Environmental Issues: Wildlife

Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, was a major force in eliminating wolf and grizzly bear populations in the continental United States. Today, the program spends over $100 million annually to kill more than one million animals.

Some of Wildlife Services’ work, such as preventing bird strikes at airports and controlling the spread of rabies, benefits the public interest. But its current predator control program damages the environment and wastes taxpayer dollars.

Predator Control: Out of Control

The core purpose of Wildlife Services’ predator control activities is to prevent commercial livestock losses from predation by wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and other wild carnivores. Working directly with commercial operators and state and local governments, Wildlife Services uses a combination of lethal control methods, like trapping, aerial gunning, poisoning, and denning (killing young in their dens), and some non-lethal control methods.

But driven by narrow agricultural interests, these predator control activities often ignore the greater public need for a healthy environment, fiscal responsibility, and safe public lands, raising some serious questions about how the program is being administered.

Should the focus be on killing predators? The USDA's own statistics show that most livestock losses come from weather, disease, illness, and birthing problems, not predation. Wildlife Services continues to "preventatively" kill more than 100,000 native carnivores each year, even when the effectiveness of such killing is unproven or, worse, counterproductive.

Exactly how much does lethal predator control cost? The program’s actual annual price tag is unclear. No truly independent cost-benefit analyses of the predator control program have been conducted, and the structure of Wildlife Services' budget tends to obscure the full cost of specific control methods to taxpayers.

What about unintended consequences? Lethal control methods the program employs have led to dozens of injuries and deaths from aircraft crashes, poisoned pets (and even some people), and the degradation of ecosystems that rely on healthy predator populations to function. Some efforts have even increased the reproduction rates of the same animals they’re attempting to control.

Who benefits? Wildlife Services responds directly to ranchers and state fish and game agencies that complain about predation or potential predation, and portions of Wildlife Services’ staff salaries may be paid by private associations. Those private parties aren’t required to show that they’ve tried preventative techniques before the killing begins. And records of which operations are assisted and at what level are not available to the public.

The Path Forward

Wildlife Services’ predator control work cries out for reform. NRDC recommends the following first steps:

  • Bring more transparency. Wildlife Services’ practices and spending should be more transparent, in line with other federal programs, so the public can assess how taxpayer dollars and natural resources are being used.
  • Embrace science. A more scientific and rational approach to predator control will balance environmental health and human safety against the demands of a few narrow interests.
  • Reassess the program’s environmental impact. This predator control work operates under a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) finalized in 1994. Wildlife Services should revise this outdated PEIS, fully evaluating the environmental effects of predator control based on the latest and best available science.
  • End the worst of the worst killing methods. Wildlife Services can and should immediately end one of the cruelest, most hazardous and environmentally harmful killing methods—the use of two deadly predator poisons, Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide M-44 devices.
  • Require the use of nonlethal prevention methods. Wildlife Services, and the private parties it assists, should be required to use or attempt to use a range of nonlethal deterrence methods before agreeing to cooperate in the lethal control of predators.

last revised 2/11/2013

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