Reform, Retire, or Simply Reload?

Despite the evidence that non-lethal methods can be effective, Wildlife Services continues its killing. Indeed, the greatest change at the agency seems to be its increased interest in targeting “invasive” species with “traditional” techniques.

Preview of Wild Things, produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council, to be released early this summer. (Video not displaying properly? Click here.

Yesterday The Sacramento Bee ran the third and final story in its series investigating Wildlife Services, a little-known (until now) agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

In Part 1, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and Bee reporter Tom Knudson focused on Wildlife Services’ controversial practices and secrecy; Part 2 looked at the environmental consequences of the agency’s activities. For Part 3, Knudson spoke with a range of stakeholders demanding changes at Wildlife Services.

“Ideas for reform include more nonlethal control, curtailing aerial gunning, a ban on traps, snares and cyanide poison and pouring more resources into controlling invasive species. Some critics are calling for an investigation of Wildlife Services’ trapping practices and perhaps eliminating the agency altogether.” [1]

Four points stood out for me:

Lack of Accountability
“There needs to be an investigation of this agency. It is literally out of control,” Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, an Oregon-based advocacy organization, told Knudson.

The group “is now urging Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and [Rep. John] Campbell (R-CA) to conduct a congressional oversight hearing on Wildlife Services. ‘It answers to nobody,’ Fahy said.” [1]

“Environmentalists and wildlife groups are calling for major overhauls, including more spending on non-lethal control and greater transparency in the reporting of non-target species killed. Early this summer, the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the largest green groups in the county, is expected to release Wild Things, a 30-minute documentary about the agency. (See the trailer and other videos here.)” [1]

Not surprisingly, Wildlife Services has its supporters. The surprising part is that some of the “buy-in” is more than philosophical, as Knudson notes:

“The agency augments its budget with funds from farmers, ranchers and other ‘cooperators’—financial relationships that critics say should be re-examined, perhaps even ended, because they are often aimed at killing native wildlife.” [1]

“‘It’s an inherent conflict of interest to have private organizations and individuals funding a federal agency,’ Fahy told Knudson. ‘They are buying influence. They are buying a federal agency.’” [1]

Inside Information
Some of the harshest criticism of Wildlife Services comes from the agency’s former employees. Among them: Carter Niemeyer, former district supervisor, and author of Wolfer, a memoir in which, according to, Niemeyer “reveals the wild and bumpy ride that turned a trapper—a killer—into a champion of wolves”

“‘Federal trappers like to think they’re good at what they do, and most of the time they are—but only when it comes to killing,’ Niemeyer wrote in the book.

When it comes to conserving—being careful not to leave a wolf in a trap too long, not letting it drown because the trap was set near water, learning how to mix immobilizing drugs properly, accidentally shooting the wrong ones because they can’t tell a pup from an adult—that’s where the agency is woefully, willfully sloppy.’” [1]

“Recently, Niemeyer traveled to Washington, DC,” explains Knudson, “to share his concerns with agency managers. Asked what he would do if he were in charge, Niemeyer replied with a long email calling for better training and education in wildlife management, ethics and the humane treatment of animals.”

“‘I would phase in college-trained wildlife personnel,’ he wrote. ‘Many (trappers) have a basic high school education … and only district supervisors like myself receive some specialized training while trappers were seldom considered.’” [1]

While I appreciate Niemeyer’s confidence in our system of higher education, I’m far less optimistic about the potential of “college-trained wildlife personnel” to turn around Wildlife Services (or any other agency for that matter). I’ve spent more hours than I care to count over the past few years debunking the bogus claims, exposing the sloppy scholarship, and challenging the professional integrity, of many such individuals.

Of course, it doesn’t help matters that some of the worst offenders teach. Or write textbooks.

The Success of Non-lethal Methods
No doubt for some readers, the article’s greatest revelation won’t be Wildlife Services’ grim track record (e.g., something like 3,400 non-target animals killed with spring-loaded sodium-cyanide cartridges since 2006), but the fact that non-lethal methods are proving to be quite successful.

Who knew, right?

“Our company has a dual mission: to produce the world’s best grass-fed lamb and achieve conservation at a landscape scale,” Mike Stevens, president of the 24,000-acre Lava Lake Lamb ranch, explained to Knudson. “For us, landscape scale implies having all the big animals roaming the landscape, and that includes predators.”

Among the non-lethal methods Stevens has employed: “portable corrals, electric fencing rigged with distractive flagging, all-night vigils by herders armed with rubber bullets and Great Pyrenees guard dogs.”

“‘We found that that we were able to radically reduce our losses down to one or two scattered animals,’ Stevens said. ‘It can happen. It takes a lot of work and management time. It takes a commitment at all levels of the company.’” [1]

Such methods are hardly unknown to Wildlife Services.

“Most of the effective nonlethal methods out there have been developed by Wildlife Services or tested by Wildlife Services,” Deputy Administrator William Clay told Knudson. Including “bird repellents such as anthraquinone and methyl anthranilate, birth control for white-tailed deer, and electronic siren and strobe devices to scare off predators.” [1]

But Suzanne Stone, Defenders of Wildlife’s Northern Rockies Representative, told Knudson that non-lethal methods are rarely used in the field.

“‘Their researchers are some of the top non-lethal specialists in the world. 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.’” [1]

Shifting Focus to Invasive Species
A surprising theme to emerge in Knudson’s final installment was the increased emphasis being placed on “invasive species.” Just as surprising, then, under the circumstances: domestic cats are never mentioned in the story.

“Although Wildlife Services does some work to control nonnative species,” explains Knudson, “such as wild pigs and nutria—Deputy Administrator William Clay would like to do more.”

And Clay’s not the only one.

“We believe that current science does not support much of Wildlife Services’ lethal control of native mammals, that it is wasteful and often counterproductive,” wrote Michael Mares, president of the American Society of Mammalogists (which opposes TNR), in a letter to Clay this March. “Perhaps the primary emphasis … should be to control invasive, exotic species, a rapidly worsening threat to rare native species and ecosystems.”

But if Wildlife Services hasn’t been able to “control” any non-invasive species, there’s little reason to think the agency will have better luck with invasives (assuming a consensus can be reached about which animals “belong” here and which ones don’t—no trivial matter).

It’s also not clear what the real threat is here.

Regular readers will recall the absurd $17 billion “economic impact” of free-roaming cats on birds that was promoted by the authors of Feral Cats and Their Management, and subsequently endorsed by the National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy. Unfortunately, I expect we’ve not seen the last of this or other similarly indefensible “estimates” used to target domestic cats.

Efforts paid for, whenever possible, with taxpayer dollars, of course.

•     •     •

My sincere thanks to Tom Knudson and The Sacramento Bee for running this series. Now what about digging into the activities of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—which shares Wildlife Services’ penchant for lethal methods, sketchy science, cover-your-ass politics, and secrecy?

Literature Cited
1. Knudson, T. (2012, May 6). Suggestions in changing Wildlife Services range from new practices to outright bans. The Sacramento Bee, from


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