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March 02, 2011

A Call for Reform of Federal Wildlife Program

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the Animal Damage Control Act, which provides the principal statutory authority for the work of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services (WS) division. This anniversary is as good an occasion as any to speak of the need for reform within the agency.

For years Wildlife Services has been a source of discouragement and indignation for animal protectionists, environmentalists, and scientific and professional societies, primarily because of its generally indiscriminate predator killing work. Annually, WS is responsible for the lethal removal of tens of thousands of predators from both public and private lands. Predominantly coyotes are killed — often before they cause any harm to livestock or other property — but also wolves, bears, and mountain lions, as well as non-target victims including endangered species and pets. In addition, WS kills millions of “nuisance” birds by poisoning (ironically, often for eating the seeds being grown for bird food). Hundreds of species of birds, mammals, and even fish are affected by WS operations.

Mountain lion
iStockphoto
Ask Wildlife Services to stop using two wildlife poisons.

The HSUS has never called for abolition of Wildlife Services, although we have been one of its most steadfast critics. We recognize the need for a federal agency to lead and coordinate responses to the growing number and variety of human-wildlife conflict situations occurring throughout the country. It could be helpful to have a federal agency focus on research, implementation, and the promotion of best practices concerning human-wildlife conflicts, but that dream has never been realized. It’s been more of a free-for-all, and a wildlife killing spree, with taxpayers footing much of the bill.

It’s going to be a great challenge to develop consensus around the basics of topics like predator control, bird-aircraft strikes, and agricultural depredations; since each set of problems comes with its own set of complications. The research arm of WS has contributed significantly to the development of non-lethal techniques, but the operational side of the organization has clung to lethal control approaches, doing what’s familiar even in the face of public criticism and the availability of more effective non-lethal approaches. What’s needed now is a redirection of current federal resources toward environmentally sound, lasting, and humane solutions.

With respect to ranchers, for example, this could take the form of tax incentives for those who employ non-lethal techniques, like fencing, lambing sheds, guard animals, lighting systems and other measures to protect their herds and flocks. Already, there is evidence that such approaches produce the win-win outcomes that concerned parties have wanted to achieve for a long time. There are certain common practices sanctioned and carried out by WS — like the use of M-44 cyanide devices, denning (killing pups in their dens), and the poisoning of birds and prairie dogs — that simply must be eliminated. We can say the same for Compound 1080. After years of campaigns to completely eliminate the use of this highly toxic metabolic poison, the U.S. government still allows limited uses.

Wildlife Services should also establish an Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, for such a panel could ensure that animal welfare becomes a first-order concern for WS as it has with other federal agencies overseeing sectors of the economy where animals are involved. With better practices, WS can do a better job of truly helping wildlife and people.

In my upcoming book, The Bond (April 5, Harper Collins/William Morrow), I share my vision of a “humane economy,” one in which solutions and outcomes that do not result in harm or death to animals are rewarded. I usually speak of individual and private sector forces as the instigators of such a shift, but it’s also true that federal agencies like Wildlife Services and the Bureau of Land Management can do their part in leading and reinforcing innovation in the service of human and animal interests alike.

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