WASHINGTON – For years, the massive toll of wild animals exterminated by the federal government as a service to a variety of things from airports to ranches has bounced up and down like a yo-yo.
Near the turn of the century, it hit a staggering 4 million. Two years later, in 2001, it fell to about 1.5 million and stayed relatively low for six years.
But in 2008, the number of kills rocketed to 5 million before trending downward to 3 million over the next four years.
Now it’s back up, well past 4 million in the most recent count, and critics are pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture outfit that does the killing to do a better job of explaining why.
Over 15 years, at least 40 million animals have been shot, poisoned, snared and trapped by Wildlife Services, which says only that the exterminations are a service to those who experience damage from wildlife each year. There’s little data showing the cause for each killing, the exact methods used and the reasons behind mistakes that lead to massive kills of animals that aren’t targeted.
Wildlife Services’ primary purpose is to eradicate invasive creatures introduced from other parts of the world. They include greedy feral hogs, giant swamp rats called nutria, big aggressive Argentine lizards called tegus and swarms of hungry starlings that destroy the habitats of animals native to the United States.
But Wildlife Services also kills native animals en masse, sometimes based solely on a homeowner’s or farm owner’s perception of a threat. Last year’s toll of 2 million native animals included 75,326 coyotes, 866 bobcats, 528 river otters, 3,700 foxes, 12,186 prairie dogs, 973 red-tailed hawks, 419 black bears and at least three eagles, golden and bald.
Birds that invade airports and swipe cattle feed at farms contribute to the high totals. Non-native European starlings, sparrows, pigeons and such accounted for 87 percent of animals killed. Birds in general are singled out as a nuisance.
Last December, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition demanding that the agency explain the exact reasons why it makes each kill of a native animal, for whose benefit and the methods used. The petition called Wildlife Services a rogue agency that was out of control.
At the time, a Wildlife Services spokeswoman, Lyndsay Cole, responded that it kills birds at 800 airports nationwide so they won’t gum up the works of airplanes. Cole said the department kills some animals that are a threat to endangered animals. Other animals, such as raccoons, are eliminated as part of the National Rabies Management Program.
Cole said the agency is guided by a science-based decision-making model. For example, wolves are killed to lessen the negative impacts of expanding wolf populations, even though those populations are still recovering from earlier government programs that aimed to exterminate them.
Wildlife Services has been around under different government names for more than a century. It essentially cleared away wildlife for America’s westward expansion.