Wildlife Services, a US Department of Agriculture program with a long history of using taxpayer funds to needlessly kill wildlife, increased its already-enormous take of wild animals last year. The program’s kill statistics have varied substantially over time—ranging in recent years from 1.5 million to more than 5 million annual deaths. Kills declined in 2011 and 2012, but swung up again in 2013—with more than 1 million additional kills compared to 2012. Among the animals listed as taken in fiscal year 2013 were 75,326 coyotes; 24,390 beavers; 11,698 raccoons; 10,503 squirrels; 321 wolves (including a highly endangered Mexican gray wolf), and millions of birds. This uptick in wildlife take, despite public outcry, further demonstrates the program’s failure to make progress with respect to oversight and reform.
Wildlife Services offers no explanation for the dramatic swings in its annual kill statistics. In fact, whistleblower statements suggest significant under-reporting, which means that even the staggering figures that the agency publishes, including the nearly 4.5 million animals intentionally killed in fiscal year 2013, likely underestimate the actual toll on wildlife.
The program spends more money annually in California than in any other state except Texas—not surprising given the size and agricultural activities of these states. What is disconcerting is that spending on (too-often lethal) wildlife management in California increased disproportionately to the overall increase in the program’s expenditures in FY13, and predator control is among the program’s top activities in the state.
Despite Wildlife Services’ troubling presence in California, the state is gradually becoming a leader in rejecting the program’s cruel, unnecessary, and ecologically unsound practices. Marin County provides a particularly strong example of the effectiveness and countless other advantages of abandoning Wildlife Services’ techniques and adopting humane, non-lethal methods of livestock protection. After eliminating the County’s contract with Wildlife Services in 2000, livestock losses were cut in half, while annual program costs declined by $50,000. Sonoma County recently followed suit, declining to renew its contract with Wildlife Services based on legal concerns related to approval of the program’s activities. The county suspended its engagement of a Wildlife Services trapper and is evaluating options for implementing a non-lethal wildlife management plan.
To maintain this momentum in California, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, AWI, and allied organizations issued letters urging Humboldt and Mendocino Counties to end their partnerships with Wildlife Services and adopt non-lethal livestock protection programs. In addition to the cruelty and financial waste associated with Wildlife Services’ activities, we highlighted concerns related to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the California public trust doctrine. CEQA requires that the counties review the impacts of actions that affect California’s environment, including wildlife management activities, while the public trust doctrine mandates that the counties and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife regulate wildlife resources within the state such that they benefit all citizens. Among our concerns is the counties’ failure to adequately evaluate the environmental impacts of Wildlife Services’ activities, as well as their failure to manage predators and other species killed by Wildlife Services for the benefit of the public rather than for a small number of agricultural interests.
As this issue goes to press, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors has announced that it will delay consideration of contract renewal for at least a month in order to reevaluate the issues. We are encouraged by this move, and it is our hope that both Humboldt and Mendocino Counties will recognize the many disadvantages of working with Wildlife Services. These counties have the opportunity to join Marin and Sonoma Counties in leading the state, and ultimately the nation, to more humane and transparent wildlife management practices.