A small prop plane takes off into a sun-dappled sky and circles over Western pastureland, being filmed from a distance, as a woman’s offscreen voice intones “three more shots … two more shots,” counting off the distant sound of rifle fire. “What are they doing, shooting the pups?” she asks.
That’s a scene from the new NRDC documentary “Wild Things,” which was screened late last month for policy makers on Capitol Hill and is providing new momentum for reforming Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for killing 100,000 coyotes, bobcats, foxes, wolves, bears, and mountain lions every year. Methods of death include spring-loaded poison cartridges -- a.k.a. traps that shoot sodium cyanide into an animal’s mouth when it tugs on bait -- and gunning down predators from low-flying aircraft.
“It’s blatant killing,” former Wildlife Services employee Gary Strader says in the film, explaining the mindset of the agency where he used to work. “It’s just flying around -- there’s a coyote, let’s kill it. There’s a coyote, let’s kill it. Let’s kill it, let’s kill it. You know, it’s just every coyote they see, they’re gonna kill it.”
And that’s just what the agency does on purpose. A Sacramento Bee investigation last year found that Wildlife Services has also accidentally killed more than 50,000 animals since 2000, including bald eagles, endangered wolverines, family dogs, and several species considered threatened or imperiled by wildlife biologists. And 10 plane crew members have died in crashes since 1989 during aerial gunning operations, including two in 2007, the Bee reports.
What’s the point of all this death and destruction? The Department of Agriculture says it’s spending about $30 million a year to protect commercial livestock from coyotes, wolves, and other predators. (It’s harder to argue with some of Wildlife Services’ other roles, like controlling rabies and removing geese from airport runways -- although some people object to lethal measures there, as well.) The economic case for killing predators to protect livestock is pretty shaky, though. A 2001 Governmental Accountability Office report could find no independent studies of the costs and benefits associated with Wildlife Services, and it urged the agency to develop more nonlethal means of protecting livestock, including wildlife contraceptives and scare devices triggered by motion sensors.
The scientific argument for lethal control is even worse. As the Bee reports, a growing body of scientific research has found that by killing predators in such large numbers, Wildlife Services is “altering ecosystems in ways that diminish biodiversity, degrade habitat, and invite disease.”
“It's a killing business,” a former agency employee tells the Bee, “and it ain't pretty.”
Indeed it ain’t, as the new documentary -- which will premiere this weekend at D.C.’s Environmental Film Festival -- makes clear. (Full disclosure: “Wild Things” was produced by the films division of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which also publishes OnEarth.) The film includes a scene of a coyote whose paw is caught in a Wildlife Services trap and nearly severed after two weeks of the animal struggling for release. And although there are no close-up shots of the aerial gunning, there are descriptions of the practice by former Wildlife Services employees who took part. It’s a disturbingly common practice: since 2001, more than 340,000 coyotes have been gunned down from planes and helicopters across 16 Western states -- an average of 600 a week.
Efforts to reform the agency go all the way back to 1963, when the indiscriminate killing of wolves, bears, and mountain lions across the West led a panel of scientists to condemn the program in a report to the Department of Interior. Hearings and more critical reports followed, and President Nixon could see that predator control had gone too far. In 1972, he signed an executive order banning the use of poison, but it was later amended (for the worse) by Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan dumped the poison ban entirely, allowing the slaughter to continue.
“Wild Things” includes an appearance by Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio, who along with California Congressman John Campbell has introduced legislation to ban the poisoning of predators (just like Nixon!), but whose efforts went nowhere in the last Congress. DeFazio and Campbell plan to try again this year, but a change in the law isn’t really needed. The agency itself could decide to do things differently, if there’s enough political and popular pressure for reform. Because death from the skies is really no way to manage our nation’s wildlife.
Scott Dodd is the editor of OnEarth.org and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was a newspaper reporter for 12 years, contributing to coverage of Hurricane Katrina that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has written for Scientific...Scott Dodd is the editor of OnEarth.org and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was a newspaper reporter for 12 years, contributing to coverage of Hurricane Katrina that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has written for Scientific American, Slate, and other publications.MoreClose
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