Earth Heroes: Wildlife Killings Search for Truth

Mallards (Courtesy of Ducks Unlimited)

Mallards (Courtesy of Ducks Unlimited). Every animal, bird or waterfowl illustrated in this article is being killed by Wildlife Services as a pest, threat or danger to agriculture and some urban areas.

Why is the federal government trapping, poisoning, gassing and shooting millions of wild animals and birds every year? That’s what Tom Knudson, a two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, wanted to know when he wrote the investigative series The Killing Agency for the Sacramento Bee in 2012 (see below for links to the series).  Knudson documented  that Wildlife Services, a division of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)  at U.S. Department of Agriculture is being “contracted” by cities, counties, ranchers and others to track and kill animals  and birds – many of them native species –that are perceived to be a threat to cattle feedlots, large dairy farm operations, ranches, urban households, and city/county facilities.

Mexican wolf (Courtesy of Conbio.org) In cases of

Highly endangered Mexican wolf (Courtesy of Conbio.org) killed in a case of “mistaken identity”

The figures are staggering – 3-4  million animals and birds annually, including well-known bird species, coyotes, gray wolves, and beavers, that are considered a “threat,” a “danger” and  “pests.”  (See figures below)

Golden Eagle (Courtesy of allaboutbirds.org) another example of mistaken killing

Golden Eagle (Courtesy of allaboutbirds.org) another example of mistaken killing

Untargeted animals get caught in the crosshairs, including protected species – the deeply endangered Mexican wolf, wolverines, golden eagles –even pets.  Knudson’s stories won him the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism, but that wasn’t his point.

And it’s brutal: “…methods include paint balls, vehicles, traps, neck snares, bombs and ‘pyrotechnics’ — “like shooting firecrackers at a bunch of birds to get them to move,” said Amy Atwood, a senior attorney at the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, in a weather.com article in 2014.

A coyote hangs dead in a government neck snare in Nevada in a photo shot by a former trapper for USDA Wildlife Services. More than 115,000 coyotes have been snared, trapped or shot in Fiscal Years 2013 and '14.

A coyote hangs dead in a government neck snare in Nevada in a photo shot by a former trapper for USDA Wildlife Services. More than 135,000 coyotes were snared, trapped or shot by Wildlife Services in Fiscal Years 2013 and ’14 combined.

The Toll on Wildlife FY 2013 and 2014

The combined tallies are at least 7 million animals and birds “culled” in two years.

 Getting to the Truth

Knudson’s quest – for answers, transparency and accountability – has strengthened the resolve of conservation groups, tribal groups and others to seek regulatory controls and file suit against cruel and inhumane practices by Wildlife Services “specialists,”  as well needless killings of hundreds of native species. A few jurisdictions such as Davis, CA, and Mendocino County CA , have untied themselves from contractual obligations to use Wildlife Services in the future.

In FY 2013, the Wildlife Services killed 365, 128 red-winged blackbirds.  Other birds targeted include European starlings, house finches, grackles, mourning doves , grackles and crows.

In FY 2013, the Wildlife Services killed 365,128 red-winged blackbirds. Other birds targeted include over 2 million European starlings, 1.1 million brown-headed cowbirds, house finches, grackles, mourning doves , grackles and crows.

Knudson’s stories interested Amy Atwood at the Center for Biological Diversity (in Oregon). Moved by what he wrote, she was flabbergasted that there is no regulatory framework for the agency.  It operates as a bureau of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but seemingly without constraints or real oversight. The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the government for rulemaking that would bring this agency to accountability; the CBD petition was turned down but the group is not giving up.

Members of Congress Want Answers

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR)  says “Wildlife Services is one of the most opaque and least accountable agencies that I know of in the federal government, outside of highly classified programs,” in the award-winning documentary film Exposed: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife (see  the 31-minute film)  DeFazio and Rep. John Campbell (R-CA)  from Irvine, Calif., want answers – by having a federal audit of Wildlife Services.

When asked by Green News Update, DeFazio said, “Wildlife Services once again wasted taxpayer dollars killing nearly 3 million animals last year (FY 2014)….Their lethal predator control program is particularly inhumane and totally unnecessary. Wildlife Services killed over 60,000 coyotes and several hundred cougars and gray wolves [in FY 14]. As in years past, people’s domestic pet dogs and iconic species like the bald eagle were unnecessarily caught in the crossfire.  This is why I called for a full audit by the USDA’s Inspector General over a year ago and I am anxiously awaiting the results of that report which I hope will be released in the coming months.”

In FY 13, 12,186 black-tailed prairie dogs were killed, plus several hundred thousand nest sites. Photo courtesy of Wiki.

In FY 13, 12,186 black-tailed prairie dogs were killed, plus several hundred thousand nest sites. Photo courtesy of Wiki.

Other nonprofit groups are taking up the cause with lawsuits: In February, the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project and other grouped filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming that Wildlife Services “is violating the National Environmental Policy Act by not analyzing sufficiently its activities and disclosing its work to the public.” A second law suit filed in March, as reported by Indian Country Today, notes, “the Western Environmental Law Center filed suit in U.S. District Court in Seattle…on behalf of five conservation groups, alleging that Wildlife Services has overstepped its authority in killing wolves to protect livestock.”

Truthtelling to Force Change
Tom Knudson. Courtesy of Sacramento Bee

Tom Knudson. Courtesy of Sacramento Bee

Hat’s off to Knudson, who first shed light on the killing fields and the staggering number of wildlife deaths. He’s now at the Center for Investigative Reporting and says he’s “still watch-dogging Wildlife Services and hopes to stay at it for some time.”

Amy Atwood  and the Center for Biological Diversity  deserve kudos for their dogged determination to bring Wildlife Services until control – or out of business. We’ll be hearing more from them. Other environmental activists, such as Los Lobos and the Western Environmental Law Center, are prepared to stand their ground and fight for wildlife, endangered and otherwise. Additional reporting on wildlife killings – by Indian Country, Reuters, the New York Times and Washington Post—is shedding light on a dark and devastating aspect of wildlife  in the U.S.

Where are the heroes for American wildlife? They’re in this story!

Keep up with Tom Knudson @ tomsplace on Twitter

The Killing Agency Series (Sacramento Bee)

The killing agency: Wildlife Services’ brutal methods leave a trail of animal death 4/28/12

Suggestions in how to change wildlife services 5/6/12

Davis cuts ties with Wildlife Services 7/19/2012

Wildlife Services makes a killing in animal control business 11/18/12

Thanks to Predator Defense, Center for Biological Diversity , Rep. Peter DeFazio, and everyone who contributed to this story.