Is Wildlife Services a rogue agency out of control?

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

CREDIT: David J Swift

What is it with the rural West’s devout loathing of coyotes – the culturally reinforced, knee-jerk impulse to raise the rifle and shoot one from the pick-up for no other reason than it’s there?

There’s no convincing scientific reason that says the haphazard, indiscriminate mowing down of individual coyotes imparts any lasting benefits for big game prey species or for protection of private livestock on public lands.

Nor is there a biological basis or compelling rationale found in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation – that guides wildlife management and policies on the continent – for holding coyote derbies.

As a lifelong hunter, I know. Ethical hunting, as it was taught to me, isn’t about killing animals out of spite or negative aggression. It’s about sustenance (eating what you kill), love of the outdoors, reverence, expressing gratitude (in the West, for public lands) and leading new generations by example.

So what’s the anti-coyote thing really about?

Brooks Fahy has invested a lot of time – 30-plus years – ruminating on the topic. No conservationist has devoted more continuous attention to what he calls “America’s war on wildlife,” and it has nothing to do with hunting.

The founder of Predator Defense, Fahy says an arm of the federal government few urban Americans have ever heard of leads this war. Wildlife Services, a branch of the Department of Agriculture, is in his words, “a rogue agency out of control.”

Sure, Wildlife Services does some vital work, such as preventing birds from striking passenger jets landing at commercial airports, rabies control, and repelling pests, such as exotic starlings, that lay waste to farmer’s crops.

But Fahy says it’s merely cover for Wildlife Service’s intensive focus on killing wildlife predators, sometimes using banned or dangerous poisons; gunning animals from airplanes; trapping and snaring carnivores based upon dubious evidence; killing imperiled non-target species; and even accidentally slaying people’s pets.

Fahy’s award-winning documentary “Exposed: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife” is now free for viewing on YouTube at, but be forewarned: while the half-hour film sails along, it’s tough to stomach the conduct of Wildlife Services illuminated by former employees turned whistleblowers, some of whom lay out damning conduct of the agency’s activities in Wyoming.

Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio has pushed for a major overhaul of Wildlife Services, saying the outfit is utterly incapable of reforming itself. He has been an ally of a push by Predator Defense, Project Coyote and other groups to get the ultra-lethal biocide 1080 and the poison ejector devices known as M-44s, filled with sodium-cyanide, banned because of dangers they pose to people, pets, non-target animals and the environment.

I’ve been writing about Wildlife Services, formerly known as Animal Damage Control, since the early 1990s and over the last quarter century little has changed. Yes, Wildlife Services is involved with researching non-lethal methods of preventing conflict between predators and wildlife, but state directors have been callous to legitimate criticism.

One irony is that during this age in which rural Westerners accuse federal agencies of being incompetent, unaccountable, and non transparent, Wildlife Services has been given a free pass from Sagebrush Rebel lawmakers. Yet if any government entity is guilty of evading oversight, it is Wildlife Services.

Reporter Ben Goldfarb penned an excellent piece titled “Wildlife Services and its eternal war on predators” for the Jan. 25, 2016 edition of High Country News. This excerpt from his story tells us pretty much all we need to know: “In 2014, Wildlife Services exterminated 796 bobcats, 322 wolves, 580 black bears, 305 cougars, and 1,186 red foxes. And that’s nothing compared to coyotes. That year, the agency killed 61,702, one coyote every eight and a half minutes.”

Hundreds of millions of tax dollars have been spent killing public wildlife, sometimes far in excess of the value of private livestock receiving subsidized protection on public lands.

In the third week of March, former Wildlife Services and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trapper Carter Niemeyer told me that over the last couple of decades one wolf has been killed for every documented dead beef cow.

Sometimes lethal control is necessary, but Niemeyer says Wildlife Services is guilty of overkill based on exaggerated, unverified claims.

In the March 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Christopher Ketcham wrote a hard-hitting examination of Wildlife Services that closely echoes Fahy’s documentary. It also mirrors revelations brought to light in an explosive series by reporter Tom Knudson that appeared in The Sacramento Bee.

No recent Republican Congress, contemptuous of the federal government, has subjected Wildlife Services to intense scrutiny. Why is that?

New West columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone” featuring photos by Thomas Mangelsen and only available at Mangelsen is featured in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine, now on newsstands.