Last week, a three-part series by Sacramento Bee Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Tom Knudson shed light on the federal agency responsible for killing so-called problem wildlife, an agency that many feel has lurked in the shadows for far too long.
Each year, more than 100,000 animals are killed by Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the name of livestock protection. More recently, the agency has also been called in to kill wolves and other animals in order to artificially boost game populations for hunters.
But as environmental groups have argued for decades, Wildlife Services’ approach is not only very costly but also often ineffective. Further, their shoot-first mentality perpetuates antiquated ideas about predator control instead of encouraging innovative nonlethal practices that allow people, livestock and wildlife to coexist.
In part one (“The killing agency: Wildlife Services’ brutal methods leave a trail of animal death,” Apr. 29), Knudson describes many of the lethal tools used by Wildlife Services to eliminate unwanted wildlife. Some of the more indiscriminate tools include head snares, leg hold traps, body grip traps and small poison capsules (see infographic), all of which are deadly to numerous species. Unfortunately, they do not always get their intended target. As a result, thousands of animals are “accidentally” killed each year, including some imperiled species as well as beloved pets. One former Wildlife Services trapper-turned-whistleblower reveals that he buried endangered golden eagles that got caught in snares he set for coyotes. Another Oregon family lost their dog to a Wildlife Services trap that was set to catch nutria in a suburban housing development.
Knudson moves on in part two (“Wildlife Services’ deadly force opens Pandora’s box of environmental problems,” Apr. 30) to present a wealth of evidence that suggests simply killing predators isn’t a viable solution. Coyote populations, for example, continue to rebound despite intensive lethal control by Wildlife Services. And in places where coyote populations have declined significantly, rodents, rabbits and feral cats tend to thrive, bringing their own set of problems. As scientists better understand the relationship between species, it has become increasingly clear that trying to wipe out an important native species can put the entire system out of whack.
Defenders wolf expert Suzanne Stone says the agency has completely failed to live up to its mission by relying solely on lethal control.
“If you look at their mandate, we could not have written it better for them,” said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, who has worked with Wildlife Services employees to promote nonlethal control. “It’s all about supporting wildlife conservation and promoting humane tools.
“That’s not what is happening on the ground,” Stone said. “Unfortunately, in parts of the western United States it just seems like they are still in the Dark Ages. They go at this as a kill mission. They are at war with wildlife.”
Defenders and several of our colleagues are also mentioned in part three (“Suggestions in changing Wildlife Services range from new practices to outright bans,” May 6), which highlights many of the nonlethal alternatives we have been working hard to promote. Wildlife Services has actually helped develop some of these tools and could play a critical role in educating ranchers about how to use them. But so far, they’re field agents have been unwilling to do so, Suzanne told the Bee.
“Their researchers are some of the top nonlethal specialists in the world,” Stone said. “They are developing and testing a lot of tools. But those tools are more often than not ridiculed by their field agents. They promote using lethal control almost always.”
The Wildlife Services agent who helped out at Lava Lake “was ridiculed, undermined and shunned by his own agency,” she added. “Not only are they undermining the use of this stuff in the field, they are actually undermining states that are trying to use these things.”
Thanks to Tom Knudson and the Sacramento Bee for exposing some of Wildlife Services more insidious practices and offering suggestions for reform. (Click here to read the Bee’s full editorial) We hope that additional scrutiny will inspire change in an agency that could be a helpful partner in promoting coexistence instead of needlessly killing our native wildlife.