Wildlife advocates criticize predator control program
RENO – Critical of what they say is a traditionally secretive operation, wildlife advocates Wednesday urged the U.S. agency charged with killing coyotes and other livestock predators to accept public comment and open up to public scrutiny a nationwide safety review of its program.
The Wildlife Services branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service killed 1.6 million animals last year. Two more human fatalities also were recorded – the ninth and 10th since 1979 – when a small plane crashed in Utah in June during an aerial gunning operation aimed at killing coyotes.
William Clay, the agency’s deputy administrator, announced in a newsletter earlier this month that the agency had launched a national review of its safety measures.
The review began after the latest fatal crash in June and is expected to be completed next June, agency spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said Wednesday. She said it was warranted because they hadn’t done one for 10 years.
But critics, including some in Nevada where a nation-high 4,665 coyotes were killed in the aerial program last year, say past reviews have been incomplete and brought about few changes.
“If your newly announced review follows the pattern of past internal reviews by WS, we fear that you will simply continue to perpetuate unnecessary and unwarranted dangers to the public, the environment and to the nontarget wildlife that your agency purports to serve,” the leaders of two groups said in a letter to Clay on Wednesday.
In addition to the 10 fatalities, 28 people have been injured in a total of 51 crashes during agency flights since 1979, they said.
Wendy Keefover Ring, director of Sinapu based in Boulder, Colo., and Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington, D.C., said that in addition to the aerial program, the agency has mishandled the storage of dangerous biological agents and pesticides.
Two recent audits by USDA’s Office of the Inspector General faulted the agency for inaccurate inventories, lack of controls against theft and unauthorized sales and violations of bioterrorism regulations, Ruch said.
Keefover Ring said the agency’s traps and techniques also have been linked to inadvertent deaths of wild and domestic animals.
“Wildlife Services has identified so many safety problems it is a wonder that it can focus on any one of them,” Ruch said.
Keefover Ring said the review should be conducted by outside experts.
“They just have this history of being completely opaque and rogue and unaccountable to the public in everything they do,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
“Following every accident, Wildlife Services promises a review but then goes out and commits the same mistakes over and over,” she said. “This internal audit needs to be made transparent, and the public needs an ability to comment and influence it.”
Dr. Don Molde, a retired psychologist and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society, said he’s had little success getting answers from the agency about why so many coyotes are killed in Nevada. The agency killed 87,000 coyotes nationwide last year.
“I’ve been fussing with them for 30 years or so about killing of coyotes and mountain lions and trapping and poisoning and snaring – all the miserable stuff they do,” said Molde, the former director of mental health for Nevada’s prison system.
“They are kind of secretive. They don’t like scrutiny of what they do, which is basically go out and kill things,” he said.
Bannerman said the agency intends to make the findings of the review public, but she did not know if public comment would be incorporated. She said both internal and external experts would be involved in the review.
“We certainly respect the fact there are people who don’t necessarily agree with lethal control. But we also know there are farmers and ranchers that depend on us,” Bannerman said.
During 2004, Wildlife Services killed 75,000 coyotes across the country, 32,000 of those through the aerial-gunning program, she said.
That same year, 231,000 sheep, lambs, cattle and calves were lost to predators, Bannerman said.
“Studies show without effective livestock protection, both lethal and non-lethal, those numbers would be much higher,” she said.
Bannerman said she didn’t agree with the critics who say the agency didn’t make any significant changes after a 1998 review. She said that review found a lack of standardization in training and oversight. As a result, among other things, she said the agency:
– Reorganized a standardization program for pilots and crews
– Established a maintenance program consistent with Federal Aviation Administration standards
– Required a USDA employee to visit and observe each maintenance facility at least once a year
– Increased the number of previous flight hours to 1,500 for pilots before they fly an aerial-gunning mission
– Require 40 hours flight training time before doing low-altitude flights
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