Expert Voices

USDA Wildlife Services Should End Indiscriminate Killing (Op-Ed)

Zack Strong is an NRDC wildlife advocate in Bozeman, Mont. This op-ed was adapted from one that appeared on The Wildlife News. Strong contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Each year Wildlife Services — a little-known agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — shoots, traps and poisons millions of animals, including about 100,000 native carnivores, ostensibly to resolve conflicts between people and wildlife. However, thousands of these animals are killed unintentionally, and many more are killed before any conflict has even occurred.

In 2012, Wildlife Services mistakenly killed several black bears with M-44s, neck snares and foothold traps. (Image credit: Gib Myers.)

How can that be?

As NRDC's recently released film Wild Things explains, the short answer is because federal — and most state — laws still allow the agency to use indiscriminate methods that often kill "non-target" and "non-problem" animals and species. The film (which continues its national tour with a screening in Bozeman today!) carefully documents the non-selective nature of many of the lethal devices and methods used by Wildlife Services, and interviews former Wildlife Services agents who explain that, inevitably, these practices kill many wild animals by mistake.

For example, Wildlife Services uses spring-loaded devices called M-44s that shoot cyanide into the mouth of whatever animal happens to tug on the baited head. According to the agency's data, in 2012 alone, these devices were used in 16 states to poison more than 14,600 animals. Of these, more than 330 were killed unintentionally, including wolves, foxes, skunks, opossums, raccoons, bobcats and black bears.

Each year, Wildlife Services mistakenly kills thousands of wild, native animals with indiscriminate traps, snares and poison. (Image credit: USDA Wildlife Services)

Wildlife Services agents also use a variety of traps and snares. These devices often capture non-target animals, including rare and threatened species such as wolverines, lynx and grizzly bears . According to Wildlife Services' own data, in 2012, the agency mistakenly caught and killed more than 520 animals in leghold traps and more than 850 in neck snares, including mountain lions, river otters, pronghorn antelope, deer, badgers, beavers, turtles, turkeys, ravens, ducks, geese, great blue herons and even a golden eagle.

Frustratingly, these non-selective methods continue to be used, even though their indiscriminate nature has been known for decades. For example, in 1975, a former government-employed trapper testified before the U.S. Congressabout the non-selective nature of leghold traps, as referenced in the book "Cull of the Wild: A Contemporary Analysis of Wildlife Trapping in the United States":

"Even though I was an experienced, professional trapper, my trap victims included non-target species such as bald eagles and golden eagles, a variety of hawks and other birds, rabbits, sage grouse, pet dogs, deer, antelope, porcupines, sheep and calves . . . . My trapping records show that for each target animal I trapped, about 2 unwanted individuals were caught. Because of trap injuries, these non-target species had to be destroyed."

And scientists continue to describethe indiscriminate nature of snares. While studying the impacts of wolf snares on moose, Alaska biologist Craig Gardner reported in the journal Alces:

"Wolf snares can be even less selective than snares set for smaller furbearers because cable diameter and loop circumference are larger, set height is higher, and the size and strength of a wolf require that minimum breaking forces must be high. . . . Based on my 15 years of experience releasing nearly 40 moose from snares and discussions with other Alaskan biologists, I concluded that most moose restrained in wolf snares die either at the capture site or from frozen limbs or nose subsequent to release."

In 2012, Wildlife Services used poison, snares, traps, aircraft and other devices to kill more than 76,000 coyotes. (Image credit: Larry Orr.)

Another particularly ugly method employed by Wildlife Services is shooting predators from planes and helicopters — sometimes killing them, sometimes just catastrophically wounding them. In 2012, more than 3,000 coyotes were killed this way in my home state of Montana alone.

Although it targets specific species, this practice is also indiscriminate because it does not differentiate between problem and non-problem animals (i.e., those that are habituated or have preyed on livestock versus those that have not — and may never). Instead, this type of "aerial gunning," as it is called, has a single goal: to wipe out as many predators in an area as possible, in the hopes of artificially inflating big-game populations that humans like to hunt, or in the words of one agency official, to "clear swaths of land of predators" before livestock arrive to graze.

Of course, in the absence of large carnivores, ungulate populations may grow too large, destroy vegetation, and more easily transmit diseases. And scientists such as Robert Crabtree with the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center have found evidence that predators like coyotes respond to lethal persecution by producing more pups, thus potentially increasing the risk of livestock predation (because most depredating coyotes are adults trying to feed pups).

If you're a topical expert — researcher, business leader, author or innovator — and would like to contribute an op-ed piece, email us here.

Perhaps most egregiously, Wildlife Services is largely funded by taxpayer dollars, and many of its operations occur on federal and state lands. But much of the trapping, poisoning and aerial gunning is done to benefit livestock and hunting interests. This means that in many instances, the federal government is using public funds on public lands to kill publicly owned wildlife — to benefit a private few.

In the end, there is simply no justification for "accidentally" poisoning, maiming and destroying thousands of native, wild animals year after year — animals that are not bothering anyone, not causing any harm; the exact animals we should most want to keep alive. These creatures are more than just "mistakes" to be chalked up as regrettable tallies on some bureaucratic spreadsheet. They are important contributors to ecosystems, providers for their mates and litters, and great sources of awe and appreciation for millions of Americans.

In 2012, Wildlife Services mistakenly killed dozens of ungulates with neck snares and foothold traps, including several pronghorn antelope. (Image credit: Larry Orr.)

In today's world, where selective technologies exist for the occasional problem animal that might need to be removed, and effective, nonlethal alternatives are available to protect livestock, there is simply no place left for outdated, brutal and indiscriminate traditions of lethal control.

That is why NRDC recently supported a ban on body-gripping traps and snares in the City of Los Angeles. It's why we've opposed the trapping and snaring of wolves in the northern Rockies. It's why we've pushed for federal legislation prohibiting the use of poisons to kill wildlife. And it's why we'll continue to work toward reasonably reforming Wildlife Services — particularly its program of "predator control" — by banning the use of indiscriminate poisons, requiring prioritization of nonlethal prevention measures, and mandating more transparency about the reasons, regions and dollars spent on killing wildlife — especially the "mistakes."

The author's most recent op-ed was "Montana Landowners May Soon Shoot, Trap More Wolves." This op-ed was adapted from one that appeared on The Wildlife News. Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google +. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

National Resources Defense Council