Wildlife Services is a little-known program of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that uses brutal methods and taxpayer dollars to kill approximately 5 million animals each year under the guise of “managing problems caused by wildlife.” It operates with little transparency, resisting public access to records documenting many of its activities. Though the agency engages in a wide array of inhumane practices, ranging from steel-jaw leghold trapping to indiscriminate aerial shooting, its use of poisons paints a particularly vivid picture of the cruelty and waste that the program has come to represent.
Among Wildlife Services’ most inhumane—and nonselective—killing tools are two highly toxic chemicals, sodium cyanide and Compound 1080. Sodium cyanide is a lethal poison that is commonly placed in baited ejector devices known as M-44s. When an animal, attracted by the bait, tugs on the device, sodium cyanide powder is propelled into the animal’s mouth. Once exposed, the victim dies a rapid but agonizing death. M-44s are typically employed to kill coyotes and other predators perceived as threats to livestock. Because the bait attracts a broad range of animals, however, M-44s are responsible for many non-target animal fatalities, as well. These devices have killed beloved family dogs and have even injured people.
Compound 1080, or sodium fluoroacetate, is also extremely dangerous to animals and humans. The poison—so lethal that the FBI has declared it a homeland security risk—has no antidote; exposure guarantees a slow and excruciating death. It is used in “livestock protection collars” (LPCs), rubber bladders strapped to the necks of sheep and goats that are designed to release the poison upon being punctured by a predator’s teeth. However, most LPCs are lost or are punctured by fencing, vegetation and other surfaces, exposing livestock to Compound 1080’s dangerous effects and threatening any animal who encounters the leaked substance. Moreover, where a collar is in fact punctured by a predator, it does nothing to save the sheep or goat who has been attacked—unlike fencing and other effective, nonlethal livestock protection methods. It also contaminates the carcass, potentially causing scavengers to suffer and die, as well.
Wildlife Services’ killing programs are not only inhumane and unnecessary—they are also expensive. The program’s annual budget exceeds $100 million, about half of which is drawn from federal funds. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the other half of Wildlife Services’ funding is drawn from private sources, leaving the taxpayer-subsidized program subject to the influence of private interests. This undue influence, along with the program’s refusal to abandon antiquated and ineffective practices, underscores a need for dramatic reform.
Although there is no sign of change from within USDA, Congress is now considering legislation that would at least prohibit the use of Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide by Wildlife Services. Passage of the Compound 1080 and Sodium Cyanide Elimination Act, H.R. 4214, would represent a positive first step in the long overdue elimination of such unconscionable practices.