Report — From the March 2016 issue

The Rogue Agency

A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species

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When I went to Idaho in June 2014 to document what Wildlife Services calls “control actions,” I asked the agency if I could accompany its trappers in the field. I was told by a spokeswoman that this was not possible. She explained that “only wildlife-management professionals or persons directly involved are allowed on operations, in order to conduct a safe operation.”

I called up Lynne Stone, a wildlife advocate who lives in Ketchum, Idaho, to ask about probable locations for control actions in the state that summer. Stone had cultivated sources — which she refused to disclose — who fed her this highly guarded information.

We met in a café in Hailey, ten miles south of Ketchum. Stone told me that the killing of wolves by Wildlife Services was “merciless and indiscriminate.” In July 2012, for example, trappers discovered four wolf pups holed up in a culvert near Idaho City. The pups were killed immediately. The reason, according to Wildlife Services, was that a single sheep had been killed by one or several “offending” wolves from a pack in the area. “Wolves generally give birth around mid-April, so these four pups were likely just over three months old,” Stone told me. “They were totally dependent on their pack to feed them. How can three-month-old pups be ‘offending’?”

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Stone had gotten word that a wolf named B450, a gray male that was the four hundred and fiftieth wolf to be radio-collared by the state’s Department of Fish and Game, was on the move in the Sawtooth Valley, forty miles to the north. In 2009, B450 had survived the destruction of his father, mother, brothers, and sisters, who were alleged to have attacked livestock near the town of Stanley, Idaho, and were shot by Wildlife Services trappers in airplanes and helicopters. For two years, B450 had wandered central Idaho alone, but in the spring of 2012 he found a mate, who bore him three pups. They formed a new pack. It was likely, Stone told me, that B450’s pack would encounter cattle and sheep grazing on the valley’s lush summer grass, and that Wildlife Services would be called in if the wolves opted to prey on the ready meat.

A day after talking with Stone, I drove to the Sawtooth Valley with Natalie Ertz, the founder of WildLands Defense, a nonprofit that monitors wolf packs and their habitats. As we traveled on a dirt road near the headwaters of the Salmon River, Ertz listened on her radio monitor, hoping for a transmission from B450’s collar. A storm blew in from the west, the temperature plummeted, and the sky shook with snow. “Wait,” she said. She got out of the truck to inspect a frozen pile of scat in the road. It was the leaving of a coyote.

We drove on, and passed a man on a horse who was herding several dozen bleating sheep. “Tasty little meals for a wolf,” Ertz said. She admitted that she didn’t like ranchers. “It’s not personal,” she said. “It’s that ranchers, as a means of doing business, get Wildlife Services to kill wolves for them.”

That night we found a campsite on a benchland under tall pines. We set our tents and built a fire and listened again for the chirrup of B450 on the receiver. Ertz stood up and howled in the night, but no answer came. Not even the coyotes sang.

We listened again for the signal in the morning, hiking through the wet forest after the storm had passed and the weather had warmed. Nothing. “That’s good,” said Ertz. “Farther away he is from people, the better.”

Two weeks later, on June 29, after we were gone from the Sawtooth Valley, a calf was allegedly killed by one wolf or several. The calf’s owner called Wildlife Services, whose agents set traps to kill “all offending wolves” in the area. By July 2, a yearling called B647, the son of B450, was found near death in a trap and was killed by an agent. On July 9, a subadult female from the pack, B648, was shot by Wildlife Services. It required two more days to bait and catch B450 in a leghold trap. A Wildlife Services agent killed him too.

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is a fellow at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Great Republican Land Heist,” appeared in the February 2015 issue.

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