Thursday, May 03, 2012

Consequences of the USDA's Wildlife-Killing Program

Coyote at Tule Lake NWR / USFWS Photo
This week The Sacramento Bee is reporting on the results of its investigation into the wildlife-killing practices of USDA Wildlife Services. The report is in three parts. Two have already been published, and the third will run on Sunday, May 6. The articles are long and maddening but very much worth reading, as this is some excellent investigative reporting. The articles are based on interviews with past and present USDA employees, as well as outside scientists and documents obtained through FOIA requests. The article focuses on mammals since that is the USDA's primary target in the western states, but the agency's actions affect birds as well.

This federal agency originated in the early 20th century as a means to protect livestock from wolves. Since then its role has expanded to reduce all manner of wildlife impacts on agriculture such as blackbirds eating sunflower seeds. It also includes other missions such as protecting endangered species from predation and airplanes from bird strikes. That all may sound reasonable, but the reality is that Wildlife Services causes a great deal of collateral damage in the process, including killings of species of conservation concern.
In all, more than 150 species have been killed by mistake by Wildlife Services traps, snares and cyanide poison since 2000, records show. A list could fill a field guide. Here are some examples:

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.

Many are off-limits to hunters and trappers. And some species, including swift foxes, kit foxes and river otter, are the focus of conservation and restoration efforts.

"The irony is state governments and the federal government are spending millions of dollars to preserve species and then … (you have) Wildlife Services out there killing the same animals," said Michael Mares, president of the American Society of Mammalogists. "It boggles the mind."

One critical loss occurred two years ago when a wolverine, one of the rarest mammals in America, stepped into a Wildlife Services leg-hold trap in Payette National Forest in Idaho. It was the third wolverine captured in agency traps since 2004 (the other two were released alive.)

"Shot wolverine due to bad foot," the trapper wrote in his field diary, which The Bee obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The collateral damage is not limited to wildlife; it includes pet dogs and people, sometimes even USDA employees. Even when the agency is successful in killing the target species, it is unclear that the killings are actually beneficial, either to agriculture or to the ecosystems. This is discussed in detail in part 2 of the series, which focuses on coyote extermination. And yes, coyote extermination is not a thing of the past. Over 500,000 coyotes were killed by the USDA between 2006 and 2011, but coyotes still prosper:
In Nevada, scientists found that when Wildlife Services began killing coyotes to protect deer south of Ely in 2004, the average coyote litter size jumped from one pup to 3.5. In 2007, one coyote killed by a Wildlife Services hunter in Nevada had 13 fetuses in its uterus.

Just how coyotes prosper amid persecution remains a mystery. But many believe they benefit from better dining opportunities that emerge over time as coyotes are killed and rabbits and mice begin to multiply.

"A lot of it comes down to nutrition and competition. When you have fewer animals (coyotes) on the landscape, you have more food available per individual. There is a ton of food on the landscape. Why not have a bigger litter?" said Stewart, the Nevada ecologist.
Coyote extermination is usually carried out either to protect mule deer or (more commonly) to protect livestock. However, the actual impacts of coyotes (and other wild predators) are probably exaggerated:
Wildlife Services spends about $30 million a year to protect livestock from predators – mostly coyotes. On its Web page, it says losses to predators top more than $127 million a year....

Like a crime scene investigator, Niemeyer journeyed into the field to inspect sheep and cattle that ranchers said had been killed by predators. Often, his verdict was not guilty.

"You start looking and you realize nothing killed this," said Niemeyer. "They died from a multitude of things: birthing problems, old age, bad hooves, cut by barbed wire. There were an awful lot of things attributed to predation that really were not."

Niemeyer is not the only former Wildlife Services employee to raise questions about agency practices. In California, biologist Mike Jaeger did, too, with studies in Mendocino County that showed most coyotes don't prey on sheep at all and those that do are the hardest to kill with nonselective traps and poison.
As one ecologist quoted in the article says:
"There is a widespread perception that predators are the root of all evil and I'm tired of it," said Stewart. "More often than not, if you have predation on a mule deer population, you're going to have a healthier population."
Many readers will not find the agency's actions surprising. I was already aware of the agency's existence and that it often killed non-target species, but the extent of the killings and the details of the investigation were still sickening. I can see a case for lethal control of wildlife under some circumstances, such as protecting the nesting areas of endangered birds or individual animals that cause repeated damage or kill humans. Reducing the numbers of large herbivores like white-tailed deer that have no remaining natural predators makes sense if they start affecting other species. However, the widespread and indiscriminate killing is unacceptable, especially when it results in the deaths of thousands of non-target animals. For that reason, I am glad that WildEarth Guardians has filed a suit to force the USDA to stop killing wildlife until it conducts a new analysis of the environmental impacts.