Sept. 22, 2005 – A pair of environmental groups is taking a federal agency to task for killing nearly three million animals in 2004 as part of an effort to tamp down so-called "nuisance" populations.
The Wildlife Services, formerly known as Animal Damage Control, functions as an arm of the US Department of Agriculture, mandated to reduce the threat of livestock and agricultural loss as well as damage by predators, rampaging invasive species and dangerous animals. It often operates at the request of farmers and municipalities. The Servicesâ€™s kills, or animal "takes," totaled approximately 2.7 million last year, an increase of over a million from 2003.
The agencyâ€™s 2004 service kills included 191 wolves, 75,674 coyotes, 359 cougars, 10,806 geese and swans, and 15,508 sparrows. Among the categories of animals that experienced an increase in kills were beaver, black bears and crows. Somewhat surprisingly, the vast majority of the 2004 kills â€“ 2.3 million â€“ was a species of bird, the European Starling.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group whose members are government land management employees, and Sinapu, a Colorado-based non-profit dedicated to carnivore restoration, both say recent figures show Wildlife Services may be too quick to use deadly force measures. Poison and shooting were the lethal methods employed most often by the Services, though other lethal force tactics included traps and aerial hunting.
"The toll on ecosystems wrought by this one agency is jaw-dropping," said Sinapu spokesperson Wendy Keefover-Ring in a statement.
Still, Wildlife Services estimates that "animal damage" to US agriculture tops $900 billion, and that $71 million of livestock are killed by hungry predators.
Meanwhile, despite the recent increase in overall animal kills, Wildlife Sevicesâ€™ figures show that â€“ though down from 2003 â€“ the agency "dispersed" many millions more problematic animals using non-lethal methods, like acoustic devices and chemical contraception in 2004.
The Wildlife Servicesâ€™s National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) is the only federal science facility devoted exclusively to wildlife damage management, according to an agency fact sheet. The Services said that in 2004, about $12 million, or 75 percent, of the NWRCâ€™s total funding was spent on efforts related to developing or improving non-lethal controls.
However, PEER and Sinapu say the freedom with which the Wildlife Services dispenses poison in natural settings puts other wildlife and even domesticated animals at risk as well. For example, they say, poison laid in cattle feedlots meant to eliminate starlings ended up killing cats, owls, magpies, hawks and raccoons.
"Most of the public has no idea that a significant portion of the federal wildlife management budget is actually devoted to extermination; animals that inconvenience humans become expendable â€˜varmintsâ€™ that are then dispatched with stunning efficiency," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a press statement. "With all of our unmet social and infrastructure needs, it is amazing that the federal government finances an entire fleet of aircraft for the purpose of hunting wildlife."