Report — From the March 2016 issue

The Rogue Agency

A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species

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In September 2014, I drove into Idaho’s Salmon-Challis National Forest with Natalie Ertz’s brother, Brian, who had spent many hundreds of hours tracking Wildlife Services trappers to document their kills. We had gotten information about a pending lethal-control action against a pack of wolves in Moyer Basin, a remote valley of the Yellowjacket Mountains, where Wildlife Services agents, according to our source, would be out prowling the sky in one of the Piper Cubs, a noisy yellow single-prop known as the Killer Bee.

We camped on a forested bluff overlooking the valley. We’d have a fine view of the airplane’s kill zone. The landscape was splendid. The soft-contoured mountains faded in distant blue shrouds, the great forests of conifers sighed in the breeze, the autumn aspens glowed in the slant light of the afternoon sun, and the rich bottomlands were flooded behind beaver dams. “Prime wolf habitat,” Ertz said.

A September storm erupted during the night and bent our tents, pelting us with rain and sleet, and soaking our sleeping bags. Ertz awoke before me, keeping his ear to the sky at dawn. But no Killer Bee.

Over breakfast he recounted the two days he’d spent in the spring of 2010 looking for members of the Buffalo Ridge wolf pack, which he heard had been targeted with a kill order. The pack had been seen near Squaw Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River that ran seventy-five miles south of Moyer Basin. Ertz arrived before the trappers, ascended through an aspen grove, and found where the pack was denning. The adults were on a hunt, and had left their pups behind. The afternoon was overcast, Ertz said, and threatening rain. Each time the thunder rumbled, the pups, young and innocent, howled in response, volleying their high-pitched cries in a kind of conversation with the sky. “It was one of the most profoundly wild experiences of my life,” Ertz told me.

Ertz and I set out in his car, driving up and down rough dirt roads for several hours until at midday we found a flatbed Ford parked in a meadow next to a stream. The decals on the door said usda, and a ramp attached to the bed suggested that it had carried an A.T.V. whose driver was off in the backcountry.

There was a warning on a fence post nearby:

mechanical devices (traps, snares, or other restraining devices) have been placed in this area to capture animals causing damage or harm. these devices and the animals captured in them are the property of the united states government.

The notice had been issued by Wildlife Services.

We waited. After two hours, an A.T.V. came trundling toward us, driven by a trapper in his thirties who wore a hooded sweatshirt and a trucker’s cap. Strapped across the dashboard was a four-foot pole with a loop at its end. The loop is meant to cinch around a wolf’s neck so that an animal can be killed without close contact.

The trapper wouldn’t give his name. I asked him about the trapping of wolves in Moyer Basin. “I’m not supposed to be talking to you,” he said. “Talk to Todd Grimm” — referring to the Idaho state director of Wildlife Services.

Indicating the nearby sign, I asked what kinds of traps he was using, where they were located, and whether they posed a risk to the public. “Talk to Todd,” he said. “That sign has warned you, and that’s all I’m going to say.”

When I asked for a phone interview with Wildlife Services, Lyndsay Cole, an assistant director of public affairs at the USDA, asked me to provide all my questions in writing. I submitted thirty-five questions related to specific points in this article and to Wildlife Services policy as a whole. Cole didn’t answer the questions; instead, she emailed me a single-page statement with links to various public-relations documents the agency had put out. “Wildlife Services experts use a science-based Integrated Wildlife Damage Management (IWDM) decision-making model,” the statement said. “Activities are conducted to minimize negative impacts to overall native wildlife populations.” Cole eventually responded to questions sent by a fact-checker from this magazine. She stated, in part, “We aren’t able to speculate on methods that may have been used against policy in the past,” and called the examples of agency misbehavior “not representative.” When I asked Wildlife Services if I could talk with Todd Grimm, the agency did not respond to the request.

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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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