Documentary Spotlights Wildlife Services’ Lethal Mass Killings
Since its inception in 1931, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services has taken its mission “to improve the coexistence of people and wildlife” to heart, killing an estimated 3 million animals per year, which often includes endangered species such as eagles and household pets.
Though the agency does kill some species that are overpopulated and prey on livestock such as wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and other wild carnivores, a new documentary from the Oregon-based nonprofit Predator Defense spotlights a darker side of the agency, hoping to spark public-demanded reform.
Brooks Fahy is the executive director of Predator Defense, the group behind Exposed: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife. He says he heard stories about Wildlife Services officials brutally killing thousands of animals each year with poisons and aerial guttings for years, but never thought the agency actually was capable of such behavior until he launched his own investigation.
Fahy says what he discovered was an “agency running amok and totally out of control” with no authority to answer to. He believes the American public needs to know how their tax dollars are being inhumanely spent.
Dubbed “criter assassins” by those opposed to the agency’s work, makers of the expose hope the documentary brings animal rights activists, environmentalists, politicians and the public together in order to stop the agency from continuing to use steel traps, wire snares, poisons, and snipers to kill wild animals in mass, unnecessarily.
Although calls for the agency’s reform may have started out as a concern about changes in the ecosystem, Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon says “Wildlife Services is one of the most opaque and obstinate departments” he has ever dealt with, including the Pentagon, which is why he is pushing for the agency’s reform.
“We’re really not sure what they’re doing,” DeFazio said. “I’ve asked the agency to give me breakdowns on what lethal methods they’re using. They can’t or won’t do that. We’ve asked them to tell us what goes into their poisons. They won’t say.”
DeFazio and John Campbell, a Republican from California, have teamed up and have tried to press for Congressional hearings regarding the agency’s work, as well as for the Agriculture Department’s inspector general to investigate Wildlife Services, but so far their efforts have been largely unsuccessful thanks to Wildlife Services corporate agriculture allies.
In response to the video, Carol Bannerman, public affairs specialist for Wildlife Services, told MintPress that some of the information provided is outdated, as the agency has changed in the last 20 to 40 years. And while Bannerman acknowledges that the agency largely uses lethal means to remove predator species, she says that the agency also does a lot of good work that is being overlooked.
Talking to the Sacramento Bee, William Clay, deputy administrator of Wildlife Services, said the agency attempts to use non-lethal control methods first, but “The problem is, generally when we get a call, it’s because farmers and ranchers are having livestock killed immediately. They are being killed daily. Our first response is to try to stop the killing and then implement non-lethal methods.”
However, Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services district manager who worked for the agency for 26 years, told the Sacramento Bee much of the agency’s work is excessive, scientifically unsound, and a waste of tax dollars.
“If you read the brochures, go on their website, they play down the lethal control, which they are heavily involved in, and show you this benign side,” Niemeyer said. “It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s a killing business. And it ain’t pretty.
“If the public knows this and they don’t care, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. But they are entitled to know.”
Nuclear wildlife management
Though many lawmakers and activists including Andrew Wetzler, director of the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, recognizes the agency does good work as well, Wetzler says the agency needs to be held responsible for its inhumane actions.
“We asked them about data,” he said, “How much do they use poison, where. How much do they spend renting helicopters to gun down coyotes and wolves,” but “The consistent answer we’ve gotten back … is: ‘We don’t know.’ There’s a severe lack of transparency.”
In the Predator Defense documentary, Rex Shaddox, a former special investigator for the Wyoming Sting Operation and a former Wildlife Services Trapper, explained that the USDA sells illegal pesticides to state Agriculture Department’s, who in turn sell the poisons to farmers and ranchers to kill coyotes.
Shaddox said poisons he worked with were all banned in the 1970s, such as Compound 1080 and DDT, and were not supposed to be in existence any longer, but the government was selling the pesticides “like a big huge drug operation.”
Although Bannerman says Compound 1080 has been largely replaced by sodium cyanide M-44 containers, Fahy says it is absurd to use a device that kills anything that investigates it, including people, and called Wildlife Services’ killing techniques a “nuclear approach to wildlife management.”
News of Wildlife Services lethal work may be shocking to the public, and largely absent from the mainstream media, but calls for the agency’s reform date back to the early 1960s, when scientists reported that eradicating certain species of animals was not leading to a balanced ecosystem.
In 1971 President Richard Nixon signed an executive order banning the use of poison for federal predator control, saying the public needed to learn to coexist with wildlife, but President Gerald Ford later amended the order to allow for the use of sodium cyanide.
As Fahy and others in the documentary pointed out, it’s not that the agency needs to incorporate more rules and legislation that dictates what trappers can and can’t do, they have to actually follow those laws.
Failure to follow federal law
Gary Strader is a former wildlife services trapper who currently works as a private trapper. He shared that on one occasion two mountain lions were shot from the air, which is a felony. A retired law enforcement officer, Strader said that government employees are not supposed to be committing any sort of crime, especially on taxpayer dollars, so he went to his supervisor.
Strader says he didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, but he wanted abuse of the law to stop. But after talking to his supervisor, Strader says he was treated poorly and within a few months, his job was eliminated.
“I’m not an animal rights activist,” Strader said, but Wildlife Services should have to abide by state laws, including checking traps every 24-hours so animals don’t languish in pain. “If the American public saw this and understood the brutality of this,” Strader says the practice would be ended almost immediately.
“I learned the hard way they lie from the top to the bottom,” Strader said. Shaddox agreed and added that while there are about 26 restrictions regarding the use of M-44, including a complete ban on using the poison on domestic animals, he said his supervisor often tested the poisons on dogs at city dumps.
“Most of top supervisors have total disregard for their own policy,” he said, adding that the goal is to keep the customer — the farmers and ranchers — happy above anything else.
Though Bannerman says the agency has improved in recent years, Fahy says the documentary was made not because there is just one individual who has an axe to grind. He said these employees have done things and witnessed things that are hard for them to live with.
“It isn’t he said, she said,” Fahy said. “There’s a tremendous amount of information out there. We have evidence … Wildlife Services doesn’t dispute our cases.”
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