By THE REGISTER-GUARD
Deficit hawks in Congress ought to take notice of Rep. Peter DeFazio’s description of Wildlife Services as having one of the “least detailed budgets of any federal agency.” If the agency received the scrutiny DeFazio and Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., are seeking, Congress might discover what critics have been saying for decades: This low-profile arm of the U.S. Agriculture Department wastes money killing wildlife, with no demonstrable benefits for the public or the environment.
Wildlife Services was created in 1886, and the mindset that guides its work remains rooted in the 19th century: To protect livestock and big game, populations of predators such as coyotes, wolves, bears and cougars must be suppressed. The arsenal at the agency’s disposal, however, has expanded beyond traps and rifles to include a variety of poisons. All of the methods of killing predators result in the death or injury of many animals that are not targeted, including endangered species, pets and humans.
In this era of austerity, the budgetary angle may offer the best inducement for Congress to take a close look at the $60 million the federal government spends on Wildlife Services each year. Nothing else has worked. In 1964 a panel of scientists said in a report to the U.S. Department of the Interior that the agency “no longer is a balanced component of an overall scheme of wildlife husbandry and management.” Nothing happened. In 1971, following another critical review, President Nixon banned the agency’s use of poisons. President Ford rescinded the ban.
The agency’s imperviousness to reform is a testament to the political power of ranchers and big-game hunters, but a 2012 letter from the American Society of Mammologists to the bureaucratic parent of Wildlife Services, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, might cause even those interests to reconsider their position.
The letter notes that the number of animals killed each year by Wildlife Services is “remarkably consistent”: between 72,000 and 90,000 coyotes, for instance, and between 2,000 and 3,000 red foxes. “The consistency of these numbers, year after year, implies either that the killing is creating biological sinks that quickly fill, or that reproduction is compensating for the increased mortality.” Either way, neither ranchers nor hunters are getting the desired benefit.
Taxpayers certainly are not. And then there’s the larger problem of Wildlife Services’ approach: The animals targeted by the agency serve important ecological purposes. When wolves or coyotes are suppressed, jackrabbit populations boom. When prairie dog colonies are exterminated, black-footed ferrets lose their prey and trigger costly recovery plans under the Endangered Species Act.
DeFazio and Campbell are calling for hearings on Wildlife Services’ activities, and have asked the USDA’s inspector general to investigate the agency. That’s the least Congress and the department should do.
The Register-Guard, of Eugene, Ore., published this editorial on July 22.