Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up

In FY 2011 alone, Wildlife Services, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, killed nearly 3.8 million animals—including pets and endangered species. All of it funded by American taxpayers.

According to its website, the mission of Wildlife Services “is to provide Federal leadership in managing problems caused by wildlife.”

“WS recognizes that wildlife is an important public resource greatly valued by the American people. By its very nature, however, wildlife is a highly dynamic and mobile resource that can damage agricultural and industrial resources, pose risks to human health and safety, and affect other natural resources. The WS program carries out the Federal responsibility for helping to solve problems that occur when human activity and wildlife are in conflict with one another. The WS program strives to develop and use wildlife damage management strategies that are biologically sound, environmentally safe, and socially acceptable.”

A three-part investigative series in The Sacramento Bee this week promises to challenge each of the three points from that last sentence, exposing the controversial and secretive practices of Wildlife Services. Indeed, the first installment, which ran Sunday, suggests that the agency, a little-known part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service, is often the source of human-wildlife conflict.

Wildlife Services, reports The Bee’s Tom Knudson, “has long specialized in killing animals that are deemed a threat to agriculture, the public and—more recently—the environment.”

“Since 2000, its employees have killed nearly a million coyotes, mostly in the West. They have destroyed millions of birds, from nonnative starlings to migratory shorebirds, along with a colorful menagerie of more than 300 other species, including black bears, beavers, porcupines, river otters, mountain lions and wolves.

And in most cases, they have officially revealed little or no detail about where the creatures were killed, or why. But a Bee investigation has found the agency’s practices to be indiscriminate, at odds with science, inhumane and sometimes illegal.” [1]

Hired Guns
Among the more dramatic revelations is a 2009 Inyo County, CA, incident in which “a Wildlife Services hunter shot a female mountain lion with kittens.” [1] The California Department of Fish and Game contracts with the agency to protect the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep in the area.

The kittens “got left to starve, waiting for mom to come back,” says Becky Pierce, a mountain lion biologist with the state. “I’m not saying we don’t sometimes have to remove lions if they are (preying) on sheep. But everything should be done in a humane manner. And that isn’t humane.” [1]

“Tom Stephenson, who directs the sheep recovery effort for Fish and Game, declined to comment. But Andrew Hughan, a department spokesman, said the kittens may have survived.

‘To say that a female lion was taken and her cubs left to die is completely subjective. They are resourceful creatures,’ Hughan said.

Pierce, who has studied lions for two decades, disagreed. ‘They were relying on the mother for milk. It would be a miracle if any of them survived,’ she said.

In March 2011, two more mountain lion kittens, just days old, were mauled to death in the Sierra when a Wildlife Services hunter’s dogs raced out of control and pounced on them. Their mother was then shot, too.

‘We all want to see bighorn sheep protected,’ said Karen Schambach, California field director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. ‘What gives me the greatest angst is how inhumane some of this stuff is. For Wildlife Services to allow dogs to go tear newborn kittens apart is outrageous.’” [1]

According to Wildlife Services’ latest Animals Dispersed/Killed or Euthanized/Freed report (PDF), the agency killed 402 mountain lions in 11 states during FY 2011, only four unintentionally.

But Wildlife Services doesn’t limit its “management” activities to wildlife. Over the same period, 1,268 “feral/free-ranging” cats were killed intentionally, with another nine killed unintentionally. In addition, 806 were “freed/released/relocated.” (Somehow, I don’t imagine Wildlife Services staff are involved in TNR, so I don’t know what’s meant by this classification. Nor can I explain the 239 cats that were freed/released/relocated unintentionally.)

During FY 2011, 405 “feral, free-ranging and hybrid” dogs were killed.

Publicly Funded, Privately Operated
Although reports (the accuracy of which is questioned by some interviewed for The Bee series) can be found easily enough online, few details are available. “Wildlife Services prefers to operate in the shadows,” notes Knudson.

“And while even the military allows the media into the field, Wildlife Services does not. ‘If we accommodated your request, we would have to accommodate all requests,’ wrote Mark Jensen, director of Wildlife Services in Nevada, turning down a request by The Bee to observe its hunters and trappers in action.” [1]

Knudson obtained what information he could from the agency through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Mary Lou Simms, reporting on Wildlife Services’ widespread (and lucrative, it turns out) roundups (followed by gassing) of Canada geese for the McClatchy-Tribune Wire last year (PDF), was also forced to go the FOIA route just to obtain basic budget figures. [2]

Simms describes Wildlife Services as “a $126.5 million program that exterminates more than 4 million wild animals annually.” The Bee suggests a much lower “$72.5 million for wildlife damage management; $18 million for methods development.”

In the larger context, the $126.5 million annual budget Simms is pretty modest, especially for a federal agency. Even more so if The Bee’s figure is correct: “$72.5 million for wildlife damage management; $18 million for methods development.” [1]

Still, it’s difficult to imagine a great deal of public support for such a program, especially at a time of across-the-board (or nearly so) belt-tightening. Which might explain the flood of reader comments—209 and counting, just 24 hours after the story went online.

One wonders what the response would have been had The Bee launched the series a few weeks earlier—the same time readers were rushing to complete their income tax returns.

Literature Cited
1. Knudson, T. (2012, April 28). The killing agency: Wildlife Services’ brutal methods leave a trail of animal death. Sacramento Bee, from

2. Simms, M.L. (2011, August 10). Taxpayers subsidizing wild life extermination program, probe shows. McClatchy-Tribune Wire Special Sections, from


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