One of the ostensible purposes and functions of the Department of Agriculture is to protect natural resources. Yet Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson has uncovered startling news about the Department of Agriculture’s little-known branch, Wildlife Services, which reveals the organization’s habitual, indiscriminate, and even illegal killing of animals, including federally protected ones.
Many of North America’s most iconic species, such as wolves and coyotes, have been targeted for “selective elimination” (by aerial shooting and steel trap) because they are thought to be most prone to attack livestock and game animals. The intended outcome of selective elimination is to increase the populations of non-predatory wildlife, but an overview of Knudson’s report shows otherwise.
Since 2000, agency employees have inadvertently killed more than 50,000 animals that were not problems or threats to livestock and game animals. These include federally protected gold and bald eagles, several species wildlife biologists deem rare or imperiled, and 1,100 dogs, including family pets. More than 150 species, including “armadillos, badgers, great-horned owls, hog-nosed skunks, javelina, pronghorn antelope, porcupines, great blue herons, ruddy ducks, snapping turtles, turkey vultures, long-tailed weasels, marmots, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, sandhill cranes and ringtails” have been mistakenly killed by Wildlife Services.
There have been human casualties as well. Since 1987, several members of the public and at least 18 employees have been exposed to cyanide after spring-loaded cartridges intended for coyotes were triggered. While they survived, during the same period 10 people died and many others were injured in crashes during agency aerial gunning operations. The result is not only detrimental to human and animal life, but biodiversity and habitat as well.
Despite evidence of repeated deaths, among them federally protected species, there is little public awareness of the group’s operations. Perhaps most egregious, there seems to be little chance the agency will face legal consequences. Former Wildlife Service officer Carter Niemeyer, who spent 26 years with the branch, says “They play down the lethal control, which they are heavily involved in, and show you this benign side. It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s a killing business. And it ain’t pretty. If the public knows this and they don’t care, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. But they are entitled to know.”
Michael Mares, president of the American Society of Mammalogists, fears that because Wildlife Services is government sanctioned, their purpose has likely been corrupted. “The irony is state governments and the federal government are spending millions of dollars to preserve species,” he says, “And then … (you have) Wildlife Services out there killing the same animals. It boggles the mind.”