaring his neighbor’s dog, Zoey, in steel-jaw traps he set (on the government’s dime) because it kept coming into his yard. Police found Zoey covered in blood after breaking 22 teeth in an attempt to bite her way out of two leg-hold traps. Another trapping agent, Jamie Olsen, was the subject of a public outcry when he was outed for posting photos on Facebook of animal cruelty that he promulgated and then labeled on Facebook as “work”.

When former WS employee Strader was told of agent Olsen’s on-the-job animal abuse, he said he was not surprised. “That is very common…it always was and always will be controversial.” He replied in an email. “It has never been addressed by the higher-ups. They know it happens on a regular basis.” Unlike agent Files, Olsen was not punished for his actions. His superiors declared he had done nothing inappropriate and he continues to be employed as a federal official.

snare El Toro sm
Author with one of 3 snares set by Wildlife Services. She discovered them in the middle of the walking trail while conducting endangered bird surveys.

If you think WS plays a controversial role only in rural communities where predators stalk livestock or geese poop on golf courses, think again. I learned of WS several years ago when conducting an endangered bird study on public lands in National Forest east of Los Angeles. For weeks I had been traveling the same routes along narrow hiking trails when one day my path was blocked not once, but three times by a strangling snare. My first thought was relief that my work disallowed me from bringing my dogs on these trails. Knowing that body gripping traps in California are illegal – with a few exceptions, including when the feds get involved –  I immediately asked site officials who might have set them and why. I was told WS was using them to dispatch coyotes, having decided coyotes were ‘interfering’ with a local study of bobcat behavior. I asked how native wildlife get in the way of studying the natural history of other native wildlife. I didn’t get an answer.

Whether you are concerned about sustainable predator-prey cycles, endangered species, or publicly funded animal cruelty, Wildlife Services’ pest and predator management program has something egregious to offer. It is increasingly evident that the real predators, red in tooth and claw, are lurking unannounced on public and private lands. We need to tell our leaders it’s time to overhaul Wildlife Services’ actions and budget, including an in-depth investigation of all the players involved. They have been caught quietly raiding our tax-funded coffers for years, financing the death and suffering of countless animals, not to mention the degradation of delicately balanced wildlife communities. Our wildlife resources are part of our natural heritage that we cherish, and our wild neighbors provide ecosystem services and have intrinsic value to all, value that is far beyond the price of any extermination contract.

bluebird in the hand Renee Owens
Western bluebird. Photo by Patrick Hord

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For more information on the USDA’s Wildlife Services and their federal budget, see the guest editorial by Wendy Keefover, Director of the Carnivore Protection Program at WildEarth Guardians. The article was originally posted in The Wildlife News, August 9, 2013.

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