Left to their own time-tested devices, all ecosystems will naturally ebb and flow towards a sustainable balance of predator and prey. And although this endless dance of ecological harmonization is eons-old, it is apparently not beyond the purview the government to cut in.
In a revealing investigation, Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson has uncovered some disturbing details regarding a little-known federal agency tasked with eliminating large numbers of some of North America's most iconic species. According to his reporting, the Wildlife Services, a branch of the Department of Agriculture, has been waging an irresponsibly haphazard war against wildlife – ironically, all in the name of conservation.
Many contentious predatory species, like coyotes and wolves, believed to be most prone to attack livestock and game animals, have been targeted by the Wildlife Service for 'selective' elimination (by steel-trap and aerial shooting). While the killings are meant to boost non-predatory wildlife populations, records show their methods are hardly discriminating.
Here's an overview of what Knudson found:
• With steel traps, wire snares and poison, agency employees have accidentally killed more than 50,000 animals since 2000 that were not problems, including federally protected golden and bald eagles; more than 1,100 dogs, including family pets; and several species considered rare or imperiled by wildlife biologists.
• Since 1987, at least 18 employees and several members of the public have been exposed to cyanide when they triggered spring-loaded cartridges laced with poison meant to kill coyotes. They survived – but 10 people have died and many others have been injured in crashes during agency aerial gunning operations over the same time period.
• A growing body of science has found the agency's war against predators, waged to protect livestock and big game, is altering ecosystems in ways that diminish biodiversity, degrade habitat and invite disease.
Even former Wildlife Service officers, like Carter Niemeyer who spent 26 years with the agency, doubt the group's operations would survive under greater scrutiny.
"If you read the brochures, go on their website, they play down the lethal control, which they are heavily involved in, and show you this benign side. It's smoke and mirrors. It's a killing business. And it ain't pretty," he says. "If the public knows this and they don't care, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. But they are entitled to know."
In all, more than 150 species have been killed by mistake by Wildlife Services traps, snares and cyanide poison since 2000, records show. A list could fill a field guide. Here are some examples:
Armadillos, badgers, great-horned owls, hog-nosed skunks, javelina, pronghorn antelope, porcupines, great blue herons, ruddy ducks, snapping turtles, turkey vultures, long-tailed weasels, marmots, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, sandhill cranes and ringtails.
Given the scale and broad sweep of these wildlife deaths, counting among them numerous protected species, steep legal consequences would most certainly befall the agency if it were not government sanctioned -- but some fear their exemption from legal confines may have corrupted their purpose.
"The irony is state governments and the federal government are spending millions of dollars to preserve species and then … (you have) Wildlife Services out there killing the same animals," says the president of the American Society of Mammalogists, Michael Mares. "It boggles the mind."
For more on this troubling look into the Wildlife Service's operations, see Knudson's full report.