The morning of May 21, 2014 began with a phone call.
“Wildlife care center,” I answered.
“Yes, Wildlife Service?” the caller began, “The raccoon you trapped had babies and now they’re dead. My mother needs them removed.”
For a second, I wondered if we had done this. Like many wildlife care organizations, we try to help people humanely resolve wildlife conflicts, sometimes, if necessary, encouraging wild mothers to pack up their babies and leave. Usually we counsel people to tolerate the animals’ presence until the babies are ready to leave the den, and then close up whatever access allowed the situation to begin with.
And we don’t use traps. It couldn’t have been us.
We quickly sorted out the case of mistaken identity and I offered to send a team over to her mother’s house to look for the problem. Then I got on the internet to find out who would have been the trapper.
The homeowner’s daughter said he called himself Wildlife Services, which struck me as odd.
As an oil spill response team member, I’ve worked alongside agents from US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (USDA-APHIS) animal damage control branch, called Wildlife Services (WS). Although rarely, WS agents have been brought in to these tragedies as experts in wildlife capture. This is not a universally held view. WS agents could be said to be experts in rounding up birds.
Over the last decade WS has been in the news more and more often, developing a reputation. That reputation isn’t good. If I was trying to drum up business, I certainly wouldn’t want to be associated with these guys.
In Southern California, January 2005, I had my first experience with Wildlife Services, when a WS agent used a cannon net (a large net rapidly deployed by fired 2 pound projectiles) to capture oiled and beached Western Grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis).
42 of these sick and cold seabirds were huddled out of sight next to a slough that drained to the Pacific Ocean. Unable to tolerate the water due to their oil contamination, they were now consigned to slow death by dehydration and starvation unless they were rescued.
The cannon net was used on this group of 42 birds. Unfortunately, the net killed two Grebes, cutting them in half. Had these wild birds been people or even domestic animals in jeopardy, there would be no discussion of using potentially lethal means to attempt rescue. Animals in need of rescue are patients, not targets.
USDA Wildlife Services agent Dave Marks and colleague prepare cannon net for use during Kalamazoo River Enbridge pipeline spill response (photo: USFWSMidwest(1))
Christmas Eve 2009, WS agents shot and killed at least 60 birds out of thousands who were attracted to a school of fish in San Franicisco Bay at the end of one of Oakland Airport’s runways. These birds included Comorants, Gulls and even Brown Pelicans who had been taken from the Federal Endangered Species list only a week before the shooting. Carcasses and wounded birds alike were left behind by the agents. Witnesses managed to bring five wounded birds into care. Sadly, none survived.(2)
This was an entirely natural situation where a very temporary condition, a flock of birds feeding on a moving school of fish, were cruelly gunned down and left to suffering deaths, when clearly some knowledge, common sense, or observation, would have demonstrated that as the fish moved away from the airport, so would the birds. This is in fact what happened. No matter how you look at this it was stupid and senseless.
In Michigan in 2010, a pipeline carrying tar sands oil ruptured leaking over one million gallons of diluted bitumen into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. I worked with several WS agents who consistently chose life-threatening measures that ignored the well-being of our patients in order to rack up captures. Techniques such as the use of drugs (alpha-chlorolose), hand-held net guns, and cannon nets were used, against the advice of experienced oiled wildlife caregivers. And in one very memorable meeting, wildlife caregivers had to threaten to leave the response in order to prevent WS agents from shooting oiled Canada geese rather than rescue them.
‘Opaque and obstinate’, Wildlife Services ignores calls for reform
Wildlife Services (WS), under various names and assigned to various departments, has been in action for nearly 130 years. Their “mission” has been to control wildlife that has been deemed an economic threat to agriculture – whether eating grain or eating livestock. Beginning early in the 20th century, Wildlife Services turned its attention to Wolf eradication. At this same time, WS began to receive funding from Congress, from States and from institutions to use strychnine and other means to kill not only Wolves, but Coyotes, Squirrels, Prairie Dogs and many more species, whose only threat was their existence.
As early as 1931, internal reports expressed alarm over the methods of killing, the numbers of animals killed, the mistaken kills, the cover-ups, the stonewalling, the secrecy. Olaus Murie, a biologist and early conservationist who worked for the agency (then named The Bureau of Biological Survey), who had killed many Wolves, Coyotes, Mountain Lions and more, wrote a report (i.e. the Murie Report) critical of their practices, and opposing the goal of predator eradication (3). Through the following decades, appointed advisory panels submitted reviews, such as the Leopold Report in 1964 (4), and the Cain Report in 1972 (5), that have consistently taken to task WS practices, citing excessive killing, inappropriate methods such as aerial gunning, and irresponisble use of poisons, as serious problems in need of reform.
Almost more importantly, reviewers find the lack of transparency and accountability within the program as perhaps the most urgently needed reform. The Cain Report (1972) is worth quoting at length:
“[I]t is clear that the basic machinery of the federal cooperative-supervised program contains a high degree of built-in resistance to change. Not only are many of the several hundred field agents the same former “trappers,” but the cooperative funding by federal, state, and county agencies, and by livestock associations and even individual ranchers, maintains a continuity of purpose in promoting the private interest of livestock growers, especially in the western rangeland states. The substantial monetary contribution by the livestock industry serves as a gyroscope to keep the bureaucratic machinery pointed towards the familiar goal of general reduction of predator populations, with little attention to the effects of this on the native wildlife fauna.
Guidelines and good intentions will no longer suffice. The federal-state predator-control program must be effectively changed. It must take full account of the whole spectrum of public interests and values, not only in predators but in all wildlife. This will require substantial, even drastic, changes in control personnel and control methods, supported by new legislation, administrative changes, and methods of financing.”(4)
Yet reform doesn’t come.
Now this “rogue” agency (6) is in the news again for the staggering numbers of wild animals that it kills each year. June 7 the Washington Post published the latest statistics reported by Wildlife Services. In 2013 WS agents killed over 4.4 million animals. Roughly half of those killed were native species, including River Otters, Bald Eagles, Black Bears, Bitterns, House Finches, Cougars, and Coyotes.(7) This is a nearly 25% increase over 2012’s 3.4 million killed, about half which were also native species. Why the increase? No explanation was offered.
Characterized by Congressmember Pete Defazio as “one of the most opaque and obstinate” agencies he’s had to deal with, Wildlife Serivces operates in nearly every level of our public life with very little accountability, from remote wild lands to highly developed urban regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area.
Two years ago, in the Sacramento Bee, in Tom Knudson’s series on Wildlife Services, former WS agent Gary Strader describes being told by his supervisor, when he first snared a Golden Eagle, that if no one else knew about it, he should just bury the federally protected bird and forget about it.
Strader says that the motto of WS has been, “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”
He says that after that eagle, he just never asked again, figuring it was WS policy.(8)
Wildlife Services kills family pets, threatened and endangered species and other animals who were not targeted, but who are now dead all the same.(9)
Against decades of scientific, practical and ethical recommendations, Wildlife Services continues to trap, shoot from helicopters, poison, even burn young mammals in their dens. These practices can only occur behind a wall of secrecy.
The opacity of Wildlife Services prohibits public debate and understanding, making regulatory oversight impossible. Without oversight, WS has been shown time and again to kill animals, both wild and domestic, in any manner or number which they see fit and literally bury the evidence.
Wildlife Services in your hometown
When our team arrived at the scene of the raccoon trapping incident, they found a horrible mess of maggot-eaten baby raccoon carcasses. The homeowner was heart-sick. Her daughter was angered. She said that the trapper assured them that he had searched for babies and found none. He assured them that is was a single male adult raccoon causing the problem. He told them that there was only one legal course of action: trap and kill the racoon.
Infant raccoon in care whose mother was trapped. Most baby mammals brought into our hospital are the victims of thoughtless trapping. (photo: L. Corsiglia/BAX)
We were told that the trapper had been recommended by Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Animal Control Service. Animal Control had given them his telephone number.
The trapper either lied or he is incompetent. The raccoon babies were in the typical location that mother raccoons select as safe a den site. They were in the void between the bathtub and the wall. Anyone who has tried to locate raccoon babies in a house quickly learns to look there first. Obviously this trapper had not done so. With both venting and education on my mind, I wanted very much to speak with the trapper.
We had only his first name and a phone number. His outgoing message is eerily terse, “You have reached Wildlife Services.” So far he hasn’t returned our calls.
That number isn’t on the Animal Control website. Apparently you have to ask.
However, now that I knew I was looking for the so-called county trapper, I finally discovered what I was looking for. And it was disturbing.
Our county trapper is a USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services agent.
As it turns out, Humboldt County spent $67,000 this year on its contract with USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services for so-called integrated wildlife damage management. This was up $14,000 from the previous year.(10) There have been contracts every year as far back as the late 1990s. I presume that years prior have simply not yet been digitized so are inaccessible through the internet. Yet even with this regular yearly contract, I can find no report detailing the activites of WS in our county, and the county has yet to respond to my request for any such reports.
According the Humboldt County contract, 40 of the 58 counties in California have a cooperative agreement with USDA-APHIS, with values ranging from $20,000 to $140,000 or more.
USDA – Wildlife Services took in $116 million in 2013 from various contracts and cooperative agreements. Over $7 million came from California and over $4 million of that from cooperative agreements like the one WS has with Humbodlt County.(11)
And all this money funds unnecessary death and inexcusable cruelty. This raccoon family was killed, not because they were denned in a house, but because an irresponsible WS agent took actions that he either did not understand, or knew were cruel.
This need not have happened. Wildlife rehabilitators across our state, our country, and the world routinely help our neighbors co-exist with wild animals. Respect for the wild and living with our wild neighbors are the approaches most aligned with the values of communities everywhere. In this age, WS practices are outmoded, outdated and an out and out shame. If members of the public weren’t opposed to these practices their would be no need for WS to hide. No one wants a secretive agency stalking through our neighborhood, indiscriminately killing animals.
The secrecy of WS is a threat to our communities. In our neighboring county, the WS agent who holds the county contract is called “Dead Dog” by county residents due to all the family pets he is believed to have killed.(12) Yet when I asked if people would attend a meeting of their county’s Board of Supervisors to complain or seek his termination, I was told by one resident that “it would never happen. He knows where we live.” Other residents have said they just try to get along with him, and avoid provocations. Meanwhile, as long as he can kill with impunity, people’s pets, livestock and property are not safe.
There is legitimate need to manage the interactions between human society and wild animals. A mountain lion in the lambing shed is a situation with no good outcome. Humane solutions – non-lethal, science-based and shown to be more effective in the long run – exist. But without transparency and accountability, there can be no assurance that this or any agency will make real effort to seek these solutions, which we demand again, as we have over the course of this program’s existence.