Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reforming the USDA's Wildlife Services

Bobcat at Tule Lake NWR / USFWS Photo
Last week I linked to some important investigative reporting from the Sacramento Bee on the practices of the USDA's Wildlife Services program, which is responsible for controlling wildlife that affects agriculture. On Monday, the Sacramento Bee followed up with an article on suggestions for reforming Wildlife Services. There are some who argue that the agency cannot be reformed and should be abolished altogether. Under that view, the agency is too closely tied to agricultural interests, which provide much of the agency's funding, to move beyond the lethal control and inhumane practices that have characterized much of its history. Other approaches include banning specific practices, such as the use of explosive cyanide capsules and leg-hold traps.

One idea is to change the agency's focus from controlling native wildlife to controlling invasive species.
"We believe that current science does not support much of Wildlife Services' lethal control of native mammals, that it is wasteful and often counterproductive," Mares, the society president, wrote in a letter to the agency in March.

"Perhaps the primary emphasis … should be to control invasive, exotic species, a rapidly worsening threat to rare native species and ecosystems," Mares suggested in the letter.

Although Wildlife Services does some work to control nonnative species – such as wild pigs and nutria – Deputy Administrator William Clay would like to do more. "Invasive species have been recognized as a national problem for many years," he wrote in a letter back to Mares, "and was a focus of the symposium we sponsored in 2007 … to inaugurate our new invasive species research building.

"Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the National Invasive Species Council … resources have not emerged," Clay added. "Thus we usually work on a small scale in response to specific complaints. We would welcome additional ideas for financial support."
This could be a more useful role for the Wildlife Services program, though I would not want to see the inhumane and wasteful practices of predator control transferred to invasive species control. Another idea is better education for field agents:
Recently, Niemeyer traveled to Washington, D.C., 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."

He also called for less killing and more transparency....

He said employees in the West could learn from colleagues back East. "The eastern program is much more advanced," Niemeyer said. "They are dealing with disease surveillance, feral animals, including wild pigs and urban wildlife problems: rodents, deer, beaver, skunks, opossums, raccoons, etc., and give me the appearance that they are much more grounded in dealing with the everyday public in urban and farming communities.

"In contrast, I see the western program still hung up, primarily, with killing predators like foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears and mountain lions, not so much because these animals are problems but because they exist and are macho to kill and the 'western culture' encourages and demands Wildlife Services be funded and continue to focus on these species," Niemeyer said.

"I would downgrade predator control in the West to a corrective program and phase out the preventative program of thinning out coyote populations in the event that they might kill livestock in the future," Niemeyer added.
This sounds interesting and could point towards a positive role, as long as the inhumane control methods were ended or scaled back and fewer nontarget species were being affected. Nonlethal control methods are already being implemented with some success. One or more of the ideas included in the latest SacBee article could be a way towards better wildlife management. What is clear is that Wildlife Services should not be allowed to continue with what it has been doing.