By Darryl Fears,They say U.S. critter assassins work in secret, quietly laying traps, lacing food with poison, sniping at targets from helicopters. Few people know exactly how the hits go down; the methods are largely hidden.
What’s certain is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s little-known Wildlife Services program kills up to 3 million animals a year, mostly those deemed a nuisance but also some that agents kill by mistake, including endangered species.
Now, in a turnabout, the hunter is the target. A petition seeks to reduce the power of Wildlife Services and shine a light on its practices, claiming its agents have “gone rogue,” overstepping the mission to protect the public by killing indiscriminately.
There’s no dispute that Wildlife Services plays a valuable role by eliminating invasive animals such as nutria and starlings that are a menace. But critics have questions: How many is too many? Does the agency euthanize wildlife too often on behalf of farmers and ranchers without regard to ecosystems?
The petition filed in December of 2013 by the Center for Biological Diversity isn’t the first time that animal rights activists have squared off against Wildlife Services, but this time their coalition includes politicians who agree that the agency is too secret and too deadly. Even some federal workers frown on it; staff members at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service quietly dismiss Wildlife Services agents as “gopher chokers.”
“Wildlife Services is one of the most opaque and obstinate departments I’ve dealt with,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.). “We’re really not sure what they’re doing. I’ve asked the agency to give me breakdowns on what lethal methods they’re using. They can’t or won’t do that. We’ve asked them to tell us what goes into their poisons. They won’t say.”
DeFazio and several colleagues requested a congressional hearing on the agency’s practices without success, so they pushed the USDA inspector general to conduct an audit, which was announced this month.
“The WS program is inefficient, inhumane and in need of a review,” the lawmakers wrote in a September letter to Inspector General Phyllis Fong. They said that the frequent killings of top predators, such as wolves, bears and coyotes, benefit “a small proportion of the nation’s private agriculture” and other interests.
Wildlife Services said in response that it has nothing to hide. Answering questions by e-mail, a spokeswoman said that the bulk of its work is to protect humans.
“For example, we work with the aviation community to protect the public by reducing wildlife hazards at more than 800 airports around the country,” spokeswoman Lyndsay Cole said. “Wildlife Services’ efforts to protect threatened and endangered species are conducted in more than 34 states. Wildlife Services also operates the National Rabies Management Program, which distributes oral vaccines in 16 states.”
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