Report — From the March 2016 issue

The Rogue Agency

A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species

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After Rex Shaddox left Wildlife Services, in 1980, he worked as an undercover narcotics cop in Texas and Colorado, an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States, and a wildlife-crimes detective with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, where he is still posted. He has continued to follow Wildlife Services’ activities as a part of his current job. “If you’re a wildlife cop,” he told me, “you constantly hear about Wildlife Services doing bad things.”

Between January 1990 and September 1991, Shaddox led an undercover investigation into the illegal distribution and use of a poison called Compound 1080 in Wyoming. The tasteless, odorless toxin has no known antidote. A single ounce can kill 200 adult humans, or 20,000 coyotes, or 70,000 house cats.

Stockpiles of the poison were supposed to have been destroyed or turned over to the Environmental Protection Agency after it was banned in 1972, but the State of Wyoming never complied with the destruction order. Instead, Wildlife Services, along with members of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, the Wyoming Farm Bureau, and the state’s Department of Agriculture, secretly sold Compound 1080 to ranchers for use in what Shaddox described as a conspiracy for “the illegal poisoning of wildlife, the illegal lacing of cadavers with poisons on public lands, and the illegal killing of endangered species.” Not one government official implicated in the conspiracy went to jail. “Some of these guys got better jobs in Wildlife Services,” Shaddox said.

Doug McKenna, who retired in 2012 after twenty-five years as a wildlife-crimes enforcement officer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, worked with Shaddox on the Wyoming investigation. I asked McKenna whether he thought Wildlife Services had reformed its ways. “I don’t believe it for a minute,” he said. “The agency still disregards federal and state environmental, wildlife-protection, and resource regulations.”

He told me about an Arizona rancher named Jose Manterola, who, in 2002, had poisoned — accidentally, by his account — bald eagles that were roosting on the public-land allotments where he was running sheep. “We went to Wildlife Services and asked them for help with the investigation. The trappers told us, ‘We can’t talk to you because this guy is a client of ours.’ I was shocked. We’re a federal agency asking another federal agency for help in a criminal investigation, and we were stonewalled. We eventually prosecuted the rancher, and his federal grazing lease was revoked, but we got no help from Wildlife Services.”

When domestic pets were accidentally killed by poisons that had been distributed by Wildlife Services, Shaddox told me, the motto was “Shoot, shovel, and shut up.” Shaddox said that Charles Brown, the supervisor who poisoned the collie with M-44, ordered him to “cover up the killing of these nontarget dogs, to remove the collars and bury the dead animals, and make sure always to separate the collars and the bodies.” (Brown, who is now the agency’s eastern regional director, declined to comment for this article.)

I asked Shaddox whether he believed that Wildlife Services was acting extralegally today. “I know absolutely that it’s still going on,” he said. “I hear it from state and federal wildlife agents. I know absolutely that the cover-up of the illegal killing of domestic pets, the illegal poisoning of wildlife, and the illegal use of 1080 and M-44s is still going on.”

Samuel Sanders, another former trapper I spoke with, worked for Wildlife Services in Nevada for seven years. He rose to the rank of supervisor before quitting in 2011. “Violating both federal and state law when it comes to the application of pesticides is encouraged by Wildlife Services,” Sanders told me. Employees, he said, weren’t properly certified for the use of poisons in the field. “The certification test was fixed so that employees always pass. The supervisor reads the answers off to employees.”

Shortly before he quit, Sanders filed a complaint against Wildlife Services in the federal Merit Systems Protection Board court, charging that his higher-ups retaliated against him for whistleblowing about the agency’s violations of federal and state law. The judge dismissed the case on a technicality.

“Although many employees have witnessed some of their co-workers and even supervisors violate laws,” Sanders told me, “they say nothing, fearing the retaliation they’ve witnessed when others have reported the violations. They think it will just stop happening after time, but it doesn’t. They know the supervisors are aware of the violations. When an employee does report violations by W.S. employees or management, upper management does a token investigation to cover up the incident. Even the national leaders in D.C. have been made aware of this, and they do the same thing.”

In 2012, a Wildlife Services trapper named Jamie Olson posted a series of graphic photos to Facebook that appeared to depict his dogs attacking and killing a coyote caught in a leg trap in Wyoming. He included portraits of himself smiling beside a coyote’s mutilated cadaver. (Olson declined to comment for this article.)

In response to the photos, Peter DeFazio wrote a letter to Thomas Vilsack, the secretary of the USDA, requesting an audit of “the culture within Wildlife Services.” His letter stated that Olson “may have apparently committed acts of animal cruelty” that violated the agency’s directives about trapped wildlife. Those directives include instructions that trapped animals “be dispatched immediately” and that employees “exhibit a high level of respect and professionalism when taking an animal’s life.”

An internal investigation by Wildlife Services concluded that the trapped coyote was being used by Olson to train his dogs “how to ‘posture’ when confronting a trapped coyote.” Shaddox scoffed at this account. “I’ve read the report and findings and looked at the photos. The dogs are absolutely attacking and killing the coyote in the series of pictures,” he told me.

Olson was not fired or reprimanded for his treatment of the coyote. His behavior, according to Wildlife Services documents, “violated no existing rules.”

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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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