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1:36 pm
Sun April 6, 2014

As Man Faces Off With Nature More Often, U.S. Agency Scrutinized

Originally published on Sun April 6, 2014 1:49 pm

The mission of the Agriculture Department's Wildlife Service is to mitigate conflict between humans and wildlife. But critics say some of its activities are cruel to animals and that it should be more transparent.

The USDA's inspector general is conducting an audit of the agency. Results are expected later this year.

Wildlife Services has been around in some form since 1895. In a video on its website, a Wildlife Services biologist demonstrates one of its biggest jobs, chasing birds from airports. In this case the biologist uses pyrotechnics to scare them.

USDA Administrator Kevin Shea says Wildlife Services' mandate is pretty simple.

"Our role is to help when people and wildlife come into conflict," Shea says, "try to mitigate the damage while not endangering any species or the land."

Those conflicts between people and wildlife have become increasingly common. Wildlife Services traps and kills invasive species like nutria, a possum-like rodent that tears up the wetlands around the Chesapeake Bay, and feral pigs, which are rapidly spreading across the U.S.

Out West, Wildlife Services is engaged in its most controversial activities.

"What Wildlife Services does is run around the country killing things like bears and mountain lions and coyotes and wolves and millions and millions of birds and other animals," says Andrew Wetzler, director of wildlife conservation for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC, along with other environmental groups, is a fierce critic of Wildlife Services. Wetzler says the agency is essentially an exterminating service for private ranchers, using tax dollars to kill predators.

"We know that they've killed 100,000 native carnivores every year," Wetzler says. "We know that they use poisons, they use aerial gunning from helicopters and airplanes, they use traps and snares, and they even club animals to death in their dens. But we don't know how much they use on each method or where the methods are used."

Another critic of the agency is Oregon Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio. DeFazio says he's tried to get answers from Wildlife Services officials about their activities, but without much luck.

"It is probably one of the most opaque, unaccountable agencies in the federal government," DeFazio says. "I've served on Homeland Security for a number of years, and I can safely say that the doings of Wildlife Services are much more obscure."

DeFazio says it's unclear how the agency spends its budget of about $87 million. He says ranchers and farmers have a right to kill predators that attack their livestock, but he doesn't think the government should be picking up the tab. He also questions some of the methods Wildlife Services employs, including cyanide and explosive traps.

"They use a shot shell that shoots cyanide after you pull on a bait, and so dogs frequently will pull on the bait and they will die a very horrible death," he says. "Humans have attempted to run over to their dogs and gotten secondary cyanide poisoning. That's happened in my district and elsewhere around the country."

Shea, the USDA administrator, says his agency collects fees from ranchers to pay for its work. He says lethal methods are used sparingly, and as a last resort.

"Sometimes the predators are in remote places where it's best handled through aerial hunting," he says. "Sometimes it's best handled by traps, and sometimes we can use very specific deterrents — for example, a livestock protection collar on sheep. Literally, only the predator who bites on that collar is ever going to be harmed by that poison."

Shea says Wildlife Services is working to become more transparent. He says every lethal encounter is now posted on its website, and he notes the agency's mission has been repeatedly reauthorized and funded by Congress.

A request by Rep. DeFazio and his Republican colleague John Camp of California led to the USDA's audit.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We turn now to a controversy that has nothing to do with social media. It concerns a federal government agency called Wildlife Services, which works to remove wild animals from places where they could come into conflict with humans. Sometimes the agency uses lethal methods, including poison and explosives. NPR's Brian Naylor explains.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Wildlife Services is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has been around in some form since 1895. In a video on its website, a Wildlife Services biologist demonstrates one of its biggest jobs, chasing birds from airports, in this case, using pyrotechnics - big bangs to scare them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PYROTECHNICS)

NAYLOR: USDA administrator Kevin Shea says Wildlife Services' mandate is pretty simple.

KEVIN SHEA: Our role is to help when people and wildlife come into conflict and try to mitigate the damage, while not endangering any species or the land.

NAYLOR: Those conflicts between people and wildlife have become increasingly common. Wildlife Services traps and kills invasive species, like nutria, a possum-like rodent that's tearing-up the wetlands around the Chesapeake Bay, and feral pigs, which are rapidly spreading across the U.S., but it's out west where Wildlife Services has engaged in its most controversial activities.

SHEA: What Wildlife Services does is run around the country killing things like bears and mountain lions and coyotes and wolves and millions and millions of birds and other animals.

NAYLOR: Andrew Wetzler is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which along with other environmental groups is a fierce critic of Wildlife Services. There are two complaints about the agency. One is how it uses tax dollars to kill predators like wolves and coyotes. Wetzler says it's essentially an exterminating service for private ranchers. And there are the legal lethal methods it uses.

ANDREW WETZLER: We know that they kill about 100,000 native carnivores every year. We know that they use poisons. They use aerial gunning from helicopters and airplanes. They use traps and snares and they even club animals to death in their dens, but we don't know how much they use on each method or where all the methods are used.

NAYLOR: Another critic of the agency is Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon. DeFazio says he's tried to get answers from Wildlife Services officials about their activities, but without much luck.

CONGRESSMAN PETER DEFAZIO: It is probably one of the most opaque, unaccountable agencies in the federal government. And, you know, I've served on Homeland Security for a number of years and I can safely say that the doings of Wildlife Services are much more obscure.

NAYLOR: Wildlife Services has a budget of some $87 million. DeFazio says it's not clear how the agency spends that money. He says ranchers and farmers have a right to kill predators that attack their livestock, but he doesn't think the government should be picking-up the tab. And he questions some of the methods Wildlife Services employs, including using cyanide and explosive traps.

DEFAZIO: They use a shot-shell that shoots cyanide after you pull on a bait. And so, dogs frequently will pull on the bait and they, you know, will die a very horrible death. Humans have attempted and run over to their dogs and gotten, you know, secondary cyanide poisoning. That's happened in my district and elsewhere around the country.

NAYLOR: Wildlife Services administrator Kevin Shea says his agency collects fees from ranchers to pay for its work. And he says lethal methods are used sparingly and as a last resort.

SHEA: Sometimes the predators are in remote places, where it's best handled through aerial hunting. Sometimes it's best handled by traps. And sometimes we can use very specific deterrents, for example, a livestock protection collar on sheep. And literally only the predator who bites into that collar is ever going to be harmed by that poison.

NAYLOR: Shea says Wildlife Services is working to become more transparent. He says every lethal encounter is now posted on its website and he notes the agency's mission has been repeatedly authorized and funded by Congress. The USDA's Inspector General is conducting an audit of Wildlife Services. Its findings are expected later this year. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.