The Killing Fields
A federal agency, shrouded in mystery and free of accountability, that exists for the sole purpose of killing hundreds of thousands of wild animals each year? Such an agency couldn’t operate in the United States, right?
Unfortunately, it can and does. Wildlife Services – a program of the United States Department of Agriculture – has been operating under various names since 1886 with a mandate to protect the interests of ranchers and agribusiness. In 2012 alone, the agency and its contractors killed 300,000 red-winged blackbirds, 76,000 coyotes, 567 black bears, and 396 cougars, among thousands of other animals.
In December, the Center for Biological Diversity – joined by Project Coyote, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund – filed a petition with the USDA asking for the development of a regulatory framework to govern Wildlife Services, which currently operates under informal guidelines. The petition also requests increased transparency and accountability within the agency, the humane treatment of animals, a dramatic decrease in the use of lethal methods, and protection of endangered and threatened species.
Amy Atwood, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, spearheaded the petition when she realized that Wildlife Services was acting like it didn’t have any rules. “I looked, and they don’t have a regulatory code,” she said. “Every other federal agency that I can think of has a set of federal regulations that were developed during a period of public notice and opportunity for comment, that are supposed to be guided by the values of the American people. But this agency has been around for 100 years and has never had any rules.”
The lack of accountability has been disastrous for millions of birds and animals. During the past five years, Wildlife Services has killed an estimated 1.5 million animals annually, including coyotes, foxes, wolves, prairie dogs, river otters, and grey wolves, to name just a few. Some of those animals are endangered and threatened species. Roughly 52,000 “non-target” animals have been killed during the past ten years.
Critics say the agency often treats animals inhumanely. For example, baby foxes and coyotes are gassed in their dens, animals are left for days caught in snares and traps, and, in at least one case, a Wildlife Services employee allowed his dogs to attack trapped animals.
“There have been a series of incidents that have revealed the kind of blatant animal cruelty that goes on within the agency, really a culture of cruelty that is accepted within the agency,” said Camilla Fox, founder of Project Coyote, a project of Earth Island Institute.
The agency’s critics also say that Wildlife Services’ strategy ignores the most recent findings of conservation biologists. For example, the petition references several scientists who have challenged the effectiveness of Wildlife Services in reducing predation of ranch animals. The petition notes the ecological importance of apex predators to the health of ecosystems, and cites several alternative, non-lethal methods for protecting livestock from predators.
The USDA is required by law to respond to the petition, and advocates hope the response will bring a major shift in the way Wildlife Services does business. “If this agency is going to exist…they’ve got to substantially reform in multiple respects,” Atwood said. “Instead of being primarily a predator-management agency working on behalf of narrow special interests, it has to be accountable to the public at large.”