Why Is the Federal Government Killing Millions of Animals Every Year?

Trapped Raccoons

Story at-a-glance -

  • In 2013 alone, 4.3 million animals were snared, trapped, poisoned, or shot by the USDA’s Wildlife Services agency. Between 2004 and 2011, Wildlife Services killed over 26 million animals for the purpose of “protecting agribusiness” or “bolstering hunting opportunities.” Annually, the agency spends in excess of $100 million to kill wildlife.
  • The purpose of Wildlife Services is supposedly to eliminate invasive species, including feral hogs, nutria, tegus, and a variety of birds. However, the agency also has a Predator Control program that kills massive numbers of native wildlife.
  • The first criticism of Wildlife Services was back in 1964. In a report to the U.S. Secretary of Interior, a team of scientists expressed concern that the program of animal control was overreaching and was no longer a balanced component of a larger plan for wildlife husbandry and management.
  • More recently, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition demanding that Wildlife Services explain the reason behind each kill, the manner of killing, and who benefited from it. The authors of the petition characterized the agency as “rogue” and “out of control.”
  • Explanations by Wildlife Services have done little to silence critics. Several recent exposes have appeared in the media, and organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians have mounted efforts to hold the agency accountable.

By Dr. Becker

This is a truly sad, disheartening story, but it needs to be told to raise awareness about a hundred-year-old government entity that is wiping out native wildlife in massive numbers in this country.

For years, the U.S. government has killed enormous numbers of wild animals as part of the "service" it provides, and last year was no exception. In 2013, over 4 million animals  -- 4,378,456 to be exact -- were snared, trapped, poisoned, or shot by the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services.1

Wildlife killed or euthanized included birds numbering in the millions, more than 75,000 coyotes, 866 bobcats, over 500 river otters, 3,700 foxes, more than 12,000 prairie dogs, 11,237 raccoons, over 4,600 rabbits, 6,492 vultures, almost 1,000 red-tailed hawks, over 400 black bears, 321 wolves including 1 critically endangered Mexican gray wolf, a few golden and bald eagles, and at least 3 domestic animals including household pets.

Between 2004 and 2011, Wildlife Services killed over 26 million animals for the purpose of "protecting agribusiness" or "bolstering hunting opportunities." Annually, the agency spends in excess of $100 million to kill wildlife.

According to the Washington Post, Wildlife Services provides little detail about the reasons behind each killing, how the animals are killed, or what causes the mistakes that lead to the killing of animals that aren't even targeted.

USDA's Wildlife Services Seems to Be Overstepping Its Role

According to the agency's website, "The mission of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services (WS) is to provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist."2

WS receives requests from government agencies nationwide and works to resolve conflicts in a "strategic" way. "As wildlife damage increases, requests for assistance also increase," said agency spokeswoman Carol Bannerman. Ranchers and farmers pay half the cost to exterminate animals they decide are a threat.

Currently, the purpose of Wildlife Services is purportedly to eliminate invasive species brought into the U.S. from other parts of the world, including feral hogs, nutria, tegus, and hordes of starlings that destroy the habitats of native species. So that's the agency's role, but it plainly also kills native wildlife in huge numbers as part of a "Predator Control" program. And according to the Washington Post, it sometimes does so based exclusively on a homeowner's or farmer's personal perception of a threat.

Criticism of Wildlife Services Dates Back 50 Years

Wildlife Services has been around for 100 years, initially charged with clearing away wildlife for America's expansion into the west. People started taking notice of the agency's questionable scope and methods in the 1960s. In a 1964 report to the U.S. Secretary of Interior, a panel of scientists wrote, "The program of animal control… has become an end in itself and no longer is a balanced component of an overall scheme of wildlife husbandry and management."3

Then in 1999, the American Society of Mammalogists called on Wildlife Services, "to cease indiscriminate, pre-emptive lethal control programs on federal, state and private lands."4 Much more recently, the chairman of the society's conservation committee, Bradley Bergstrom, said:

"It makes no sense to spend tens of millions of dollars to kill predators, especially in the way that it's done, to the extent that it's done, when it can have cascading effects through the ecosystem, unintended consequences and nontarget consequences."5

In December 2013, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition demanding that Wildlife Services explain the precise reason for each kill of a native animal, who the kill benefits, and what killing method is used. The authors of the petition didn't mince words, calling the agency "rogue" and "out of control."

Members of congress have also questioned the agency. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon has called Wildlife Services "one of the most opaque and obstinate departments I've dealt with," according to the Washington Post. DeFazio has asked for information on the contents of poisons used by the agency that could pose a danger to people and non-targeted animals. He hasn't received a response and states, "We're really not sure what they're doing."

Is Wildlife Services Waging a "Staggering Killing Campaign"?

The response by Wildlife Services has done little to quiet critics. Lyndsay Cole, a WS spokesperson, defends agency activities by pointing out that it kills birds at hundreds of airports nationwide so they won't interfere with flight takeoffs and landings. She says some animals are exterminated because they pose a threat to endangered wildlife, while others, like raccoons, are killed as part of the National Rabies Management Program. Wolves are killed to "lessen the negative impacts of expanding wolf populations," despite the fact that wolf populations are still recovering from past programs to exterminate them.

The December 2013 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity called on the USDA and the Obama administration to develop a policy based on environmental science, demonstrating how removing wildlife affects the natural balance of the habitats.

Every action taken in nature has consequences. For example, the elimination of red wolves in the northeast led to a proliferation of coyotes. Where coyote populations thrive, foxes disappear. Foxes prey on deer mice, which carry ticks. More deer mice mean more ticks, and more tick-borne disease. The killing of wolves and other predators like bears allows deer populations to expand. Deer destroy trees that serve as habitat for other wildlife. And so forth.

Amy Atwood, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, calls the work of Wildlife Services "a staggering killing campaign, bankrolled by taxpayers" and says it is happening "beyond the view of most Americans."

For More Information

An in-depth examination of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services is far beyond the scope of this article. If you'd like more information on the agency – its activities, history, and the concerns of both conservation experts and the general public – I recommend the following reading:

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