Death Count

Feds go gunning for endangered species

Imagine this newspaper ad: "Hunters wanted. Must be willing to kill endangered species by air or by trap. Experience not necessary. Enthusiasm a must."

You can bet your gun rack that every knuckle-dragger in town would be drooling at the door.

Fortunately, most Americans realize that killing endangered critters isn't just ethically heinous; it's also a big legal no-no. Which raises this question: Why is a federal agency using taxpayer dollars to kill such animals, and then playing hide-and-seek with the facts?

Welcome to the world of Wildlife Services. Southern Arizona residents will recall this U.S. Department of Agriculture division for its shooting spree last year in the San Rafael Valley near Sonoita. Invited by several area ranchers, airborne federal gunners ultimately sniped 200 coyotes. (See "Fire From the Sky," March 23, 2006.)

But coyotes are just the beginning. The most recent stats available (finally, and perhaps grudgingly, posted on the agency's Web site) present a grim tally. In 2005, Wildlife Services killed 1.7 million animals. And a sizable slice of those were endangered, threatened or otherwise specially protected animals.

For example, the agency killed one golden eagle with a neck snare, one bald eagle with a sodium cyanide gun and two bald eagles with leg-hold traps. Over that same time, the agency snuffed two grizzly bears in leg snares, and a grand total of 252 gray wolves by bullet or trap.

Wildlife activists faced a tussle in getting those stats, says Wendy Keefover-Ring. She spearheads carnivore protection for Sinapu, a Colorado-based conservation group. She says Sinapu began pestering Wildlife Services way back in June to produce the numbers, "and they told us they would be published on their web site by Feb. 16," she says.

On the anointed date, "we went to their Web site, where they now had a disclaimer saying they weren't going to put (the numbers) up after all," Keefover-Ring says. Sinapu and the New Mexico-based Forest Guardians then filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the tallies. A month later, Wildlife Services finally posted them.

In an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly, Wildlife Services spokeswoman Teresa Howes writes that "there were some technological issues that prevented WS from placing the information on the Web site; they were able to get it done a couple of days later when they got the glitches worked out."

Keefover-Ring calls that pure bunk. "I have FOIA requests with them that are five years old and have never been fulfilled," she says. "They are definitely a rogue agency, and they don't want anybody to know what they're doing."

Dating back to 1915, this agency has operated under a variety of titles, from Animal Damage Control to the current euphemistic Wildlife Services. Its "integrated pest management" programs are implemented with a budget approaching $100 million, and exterminations are typically carried out at the request of livestock growers and hunters.

But conservationists blame such policies for decimating large predator populations--including a startling number of endangered species. And that number is on the upswing, says Melissa Hailey, staff attorney for Forest Guardians. "The data showed that they had killed less animals overall in 2005 than they had in 2004. But there had been a huge increase in the number of endangered species they had killed. For instance, the 252 gray wolves killed in 2005--that's appalling to a lot people."

She suspects Wildlife Services of being less than eager to publish those stats. "My gut reaction is they're more comfortable fielding questions about their inability to post data," she says, "than about why they are slaughtering charismatic species."

But in her e-mail, Howes downplays the killing of endangered species. "... Yes, there is occasion that incidental take does happen," she writes. "When this does occur, WS is subject (to) and does cooperate with the rigors of an investigation and scrutiny of the regulatory agency that would conduct an investigation."

So how many such investigations have occurred? Probably zero, says Hailey. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "would be in charge of investigating and prosecuting a person or any entity for illegally taking an endangered species, whether purposeful or incidental.

"But that type of duty isn't even funded by the (Fish and Wildlife Service). And I'd bet that they would never be exercising their prosecutorial discretion against another federal agency for incidental or direct taking of an endangered species."

The upshot: "While Wildlife Services may be cooperating," Hailey says, "I think they would also tell you they aren't in any real danger of facing consequences for those actions."

According to USFWS spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown, her agency does not have a unit dedicated to investigating endangered-species deaths. She adds that other agencies, such as Wildlife Services, routinely get permits letting them off the hook for the "incidental" killing of endangered species.

Slown says wasn't aware of any investigations of Wildlife Services for killing endangered species. And after calling around her agency, "Nobody seemed to think that there was a big problem with it, necessarily."

But Melissa Hailey has a big problem with it. "These are animals that people not only care about, but are paying taxpayer dollars to recover all across the United States," she says. "And at the same time, we're paying Wildlife Services to remove them."

Also on the Wildlife Services Kill List for 2005

  • 500 badgers
  • 22 arctic foxes
  • 1,697 gray foxes
  • 30 kit foxes
  • 2,172 red foxes
  • 330 mountain lions
  • Nine minks
  • 2,164 bobcats
  • 72,817 coyotes
  • 507 river otters
  • 2,844 woodchucks and marmots
  • 33,469 beavers
  • 9,922 raccoons
  • 1.2 million starlings
  • 300,000 other assorted birds, including song birds, water birds, hawks and a snowy owl
  • 6,832 striped skunks
  • One Mexican wolf
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