Our federal government is in the business of killing native carnivores and birds in mindboggling numbers every year, mainly with your tax dollars. It’s an obscure program, euphemistically known as USDA Wildlife Services, and it amasses an annual body count in the millions, including wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, black bears, coyotes, foxes, and countless species of birds.
As Congress and the Trump administration look for wasteful federal programs to reform or to shrink, they need look no further than this rogue operation centered in Washington, D.C., but doing diabolical on-the-ground work in some of the most important wildlife habitats throughout the country, especially in the West.
The good news is, after so many years of trying to reform this secretive agency, we are finally seeing some hints of progress, though often spurred by crisis situations.
Last week, Travis County in Texas told Wildlife Services that its “services” are no longer welcome there. The agency has been killing coyotes, beavers, ducks, foxes, and other animals and the Travis County Commission said it’s had enough. County Commissioner Brigid Shea remarked that she had received “increasingly disturbing reports” about the agency’s practices. Indeed, common practices include using steel-jaw leg hold traps that often trap animals other than their target, including pets. Commissioner Shea and Commissioners Jeffrey Travillion and Margaret Gómez provided the votes needed to oust Wildlife Services from the county.
The Commission is instead going to partner with Austin Animal Services to implement humane and effective solutions for conflicts with wildlife within the county. Indeed, we agree that conflicts arise, and they need to be actively managed, but using outdated, ineffective, and cruel methods isn’t the way to go any longer. We’ll work with Austin Animal Services to implement lasting solutions that address problems but don’t result in an enormous body count.
Earlier this year, Wildlife Services voluntarily stopped using M-44 cyanide bombs on public lands in Idaho after a harrowing incident earlier this year, although it still plans to use them on private lands.
Teenager Canyon Mansfield and the boy’s three-year-old Lab, Casey, were hiking on federal land behind their home in eastern Idaho, and triggered an explosive device, known as an M-44. Canyon thought he was touching a sprinkler, and when he did, the device exploded, discharging an orange cloud that enveloped him and knocked him off his feet. He picked himself up, and watched in horror as his dog convulsed and then died before his eyes. The Pocatello sheriff came to the scene as did the local bomb squad and fire department. One official was hospitalized until early morning hours because of the level of cyanide in his blood.
At the end of October, after legal maneuvers by WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Environmental Law Center, state and federal authorities temporarily halted a massive mountain lion “control” program in Colorado ostensibly designed to inflate mule deer populations, pending further environmental review. Colorado Parks and Wildlife had entered into an agreement with Wildlife Services to kill hundreds of mountain lions and dozens of black bears on two study sites to determine if these massive predator-control projects could revive the Centennial State’s flagging mule deer population. These sorts of programs are a fool’s errand. Across the western United States, mule deer struggle because of habitat destruction and corridor loss. This has been exacerbated by rampant oil and gas drilling in western Colorado with its spider web of roads and drill pads that have degraded tremendous amounts of former mule deer habitat and migration routes.
Also at the end of October, a federal judge gave the green light to an agreement between environmental groups and the USDA to halt aerial gunning, trapping, snaring, and the use of cyanide on coyotes and other animals in 16 California counties. Wildlife Services must now produce a new environmental assessment to evaluate the impacts of these activities. This decision came after another action by the Center for Biological Diversity.
The restriction on aerial gunning is especially significant because The HSUS led a ballot measure two decades ago in California to ban the use of poisons (including banning sodium cyanide M-44s) and to severely restrict the use of body-gripping traps. We passed the same prohibitions by statewide ballot initiative in Washington, too.
In Congress, U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., have introduced federal legislation, H.R. 1817, to forbid the use of poisons by Wildlife Services. In 1973, President Nixon banned the use of Compound 1080 but it was reauthorized by the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
In so many cases, there are alternatives to cruel and lethal methods, and ironically, the USDA’s own Denver Wildlife Research Center has developed and perfected many of these techniques, such as strobe lights, sound and smell aversive tools, and other non-lethal methods to help ranchers, farmers, and other resource users. Even as the federal government has spent millions on developing these tools, Wildlife Services personnel have let the tools sit on the shelf because the thing they know best is killing.
In short, we need a paradigm shift in the way the USDA operates. With the human population continuing to expand into wildlife habitats, conflicts are inevitable. But there should be standards in addressing these conflicts, and non-lethal options should always be the first choice. It’s just no longer acceptable to set loose a posse of federal employees to wage war on animals as a crude and cruel way of dealing with the occasional conflicts that occur between wildlife and people.