A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Killing Agency

Coyotes hunt rodents, not cattle and deer. Photo by Tom Knudson.

They call it Wildlife Services. But the last thing on Earth that this branch of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is serving is wildlife.

A remarkable series of articles by Tom Knudson in The Sacramento Bee (they deserve a Pulitzer) uncovers what goes on at the secretive agency, whose main constituents would seem to be the ranching industry.

Part One opens with the story of a Wildlife Services agent accidentally trapping a majestic golden eagle in a neck snare and being told by his boss to bury the evidence.

The newspaper lists some of its findings:

• 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.

This graphic illustrates how Wildlife Services goes about its work:


The agency claims to try using “nonlethal control” first, but says there are emergencies that call for the killing.

“If we can use nonlethal control first, we usually do it,” said William Clay, deputy administrator of Wildlife Services. “The problem is, generally when we get a call, it’s because farmers and ranchers are having livestock killed immediately. They are being killed daily. Our first response is to try to stop the killing and then implement nonlethal methods.”

What’s apparently given no consideration by the agency is that all of this carnage and destruction is taking place because of two highly invasive species: humans and their cows. Nature is being sacrificed to the beef industry.

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.

And family pets.


Maggie, a border collie-Irish setter mix belonging to the McCurtain family, died when her spine was crushed by a vise-like “body-grip” trap set close to their home in suburban Oregon by Wildlife Services.

“Never once did anyone come to us and apologize,” Denise McCurtain said. “It was like they pretended it didn’t happen.”

In Part Two, Tom Knudson describes the fool’s errand of Wildlife Services setting out to protect wild mule deer from coyotes. But nature has had millions of years to figure out what makes for a healthy eco-system, and humans basically are clueless. Their efforts simply create more problems.

Kill too many coyotes and you open a Pandora’s box of disease-carrying rodents, meadow-munching rabbits, bird-eating feral cats, and, over time, smarter, more abundant coyotes. You also can sentence the deer you are trying to help to slow death by starvation.

“There is a widespread perception that predators are the root of all evil and I’m tired of it,” said [Kelly] Stewart [of the University of Nevada]. “More often than not, if you have predation on a mule deer population, you’re going to have a healthier population.”

The numbers are staggering.

While fewer bobcats are killed today, the numbers of three other major predators shot, trapped and snared by the agency have risen. In 1970, agency employees killed 73,100 coyotes, 400 black bears, 120 mountain lions. By 2011, the tally had climbed to 83,200 coyotes (up 14 percent), 565 black bears (up 41 percent) and 400 mountain lions (up 230 percent).

In fact, the more coyotes you kill, the more you end up with. The smarter ones survive and you end up with an enhanced species: the super-coyote.

In any case, a recent study in Wildlife Monographs reports that coyotes rarely prey on deer. They’re much more interested in mice and rabbits. Kill the coyotes, and the rodent population rises.

Tom Wasley, a deer biologist, has tried to explain to Wildlife Services the futility of humans trying to control wildlife.

“I’ve been told my analysis is a morale breaker, that they don’t like me because I’m doing objective analysis,” he said. “The director told me he’s got a tough time keeping his guys’ spirits up when they read what they’re doing has yet to demonstrate any measurable benefit.”

In Part Three, Tom Knudson writes that the environmental group WildEarth Guardians has filed suit against Wildlife Services in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, asking that the agency’s activities be halted until it prepares a new, more comprehensive environmental impact statement. The suit also calls for a halt to its aerial gunning of predators in federally designated wilderness areas.

It says the agency’s 1994 document analyzes environmental impacts on only 17 species. “Fast-forward to 2010 when Wildlife Services killed over 5 million animals, representing a total of approximately 300 species,” the lawsuit says.

It also alleges that Wildlife Services violated the Wilderness Act in Nevada by conducting aerial gunning operations in federally designated wilderness areas that are off-limits to most human activities. “You can’t even ride a bicycle in a designated wilderness area,” [Wendy] Keefover [of WildEarth Guardians] said. “Yet Wildlife Services strafes these pristine areas with low-flying aircraft.”

Read the whole series at The Sacramento Bee.