Report — From the March 2016 issue

The Rogue Agency

A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species

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In 1998, Peter DeFazio sponsored an amendment to reduce funding to Wildlife Services by $10 million, from a total budget of $50 million. The bill passed in the House by a vote of 229 to 193. Then the American Farm Bureau went into action, bombarding members with phone calls and faxes. House Republican Joe Skeen, a New Mexico stockman whose ranch had been visited ninety-nine times by Animal Damage Control agents between 1991 and 1996, led the assault on the amendment. Within twenty-four hours, the House took the unusual step of revoting the bill. Thirty-eight lawmakers switched their votes from yes to no. “I’ve seen such a revote happen perhaps a half-dozen times in twenty-one years in Congress,” DeFazio told me.

In 2011, he tried again. He sponsored an amendment to the House agriculture appropriations bill to cut $11 million from Wildlife Services’ budget. The amendment, which would have returned the money to the federal treasury for deficit reduction, was endorsed by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Humane Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was defeated.

In 2012, DeFazio introduced a bill called the Compound 1080 and Sodium Cyanide Elimination Act, which would have banned the deployment of sodium cyanide for predator control and the use of Compound 1080 for any purpose. The bill died in committee.

Jonathan Lovvorn, the chief counsel at the Humane Society of the United States, says that he has tried and failed to rein in Wildlife Services through the court system. The agency’s statutory mandate “just says, ‘Kill wildlife,’ without any restrictions,” he told me. “There really is no law to apply that might restrain the agency, even with a sympathetic judge.”

Recently, I spoke on the phone with Brooks Fahy, the executive director of Predator Defense, a nonprofit group based in Oregon. Fahy has spent more than thirty years monitoring Wildlife Services. He doesn’t see much hope. “The political power of livestock is too strong,” he said. I asked Fahy about the Wildlife Services Reform Act, which DeFazio drafted but failed to propose in the last session. It would have banned aerial gunning, along with the use of neck and foot snares and M-44 cyanide devices, and mandated the housing of livestock behind barriers during lambing and calving season. It would have also required that “all available and viable nonlethal management and control methods” be attempted before lethal control is implemented. The nonlethal methods include electric fencing to shock and dissuade predators; “harassment and scaring devices,” namely “pyrotechnics and noisemakers, trained dogs, effigies, electronic devices such as recorded distress calls”; and “lights such as spotlights, strobe lights, and lasers.”

The bill itself was a compromise, fashioned to be politically acceptable to ranching interests by promoting the idea that livestock and predators can coexist on public lands. Fahy was skeptical. “We can have more fencing, sirens, and strobe lights,” he said, “but at what cost to the ecosystem and the wildlife?” And in the end it may be, as John Peavey’s experience suggests, that these measures will not work. Wolves, after all, were designed to eat sheep.

In the meantime, the lethal-control methods continue to bear unintended consequences. In 1998, Bill Guerra Addington, a third-generation Texan, tripped an antiquated M-44 that was designed to fire a .38 Special cartridge. He nearly lost his hand to the bullet. “I equate these predator-killing devices to land mines designed to kill people,” he wrote in a letter to DeFazio. In 2003, Dennis Slaugh, a rockhound from Vernal, Utah, pulled at an M-44 out of curiosity and was sprayed in the face with white poison dust. He began vomiting and rushed to a hospital. The cyanide has lingered in his system and is slowly starving his body of oxygen.

Brooks Fahy said that he has received several hundred reports from pet owners about the disappearance of dogs and cats owing to what the owners claim were Wildlife Services activities. He told me the story of a pit bull named Bella, who was killed in Texas, in 2011, by an M-44 trap. The trap was placed less than a thousand feet from the doorstep of Angel and J. D. Walker, the dog’s owners. According to Fahy, the trapper had received special permission from Wildlife Services to kill coyotes outside his normally assigned duty areas as a favor to his father, who leased ranchland adjacent to the Walkers’ property. The Walkers found Bella dead ninety feet from the trap. Her mouth was bloody. She had vomited. “She had a horrible, weird smell, not just a death smell,” said Angel.

The Walkers buried their dog, and the next day they complained to Michael J. Bodenchuk, the agency’s Texas director. “He never responded to us at all,” said Angel. The following week, the local trapper reset the M-44s that he had placed near the Walkers’ house, including the one that had killed Bella. One afternoon, returning home from school with her sons, Angel found three freshly killed coyotes hung on the fence along the road, with wire tied around their necks. She considered it a message from Wildlife Services.

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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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