The USDA Wildlife Services’ inefficient and inhumane wildlife damage management program
Wildlife Services, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has waged war on our nation’s wildlife for more than a century. From 2004 to 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available), Wildlife Services killed nearly 34 million bears, bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, wolves and many other wild animals in the name of protecting crops, farm animals, private property and even other species such as rare birds and prey species favored by hunters. Unintended targets—even endangered species and pets—are also killed
Inhumane lethal control
Wildlife Services’ killing methods include shooting from helicopters and airplanes, trapping and snaring, poisoning and denning (killing pups in or at their dens). M-44s are spring-loaded devices that propel sodium cyanide pellets into an animal’s mouth when she tugs the baited device. When the pellet mixes with moisture, it turns into deadly hydrogen cyanide gas that causes asphyxiation, usually within two minutes.
Coyotes ingest another lethal poison, Compound 1080, from special collars placed on sheep and goats. Death lasts five to 14 hours. Victims suffer convulsions and ultimately die from cardiac failure or respiratory arrest.
Lethal control should be a last resort, such as in cases where specific problem animals have been identified and cannot be deterred from killing farm animals. But Wildlife Services traditionally has shown a preference for killing even in situations where prevention and nonlethal measures could be effectively used. These include domestic guard animals, increased human husbandry, birthing in sheds or barns rather than outside and preventing animals from accessing sites of concern.
Inappropriate subsidies for private interests
Wildlife Services spent more than $1 billion from 2004 to 2013, much of it from federal tax dollars. (The president’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget cut over $9 million from the program, a step in the right direction.) The remainder came from state and local taxes and fees from private customers.
While it relies upon tax revenues, the program’s services often benefit only a small number of special interests including public lands grazers, concentrated animal feeding operations, industrial timber operators and commercial fish farmers.
Lack of transparency and accountability
In the communities where it works, Wildlife Services often fails to share locations of traps and poisons, resulting in numerous dangerous incidents involving people, their companion animals or hunting dogs—even on federal public lands. Media reports have also uncovered brutal and indiscriminate activities, fiscal irresponsibility, environmental harm and employee misconduct.
A proposal for reforming Wildlife Services
Wildlife Services must undergo a major transformation. The HSUS recommends the following reforms (read the recommendations in full):
1. End the use of inhumane management techniques. Wildlife Services should immediately stop using sodium cyanide and Compound 1080 and phase out all other poisons and toxicants. It should immediately end preemptive indiscriminate aerial gunning—where animals are systematically slaughtered to “sterilize” the landscape—and phase out most cruel traps and snares.
2. Transfer Wildlife Services to the Department of Interior. Only about a third of the program’s budget funds agricultural programs. With its significant impact on wildlife, the program should be integrated with other federal wildlife programs in the Department of Interior.
3. Formally incorporate animal welfare into decision making. The program should replace its simplistic decision-making model with one that explicitly incorporates animal welfare, such as a decision matrix that accounts for the welfare consequences of devices and techniques.
4. Update the program’s environmental impact statement. Wildlife Service’s environmental impact statement, which describes the program’s environmental effects and lists alternatives, hasn’t been revised in almost 20 years.
5. Adopt a conservation mandate. The health and integrity of ecological communities should become a priority, with accountability for effects on apex predators, keystone species, and threatened and endangered species.
6. Overhaul its decision-making process. Under a documented, formal process, stakeholders would be ensured that activities are justified, realistic, effective, targeted and humane, with long-term benefits.
7. Remove the financial incentive to kill. Wildlife Services should stop collecting fees for its services and end activities that don’t provide broad public benefits.