A heron’s survival.

DSC_0856At Moonstone Beach in Westhaven, about 15 miles north of Arcata, a small grove of tall Monterey cypress is one of the Earthly portals where Herons come into the world.

The 9th of May, right after a high wind, a tiny, newly hatched Black-crowned Night Heron, was brought to our Bayside clinic. The little bird still had his ‘egg-tooth,’ a small pointy extra bit at the end of his upper bill, that hatchlings have to help break through the egg from the inside. He weighed about 50 grams.

The trees at Moonstone are tall and branchless until their canopy. Without disturbing the whole colony of wild families there was no way to put the hatchling back in her or his nest. Although re-nesting baby birds is a lot better than raising them in captivity, we didn’t think we could do it. So we took the little guy on.

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From the start the Heron was a voracious eater. At this early stage, 2-3 chopped smelt (a small ocean fish) would be eaten in about a minute and a half. In order to stave off mineral deficiencies that might lead to such problems as metabolic bone disease, calcium was sprinkled lightly on the fish we served. The little bird would devour the fish and then show off her or his calcium powdered bill to the constant companion in the mirror we provided for some sort of solace.

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Unlike mammals, whether raccoon or human, birds grow very fast. This youngster was soon standing and eating whole fish. It’s always surprising how many fish one of these birds can actually swallow! As s/he grew we increased the amount of fish and gradually increased the size of the bird’s housing.

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Eventually, the Heron was housed in our largest flight aviary. We set up a small pool with live gold fish. These birds are expert fishers and this one needed to learn the trade. S/he quickly became very proficient at snagging the quick fish from the water.

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After 6 weeks of care, the bird was flying, fishing, and demonstrating a seething hatred for humans: each of these a crucial part of surviving the modern world. The young Heron was released at the Arcata Marsh, where the colony where s/he entered the world roosts year round.

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Your support makes rescue of birds like this Heron and all our patients possible. Please contribute.

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all photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX

USDA Wildlife Services responds directly to BAX co-director over Change.org petition

by Monte Merrick

50k!!!

Last week, I initiated a petition on Change.org, as an individual, to the three people responsible for the Department of Agriculture’s ‘wildlife damage control’ program, known as Wildlife Services. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack; USDA-APHIS, administrator Kevin Shea; and APHIS Wildlife Services deputy administrator, William (Bill) H. Clay. (read the petition, read more about Wildlife Services)

Within a day, the petition had gathered 500 signatures. At about the time that it passed that number, 500, I received an email from Bill Clay, deputy administrator for USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services. While it’s odd that he has replied directly to me, rather than to Change.org, which also didn’t share my email address, I am glad that USDA staff are aware that public light is being cast on Wildlife Services.

In any case, Bill Clay wrote to me, and I wrote him back. Here’s what we had to say to each other:

On 20 Jun 2014, , at 12:39, Clay, Bill H – APHIS wrote:
Mr. Merrick,

In regards to your Change.Org petition expressing concerns over our program, let me address some of your concerns by clarifying the misinformation that you have heard or read about the Wildlife Services (WS). First, WS works closely with State and Federal wildlife agencies which regulate resident and migratory birds and threatened and endangered species and which set management goals for various wildlife populations. The professional wildlife agencies strongly support our program and recognize the need to manage wildlife damage as part of responsible wildlife management and the North America model of wildlife management. Lethal take is an important component of wildlife management.

While the concern expressed regarding the lethal removal of over 4 million animals during an entire year over the entire United States is noble, it indicates a lack of understanding of overall wildlife populations, mortality, recruitment and population dynamics. Quoting raw numbers, taken out of context, without indicating the overall wildlife population or other sources of species mortality is irresponsible. Although it generates an emotional response it does not indicate the overall impact to wildlife populations. For example, cats kill from 1.3 to 4.0 billion birds each year in the United States. Hunters harvest over 50 million mourning dove each year out of a population estimated to be well over 300 million birds. More than one million deer-vehicles collisions occur annually, often deadly to deer, which have a population of over 30 million deer. Disease, predation, age, and many factors all contribute to wildlife mortality.

Our lethal take last year involved the removal of approximately 3.5 million birds, nearly 80% of which were invasive species. A Presidential Executive Order 13112 on Invasive Species (Section 2) clearly directs Federal agencies to control invasive species and prevent their spread. I understand that many people object to the use of lethal control; however, regulated hunting and trapping is an important tool to manage overabundant wildlife populations and is supported by professional wildlife biologists and wildlife agencies that are mandated to manage them.

In responsible [sic] to the allegations of being a secretive and unaccountable program, anyone who has ever reviewed our website knows that Wildlife Services annually provides the Program Data Reports and other information, including budget information, (which your petition requests) and has provided this information for over 20 years. Through the website we seek to inform the public of actions as a responsible and accountable federal program. The recent Washington Post article criticizes our program because of the numbers of animals killed each year. It’s ironic that we make this information available each year regarding how many animals are killed, species, methods used, nontarget take, etc., and then are criticized for not being accountable to the public.

During the past 5 years, WS has invested more than $50 million to identify and develop new nonlethal methods of control. Most of the effective nonlethal methods currently used by farmers, ranchers, and the public has either been developed or tested by our program.
The implication that WS is mainly funded by Federal dollars is also incorrect. Over $100 million non-Federal dollars is provided to WS each year from the people that request our services. In fact, WS is one of the very few Federal agencies where the recipients of our services pay at least half, and in some cases 100 percent, of the cost of the project.

Articles about WS often fail to indicate that over 80 percent, or 18 million animals, are moved or dispersed each year by WS using nonlethal methods, or that we work at most airports across the country to protect airplanes and people; that we protect over 150 threatened and endangered species for other wildlife threats; or that we conduct one of the largest programs in the world to stop the spread of the Mid-Atlantic strain of rabies commonly carried by raccoons in the Eastern United States. The article also failed to document that the WS program is managed by professional wildlife biologists. To obtain accurate information on the WS program, please visit our website.


William H. Clay
Wildlife Services

Here is my reply:

Mr. Clay,

Thank you for taking the time to respond directly to me in regard to the petition I initiated on Change.org.

As you know, the 50,000 people who have signed this petition so far are not the only critics of the opacity of USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services.

In December 2013 Wildlife Services was petitioned by Center for Biological Diversity, Project Coyote, Animal Welfare Institute, and Animal Legal Defense Fund to begin the rule-making process for the same reasons I started the Change.org petition; that is, to bring transparency and accountability to WS, to ensure humane treatment of animals, and to protect public safety and interests. (read legal petition)

I am sure that you are aware of the highly regarded series published in the Sacramento Bee in 2012 that sheds light on a governmental branch that operates outside of the values of most Americans. Covering up unintentional kills, shooting animals from helicopters, irresponsible use of poisons, suffocating and burning young mammals in their dens – these are revolting, unnecessary and cowardly acts. Citizens have a right to know how their contribution through taxes (whether federal, state, county or municipal) are spent, and a right to object to these repugnant practices. Suggesting that such well-documented and long criticized practices are either necessary or insignificant is a failure to address our petition. We are petitioning for information regarding these kills, not excuses or rationalizations.

Transparency and accountability demand more than the assertion that critics are misinformed. As a wildlife professional, I am well aware of the numbers of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that are killed or injured by various anthropogenic causes, such as feral and free-roaming domestic cats, vehicle traffic, windows, wind farms, toxic pollution and so on.

You reference the large number of birds killed by cats and imply that such a high mortality somehow absolves WS of wrongdoing for the lesser number of animals reported to be killed WS agents. These are unrelated issues. Mass fatalites are not judged against each other but against what is right. Besides this point, in regard to the numbers of animals reported to be killed by WS agents, the figures provided by your agency are not trustworthy, especially in light of former agents who have consistently described the culture of “shoot, shovel, and shut up” that permeates WS.

And none of these issues that plague WS are new. Multiple reviews and reports, from as early as Olaus Murie’s 1931 internal report, through the Cain Report from early 1972 (formally titled Predator Control 1971: Report to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality by the Advisory Committee on Predator Control, S.A. Cain, et al) have clearly indicated that Wildlife Services practices are out of step with science, decency and democratic values. While critics have consistently identified these key areas for reform, this agency, under various names, has consistently failed to enact these reforms in a meaningful fashion.

The history of Wildlife Services is not a noble one, nor has it met its purported mission. Even the federally mandated task of invasive species control that you reference (which is the reason for the existence of Wildlife Services, from its inception as the Division of Economic Ornithology in 1885) has been a failure. As an example, House Sparrows, which your agency’s first administrator sought to “attack and destroy*,” launching Wildlife Services’ official methodology, have been neither eradicated nor controlled.

Frankly, your response to this petition appears to be further stonewalling. It is easy to understand why Congress member Pete DeFazio has referred to WS as the “one of the most opaque and obstinate” agencies he’s encountered. Moreover, for the administrator of the WS program, with its history of wolf eradication, well-documented cruelty, and broadcast use of highly toxic poisons across our natural heritage, among other reprehensible actions both large and small, to accuse one who questions these practices of being “irresponsible” neither addresses the concerns nor is befitting your role as a public servant.

Sincerely,
Monte Merrick

 

(*) C. Hart Merriam, MD was the first director of the Division of Economic Ornithology, established inside the Department of Agriculture July 1, 1885. After a year, the division was expanded to include Mammology and soon after that the word Economic was dropped. In his first annual report Merriam discussed areas for USDA work, for legislative action, and for general recommendations. While regarded by his own Department as an impediment to its mission to eradicate avian and mammal economic threats to agriculture, here’s what Merriam had to say about House Sparrows: “The English Sparrow is a curse of such virulence that it ought to be systematically attacked and destroyed before it becomes necessary to deplete the public treasury for the purpose, as has been done in other countries.” https://ia601206.us.archive.org/33/items/reportofchiefofb1886unit/reportofchiefofb1886unit.pdf

 

Healing starts small and spreads…

A relentless environmental journalist I highly respect posted a sorrowful account of what life doing his work is like.

As a man reaching his upper middle aged years, devoted to environmental and social justice for as long as I can remember (I hated Nixon – the sociopathic mass killer and 37th President of the USA – before I was ten), I’ve seen victories that matter – cleaner air, cleaner water, endangered species recovery (ironically all initiated during Nixon’s regime). And of course I’ve also seen the same irreversible losses we’ve all suffered, including our current failure to stop the causes of catastrophic climate change…

In any case, I sent this to him as an intended note of comfort and I am also sending it to you, for a slim thread to hang from in these days of justifiable environmental despair.

Here’s some small good news…

A red-tailed hawk, a big (1150grams) strong female, her tail just now turning red, was hit by a vehicle on US 101 between Eureka and Arcata. We picked her up from the side of the highway early Monday morning. She suffered no broken bones but her eyes were closed, she was barely responsive, her head tracked uselessly from right to left. Her conditon remained exactly like this for 36 hours. We administered anti-inflammatory pain medication and fluids. I checked on her frequently.

My dismay was mounting.

Finally, unwilling to prolong her suffering much further, I checked her again late afternoon Tuesday. Pulling the old, donated pillow case back from the clear acrylic door of the incubator where I’d housed her, there she was – facing me, her fierce stance returning, her eyes open, clear, prepared. She was ready to meet me, on whatever terms the blaze of reality dictates, regardless.

She’s not flying yet, but soon she will. And then she’ll be free.

41 other cases in care right now, raccoon kits, mule deer fawns, juvenile brown pelicans, striped skunks, a glaucous winged gull who ate a fish hook.

All of these animals have a good prognosis for release.

After that? Who knows? Against the 6th extinction? I have no answer. But against my one “wild and precious life,” everything.

take care,
monte merrick

Petition to USDA-Wildlife Services Receiving Broad Support!

Click here to see Change.org petition

Petitioning USDA Deputy Administrator William Clay, Administrator Kevin Shea, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack: Take immediate steps to make USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, Wildlife Services program transparent and accountable.

This petition was initiated by Bird Ally X co-founder/co-director Monte Merrick due to shockingly high numbers (4.4 million reported in 2013!) of wild animals killed each year by Wildlife Serives, the well-documented culture of “shoot, shovel, and shut up” that permeate the agency, the repeated instances of shocking cruelty to wild and domestic animals on the part of Wildlife Services agents, including irresponsible trapping in BAX’ own community on California’s North Coast.

As of this post, the petition has gathered nearly 45,000 signatures in only 5 days, easily demonstrating that Wildlife Services practices are out of step with not only science, the laws that protect endangered species, migratory birds, and all animals from unnnecessary suffering at human hands, but also the core values of Americans from all walks of life, from hunters to vegans.

Bird Ally X supports this petition. We ask you to do the same. Help demand that USDA brings accountability and transparency to USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services program. Or shut it down.

Read more about Wildlife Services here.

 

 

 

 

Hermit Warbler Nestling Falls to Ground in the Arcata Community Forest

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A nestling Hermit Warbler is always ready for bugs! (scroll down for more photos)

As we’ve been mentioning at every opportunity, this is wild baby season. Wild animals all around us are busy raising their young. Step outside at any moment and watch Barn Swallows swoop and glide across fields, marsh, and highways (yikes!!) in their constant aerial search for the insects that are about to become this year’s model swallow.

Skunk babies might be seen playing in the front yard, freshly emerged from their den – yes, they were there the whole time, right beneath your feet, under the shed, growing, nursing and today – ta da! – exploring the wide world for the first time.

As with all life, in this one and only world of ours, things don’t always work out as planned. A young bird might step too close the edge of the nest and fall to the base of the tree, or the building, or the parking lot. In such cases, it’s almost always a one way trip. It may be that what goes up must come down, but what goes down stays down unless help comes.

But sometimes help does come. Today in the Arcata Community Forest a nestling Hermit Warbler was found on a trail through the Redwoods. Andrew, a wildlife student at nearby Humboldt State University, was birding in Arcata’s popular park when he heard the small bird calling and saw the adult Warblers feeding their baby there on the ground. Andrew knew this wasn’t right – without flight feathers this bird should still be in the nest. Left here, the tiny bird would never make it.

So he called Humboldt Wildlife Care Center to see if he could bring the bird to us. After a few questions, we felt that the best chance for the bird was to stay with his parents.

Andrew was worried. “There’s a cat nearby,” he warned.

This was easy to believe. Feral and free-roaming cats are everywhere. The truth about their impact on wild animals is so alarming that many people have a hard time accepting it. Even if this had been a case where the bird was supposed to be out of the nest, cats still pose an enormous and relatively new risk. It wasn’t that long ago that a Warbler could jump form nest to ground without worry that a cat was near. Still, all the birds flying today made it through their fledgling stage.

We sent a team out to assess the situation while Andrew stayed near to make sure the cat kept his distance.

Upon arrival, BAX/HWCC personnel, Lucinda Adamson, assistant rehabilitator, and Cheryl Henke, intern, found the baby under a shrub begging for food.

“Andrew came down to meet us,” Lucinda related, “and since the baby was healthy and uninjured, we put him in the nest basket while we searched for a nest.”

They couldn’t find the nest but both parents were seen repeatedly as they searched. Lucie said that, “the baby and parents were talking the whole time. So we put the basket in the tallest tree we could access which also happened to be the tree the parents kept perching in.”

The parents never left. Once finished Lucinda and Cheryl placed the baby inside and moved back to observe. Immediately they saw the parents rushing in to feed their little guy. After watching for a few minutes, our awesome team was sure that all was well. As they left, the parents watched them go, vocalizing the whole time. Was this scolding, thanks or something else? Who knows.

What we do know is that this little bird just got a second chance, thanks to Andrew for calling us, and thanks to you for supporting our mission and making rescues like these possible.

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Cheryl scopes out the location.

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Secured but not yet concealed.

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20140623_161240Nearly invisible, our alternate nest will hopefully provide a safe place for this young Hermit Warbler to finish growing.

(Please consider making a contribution. Your donation goes directly to supporting our volunteer work caring for injured orphaned and displaced wild animals! It also gives us hope that one day we will be able to pay awesome teammembers like Lucinda and Cheryl a real salary.)

(All photos: Lucinda Adamson/BAX)

 

The star-crossed (and then uncrossed) Red Crossbill

red crossbill release June 2014 - 2The Red Crossbill, with the self-explanatory name, is a seed cone specialist.

Cheryl Henke, an ornithology student at Humboldt State University is also working as an intern at Bird Ally X/Humboldt Wildlife Care Center. Between her studies, her part time job and her schedule at our Bayside clinic, somehow she still finds plenty of hours in the week to pursue her passion for birding.

Last Friday, June 13th, Cheryl headed down to the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge with the hopes of seeing Red Crossbills. As she made her way along Hookton Road, suddenly, she spotted what she had come for – a Crossbill. Unfortunately the bird was lying in the middle of the road.

Cheryl quickly pulled over. Almost immediately a truck sped past her (Hookton Rd. is like that!) nearly hitting the wounded bird.

As soon as she felt safe, Cheryl picked the Crossbill up, noticed that he was bleeding from his head, and brought him to our clinic.

Red Crossbills are a perfect example of how animals and habitats change to fit each other. With their unique bill structure, these birds are masters at prying open the cones of evergreens to get at the seeds within.

A small laceration above the bird’s right eye produced a fairly large amount of blood. After cleaning the wound and surrounding feathers, we provided a mild pain reliever and set up the Crossbill in his hospital housing with plenty of sunflower seeds and some spruce cones to make him feel more at home.


You can support our work rescuing injured and orphaned native species. Your contribution goes directly to their care: medical supplies, housing, food, transportation and advocacy to prevent injuries in the future.

Please help.

Click here to become a part of our life-saving work. Thank you for all that you do and for your love of the wild!


 

Over the next few days we could see that the wound was minor and his attitude was major. He spent one day in our outdoor aviary flying frantically from one end to the other calling over and over. After three days in care, we decided the best course of action was release.

Cheryl was on the schedule that day and when she arrived we let her know her rescued bird was ready to go. She was thrilled. Cheryl and Laura Corsiglia (BAX co-founder and graphics director) took the Crossbill back to Loleta, off Hookton Road. As you can see in the photos below, this beautiful bird knew exactly what to do with his second chance at wild freedom.

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Immediately, the Red Crossbill put his amazing adaptation to work!

(All photos Laura Corsiglia/BAX)

Release the Mallards!

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Every year in California the number one bird species brought to wildlife rehabilitators for care is the Mallard.

Whether you think of the bright green heads of the males or the lovely brown females, Mallards are the iconic duck of North America.

At Humboldt Wildlife Care Center we raise many orphaned goslings and ducklings each Spring and Summer. By far, Mallard ducklings are our most frequent patient, too.

Mallard mothers build nests in many locations, often in our own backyards, but perfectly hidden. When her eggs hatch, unlike songbirds, her ducklings are already fuzzy with down and able to follow her to water to feed. Momma Mallard’s task is to keep her babies warm and safe and show them how to find the good food (Duckweed!)

Unfortunately there are many obstacles between the nest and the water. Along the way sometimes a few ducklings might become separated from the family group – by cats, dogs, kids, streets and roads and more.

And that’s where we come in. At Humboldt Wildlife Care Center we have an aviary built especially to take care of pond-loving birds like Mallards. While in care we provide them with all the duckweed they can eat.

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mallard release 2014 - 2These ducklings get their first taste of freedom since they hatched over 6 weeks ago!

The three ducklings we released last Wednesday were brought in over 6 weeks ago. Now they are old enough to keep themselves warm, stay out of trouble and find their own food.

At our nearby marsh there are ponds perfect for ducklings. Many Mallards and other birds already take advantage of the plentiful food and relative safety that our marsh provides.

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mallard release 2014 - 4The Arcata Marsh: A duckweed smorgasbord!

If you’re looking for something awesome to do, head over to the Arcata Marsh and check out all the birds and wildlife. Who knows, maybe you’ll see these three Mallards. Thanks to people like you who support our work, these young birds are truly lucky ducks!

mallard release 2014 - 8Happy rehabilitators glad to see these Mallards return to their wild and free lives!

Your Donation Saves Wild Lives! Please support our work. Click on the donate button to make a tax-deductible contribution. Thank You!

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(All photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX)

Friday the 13th a ‘lucky’ day for this Peregrine Falcon

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Usually when a call comes in to Humboldt Wildlife Care Center, our clinic in Bayside, about a bird of prey who’s been struck by a vehicle, it doesn’t end well. So when the kind man who stopped to scoop up a Peregrine Falcon from Myrtle Avenue last Friday (the 13th) pulled up to our door, wildlife rehabilitator Lucinda Adamson was hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst.

Lucinda greeted the rescuer and went out with him to his truck.

Inside the covered bed, the falcon had gotten loose and was trying to fly.

“The rescuer called on his way to say the bird must have only been stunned,” Lucinda recalled, “he asked me, ‘should I just let him out?’ – I said no bring the bird in… might as well check him out.”

Lucinda had to get the falcon from the truck with one of our aviary nets. While the rescuer provided some basic information, she gave the bird a quick exam to see if he could be released.

Peregrine Falcons, like Bald Eagles and Brown Pelicans, were nearly extirpated in the United States due to exposure to the pesticide DDT. While other factors, such as wanton killing and habitat loss, contributed to their vulnerability, banning DDT and offering the protections of the Endangered Species Act allowed the world’s fastest animal(over 240 miles per hour!) to survive.

Peregrine Falcons were removed from the Endangered Species list in 1999.

While the population is on much better footing now, threats to individual birds still remain. Gunshot, fishing line entanglements, and vehicle strikes are common causes of injury to these birds.

This falcon, most likely a male judging from his relatively small size, was first seen in the road eating a dove. The bird’s rescuer said it caused him concern so he turned around to check on him. When he passed again the falcon was splayed on the pavement. Seemingly dead, he was easy to pick up.

PEFA release 14 June 14 - 01Lucinda Adamson, HWCC/BAX Wildlife Rehabilitator, checks the weight of the lucky Falcon (photo: LCorsiglia/BAX)


Remarkably, upon Lucinda’s intial examination, no bones were broken. The only thing amiss was a small amount of blood in the bird’s mouth, possibly belonging to the dove. She decided to keep the bird in care for observation and further evaluation. After receiving a mild anti-inflammatory and fluids, the falcon was placed into his temporary housing. Immediately he was attempting to fly from the small enclosure.

PEFA release 14 June 14 - 02An exam the next morning, so far so good! (photo: LCorsiglia/BAX)


The next morning the bird seemed as strong and determined as ever. He was desperate for freedom. An additional exam confirmed that the bird had no signicant injuries.

We took him back to the neighborhood where he was found. Lucinda opened the carrier, greeted by his intimidating glare. Once he saw his chance, the falcon sprang from the box into flight.

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Opening the lid on Peregrine Falcon is not undertaken lightly! (photo: LCorsiglia/BAX)


PEFA release 14 June 14 - 05A remarkable bird. (photo: LaCorsiglia/BAX)


“He made a wide arc around us,” Lucinda reported, “calling out once as he flew.”

Peregrine Falcons have made a successful return to Humboldt Bay. We wish this guy and all of them well.


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Your support made his care possible. Thank you.

If you can, please join us in this work. Your tax-deductible contribution will help us help our wild neighbors.

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(all photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX)

 

 

 

Wildlife Services. “Opaque and Obstinate”


A Mystery Trapper

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.

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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.

petition pic 1
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.

Print
sources
(1) photo: Dave Marks (L) and Tim Wilson (R) (USDA Wildlife Services) https://secure.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmidwest/5239068994/
(2)“Birds killed to protect planes at Oakland airport” by Jason Sweeney, Oakland Tribune, Dec 30, 2009(2) Thinking like a Wolverine: The Ecological Evolution of Olaus Murie; James M. Glover Environmental Review: ER Vol. 13, No. 3/4, 1989 Conference Papers, Part One (Autumn Winter,1989), pp. 29-45 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3984389

(3) Thinking like a Wolverine: The Ecological Evolution of Olaus Murie; James M. Glover Environmental Review: ER Vol. 13, No. 3/4, 1989 Conference Papers, Part One (Autumn Winter,1989), pp. 29-45 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3984389

(4) Predator and Rodent Control in the United States, Advisory Board on Wildlife Management, appointed by Sec of Interior, S Udall; A.S.Leopold, et al, March 9, 1964 (Leopold Report)

(5) Predator Control 1971: Report to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality by the Advisory Committee on Predator Control, S.A. Cain, et al; January 1972 (Cain Report)

(6)“Petition targets ‘rogue’ killings by Wildlife Services” by Darryl Fears, The Washington Post, December 15, 2013 http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/petition-targets-rogue-killings-by-wildlife-services/2013/12/15/c749b3b2-5e8b-11e3-bc56-c6ca94801fac_story.html

(7)“USDA’s Wildlife Services killed 4 million animals in 2013; seen as an overstep by some” by Darryl Fears, The Washington Post, June 7, 2009 http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/governments-kill-of-4-million-animals-seen-as-an-overstep/2014/06/06/1de0c550-ecc4-11e3-b98c-72cef4a00499_story.html

(8) “The killing agency: Wildlife Services’ brutal methods leave a trail of animal death” by Tom Knudson, The Sacramento Bee, April 29, 2012 http://www.sacbee.com/2012/04/28/4450678/the-killing-agency-wildlife-services.html

(9) “Suggestions in changing Widllife services range from new practices to outright bans” by Tom Knudson, The Sacramento Bee, May 6, 2012 http://www.sacbee.com/2012/05/06/4469067/suggestions-in-changing-wildlife.html

(10) Approval of United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services Agreement No. 13-73-06-0254-RA http://co.humboldt.ca.us/questysgranicus/144400/144403/144404/144468/144494/approval%20of%20united%20states%20department%20of%20agriculture%20wildlife%20services%20agreement%20144494.pdf

(11) Wildlife Services Federal and Cooperative funding by Resource Category FY 2013 http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/prog_data/2013/A/Tables/PDR_Table_A.pdf

(12)“Lunch with Dead Dog” by Bruce McEwen, The Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 26, 2014 http://theava.com/archives/30044

In memory of Jay Holcomb, pioneer in oiled wildlife care.

read IBR’s statement on Jay Holcomb’s passing

JH-2Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am saddened to note the passing of Jay Holcomb. As Executive Director of International Bird Rescue, Jay responded to hundreds of oil spills around the world including two of the largest spills in US history – Exxon Valdez in Alaska and Deepwater Horizon on the Gulf Coast. His energy and his commitment to excellent oiled wildlife care were unique in the world, and he will be missed by many. Through his organization, effective protocols to treat oiled wildlife spread internationally. Jay’s impact was enormous, and his death will not slow that impact down. Jay Holcomb lives.

I worked directly with Jay from 2002 until 2009. I was inspired by him and challenged. It was Jay who accepted me into the obscure profession of oil spill response and more broadly, wild aquatic bird care. I am grateful for those 7 years working with Jay and for the direction the time spent working with him has given my own life and work. No doubt there are very many people who feel this way.

I think it is safe to say that Jay placed more trust in his own intuition than he did in any abstract set of rules or protocols. He would easily place someone in a position of responsibility based on his sense of that person rather than her or his resume. This was certainly the case with me. When Jay hired me to monitor a small breeding band of the threatened Western Snowy Plover in Trona, a surreal dry salt lake mine in the Mojave desert, my credentials did not support his decision – I had been a wildlife rehabilitator in the Seattle area for only 3 years – I was not a biologist. Frankly I was disturbed by this. I wondered if he knew what he was doing. I was forced by these circumstances to learn what I could as quickly as possible. This wasn’t the last time that Jay did this with me. When the Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge in San Francisco Bay on a foggy November morning in 2007, over 1000 Surf scoters, Western grebes, Greater Scaup and others were coated in the bunker fuel that gushed from the vessel’s torn side. Jay was running the “washroom,” where the stricken birds were cleaned after being stabilized. At the end of the first day, Jay turned the room over to me. There was no time to argue. I did the best job I could. I am sure many wondered why he had placed such a difficult task in the hands of someone as un-noteworthy as I.

As with most who follow their own compass, Jay could be controversial. I would be disingenuous if I did not admit my own ambivalent feelings. In 2009 Jay and I had a falling out over decisions he made that I thought were damaging to our program and staff. I left IBR at this time, feeling betrayed. Ironically, Jay had once said to me that the large number of wildlife rescue organizations that had been started by people who had broken off from him in anger actually pleased him. He was glad to see our profession grow, even in this manner.

Two years later, while caring for scores of fish-oiled Brown pelicans with Bird Ally X, an organization I co-founded with others who left IBR in 2009, Jay sent me an email that he was glad we were “out there” working for wildlife. We exchanged occasional emails after that, until his death.

It may be odd to say that in Jay’s sickness was an opportunity, yet knowing he was gravely ill gave many of us a chance to reach out to him, to re-kindle warmth and to acknowledge and celebrate his profound impact. Jay’s death is a reminder to me, and perhaps to us all, that this world, damaged by people, is also repaired by people: not by gods, not by perfect beings, but by people – with conflicted, complicated mixes of motives, experiences, desires and most of all, a passion for the wild and an unshakeable conviction that action is necessary to protect and rescue our wild kith and kin when they are injured by our modern world.

I miss knowing Jay is out there. My grief is like your grief. We are glad he is at peace, and we mourn the absence of his life and breath. I wish him well in the next place his spirit ventures, and I wish you all well in the work that you do, everyday, on behalf of wild animals.

Take care,
Monte Merrick

photo of Jay, January 2009, speaking to volunteers at IBR in Cordelia, CA. photo taken by Laura Corsiglia