USDA Wildlife Services' Misleading PR

In July, a scathing New York Times editorial entitled “Agriculture’s Misnamed Agency” highlighted the myriad problems plaguing USDA’s rogue Wildlife Services program, including its outdated and nonselective killing practices, lack of transparency and accountability, and ecologically destructive approach to wildlife management. The editorial concluded “It is time the public got a clear picture of what Wildlife Services is up to, and time for the Department of Agriculture to bring the agency’s work into accord with sound biological practices.”

As public awareness about the ironically named program has spread and calls for reform have intensified, Wildlife Services has launched a campaign to improve its image. Rather than responding with substantive reforms, the program has directed its energy toward further misleading the public. In a rebuttal to the Times editorial, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) administrator stated that the original piece “left the wrong impression.” On this point, he is correct—the editorial board was far gentler than it could have been in describing Wildlife Services’ laundry list of misdeeds.

The administrator’s letter to the editor suggests that members of the public who are not farmers or ranchers are being unreasonable in opposing the use of their tax dollars to carry out inhumane and unnecessary operations—which often include trapping, snaring, poisoning and aerial gunning—for the benefit of private livestock producers and other farmers. The notion that taxpayers should continue to support the program without demanding accountability—“If you don’t live in rural America or work in agriculture, it is easy to misunderstand” the secretive program’s “important work,” states the letter—reflects Wildlife Services’ long-ingrained, misguided attitude toward its responsibilities.

Equally offensive is the accompanying assumption that all agricultural producers support Wildlife Services’ lethal management of native carnivores and other wildlife species. On the contrary, a growing number of ranchers have successfully adopted humane, cost-effective livestock management practices that allow them to avoid conflicts with wildlife while reducing losses and saving money. Marin County, California, provides a particularly strong example of the effectiveness and countless other advantages of eschewing Wildlife Services’ techniques and adopting nonlethal methods of livestock protection. After terminating the County’s contract with Wildlife Services in 2000, livestock losses were cut in half, while annual costs declined by $50,000. Pilot projects elsewhere have demonstrated similar success.

Despite the cost savings and loss prevention demonstrated in Marin and elsewhere upon the abandonment of Wildlife Services and its cruel methods, USDA leaders insist that the program and its archaic practices are critical to the livestock industry. The letter highlights the annual financial impact of depredation, noting annual losses of 500,000 head of livestock worth $138 million, but misleadingly omits context. The very reports that support this estimate show that depredation has a relatively minor impact on the livestock industry. In the case of cattle, for instance, less than one quarter of one percent of the nation’s stock was lost to predators in 2010 (the most recent year for which a report is available). Digestive problems, respiratory ailments, calving complications, and weather-related issues each accounted for far more cattle and calf losses than did depredation. Yet those challenges are treated as costs of doing business, while taxpayers are expected to bear the costs of addressing—often in a very cruel manner—perceived threats from wildlife.

Particularly surprising is the letter’s assertion that lethal control is Wildlife Services’ “last resort” for managing wildlife conflicts. We have seen time and time again that Wildlife Services turns to lethal tools without hesitation. Despite the fact that the program’s own National Wildlife Research Center has invested substantial sums of taxpayer money into investigating and advancing wildlife management approaches, outdated and inhumane methods such as steel-jaw leghold traps and dangerous poisons continue to be a first line of defense in “managing” wild carnivores and other animals. It is particularly telling that, despite ongoing calls for Wildlife Services to formally adopt a “nonlethal first” policy, no such rule or guidance exists.

Finally, we cannot continue to ignore the pervasive culture of cruelty that has emerged within Wildlife Services. The administrator's letter states that Wildlife Services’ employees “comply with law and regulations,” and emphasizes the program’s “professionalism.” Yet the alarming acts of animal cruelty that have been brought to light and attributed to program employees suggest otherwise.

In June 2012, Wildlife Services employee Kyle Traweek, acting in violation of use restrictions established by the Environmental Protection Agency, set a poisoned trap near a family home in Texas that later killed the family’s dog. Wildlife Services ignored the situation, and went so far as to reset the trap repeatedly in the weeks following this incident. Later that year, trapper Jamie Olson published on social networking sites images labeled as “work,” which depicted a number of live animals captured in brutal leghold traps and, alarmingly, showed Olson torturing these defenseless and already-suffering animals by allowing his dogs to torment and attack them. In response to public pressure, Wildlife Services initiated an investigation, but more than one year later has yet to meaningfully reprimand Olson. In January, program trapper Russell Files—while on the clock as an Arizona Wildlife Services employee—used two steel-jaw traps to intentionally capture a neighbor’s dog, who was found covered in blood and with 22 broken teeth resulting from her struggle to escape. Although two of the three employees involved in these incidents have left Wildlife Services, neither was terminated by the program in response to these events. Despite Olson’s egregious act of animal cruelty—as well as a petition bearing over 87,000 signatures calling for his resignation, which was presented directly to the APHIS administrator and other top USDA officials in July—Olson remains a Wildlife Services agent.

The concerns described here are just a few among countless problems associated with Wildlife Services, which is also characterized by supervisory endorsement of animal cruelty, a “cooperator” system that allows private interests to unduly influence the program, and systematic reliance on wasteful and ineffective practices. AWI will continue to press for long-overdue reform within Wildlife Services.  

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