In the western US, conflict between ranchers and wild animals who might harm their stock is an old, old story. But in 1915, the Federal Government started helping ranchers and farmers out by killing animals suspected of attacking livestock, eventually forming an agency known as Animal Damage Control.
Wildlife Services' roots reach back to 1915, when Congress – hoping to increase beef production for World War I – allocated $125,000 to exterminate wolves, starting in Nevada.
Popular among ranchers, the effort was expanded in 1931 when President Herbert Hoover signed a law authorizing the creation of a government agency – later named the Branch of Predator and Rodent Control – "to promulgate the best methods of eradication, suppression or bringing under control" a wide range of wildlife from mountain lions to prairie dogs.
Federal trappers pursued that mission with zeal. They dropped strychnine out of airplanes, shot eagles from helicopters, laced carcasses of dead animals with Compound 1080 – notorious for killing non-target species – and slaughtered coyotes, wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears across the West.
Their efforts drew protest and calls for reform.
"The program of animal control … has become an end in itself and no longer is a balanced component of an overall scheme of wildlife husbandry and management," a panel of scientists wrote in a 1964 report to the U.S. secretary of Interior.
The report was followed by hearings, another critical federal review in 1971, unflattering press and an executive order by President Richard Nixon banning poison for federal predator control. "The time has come for man to make his peace with nature," Nixon said in a statement at the time.
The killing has continued on a broad scale. In 1999, the American Society of Mammalogists passed a resolution calling on the agency, renamed Wildlife Services in 1997, "to cease indiscriminate, pre-emptive lethal control programs on federal, state and private lands." Today, the society is considering drafting a new resolution.
Agency's actions have stirred anger and concern from private citizens, scientists and state and federal fish and game officials.
In 2003, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources received a tip that a golden eagle – one of the largest birds of prey in North America and a species protected by three federal laws, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – was struggling to free itself from a leg-hold trap in the remote Henry Mountains.
Roger Kerstetter – an investigator with the state wildlife division – found the trap, but no eagle. Nearby, though, he spotted feathers poking out of the sand.
"They turn out to be the neck feathers of a golden eagle. And one of them comes out with a .22 bullet attached to it," Kerstetter recalled.
On the trap was another clue. It was stamped: Property of the U.S. Government. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also joined the investigation. In federal court two years later, a Wildlife Services trapper pleaded guilty to killing the eagle and paid a $2,000 fine. Overall, agency records show that 12 golden and bald eagles have been killed by mistake by agency traps, snares and cyanide poison since 2000. In all, more than 150 species have been killed by mistake by Wildlife Services traps, snares and cyanide poison since 2000, records show.
Armadillos, badgers, great-horned owls, hog-nosed skunks, javelina, pronghorn antelope, porcupines, great blue herons, ruddy ducks, snapping turtles, turkey vultures, long-tailed weasels, marmots, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, sandhill cranes and ringtails.
Many are off-limits to hunters and trappers. And some species, including swift foxes, kit foxes and river otter, are the focus of conservation and restoration efforts.
"The irony is state governments and the federal government are spending millions of dollars to preserve species and then … (you have) Wildlife Services out there killing the same animals," said Michael Mares, president of the American Society of Mammalogists. "It boggles the mind."
Raccoons are most often killed by mistake, followed by river otters, porcupines, snapping turtles, javelina, striped skunks and muskrats. But there are other accidental victims that are often more keenly missed: dogs.
One was Maggie, a tail-wagging, toy-fetching border collie-Irish setter mix beloved by Denise and Doug McCurtain and their four children.
Last August, Maggie's spine was crushed when she stepped into a vise-like "body-grip" trap set by Wildlife Services near the family's suburban Oregon home to catch a nonnative rodent called a nutria.
"How in the heck can a government agent put a dangerous trap out in a residential neighborhood?" Denise McCurtain said. "It's absolutely disgusting."
The family has filed a claim for damages.
"Never once did anyone come to us and apologize," she said. "It was like they pretended it didn't happen."
On average, eight dogs a month have been killed by mistake by Wildlife Services since 2000, records show. Some believe that figure is low, including Rex Shaddox, a former agency trapper in Texas.
We were actually told not to report dogs we killed because it would have a detrimental effect on us getting funded," said Shaddox, who worked for the agency in 1979-80 when it was called Animal Damage Control.
"If we were working on a ranch and killing dogs coming in from town, we didn't report those," said Shaddox, 56. "We buried them and got the collars and threw them away. That's how we were taught to do it."
In 2005, Wildlife Services used M-44, small devices that shoot cyanide gas into an animal’s mouth when triggered, to kill more than 12,700 animals nationally.
Photo courtesy USDA
There have already been close calls. Over the past 25 years, at least 18 employees and several private citizens have been injured by M-44 cyanide cartridges. Here are a few examples from agency records.
From 1987: "We will never know but it is very likely the fact that (the employee) was carrying his antidote kit … may have saved his life.
From 1999: "The cyanide hit the left forearm of the employee, causing (it) to scatter, with some cyanide hitting his face. He started to cough and felt muscle tightness in the back of his neck. The employee used two amyl nitrate antidote capsules. … He used two more amyl nitrate capsules on the way to the clinic. The clinic doctor administered oxygen and two more amyl nitrate capsules. The employee was air-flighted."
From 2007: "The individual kicked or stepped on the M-44 devices and cyanide was ejected into his eyes. Individual reported that his eyes were irritated and burning."
Agency officials downplay the risk. "Although use of M-44 devices has resulted in some human exposure reports, most involved program staff and minor or short-term symptoms," said Carol Bannerman, a Wildlife Services spokeswoman.
"A majority of exposures to members of the public resulted from the involved individual's disregard of warning and trespass signs or intentional tampering with the devices," she added.
In 2003, Dennis Slaugh, 69, was hunting for rocks and fossils in Utah when he spotted what he thought was a surveyor's stake. Curious, he bent down to have a look.
"I just kind of brushed it and it blew up in my face and put cyanide all over me," said Slaugh, a retired county heavy equipment operator. "I was instantly sick. I was so sick I was throwing up."
Later, he recovered the M-44, which is engraved with the words, U.S. Government. Slaugh believes it was set by Wildlife Services. The agency denies responsibility.
M-44s were banned in California by Proposition 4 in 1998, but Wildlife Services still uses them on American Indian land in Mendocino County.
"Over the past five years, there has been no unintentional take," said Larry Hawkins, the agency's California spokesman.
"I'm deeply shocked," said Fox, who pushed for the M-44 ban as a coordinator with the Animal Protection Institute. "They are a rogue agency that believes they are above the law and can employ their lethal wares wherever they want – regardless of state law."
Poisoning predators with cyanide is not the agency's only risky practice. Killing coyotes from low-flying planes and helicopters is, too.
Since 1989, several employees have been injured in crashes and 10 people have died, including two in Utah in 2007, one of them a good friend of Strader, the former agency trapper.
Other agency records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal for the first time just where the agency kills wildlife, intentionally and accidentally, across California. And in many of those locations, there is conflict and concern.
Inyo County, in the eastern Sierra, is where two Wildlife Services hunters – working under contract with the California Department of Fish and Game – have been tracking and shooting mountain lions to protect an endangered species: the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.
Becky Pierce, a mountain lion biologist with the state, said the effort has been marred by unnecessary killing, including,
In 2009, when a Wildlife Services hunter shot a female mountain lion with kittens.
"They got left to starve, waiting for mom to come back," she said. "I'm not saying we don't sometimes have to remove lions if they are (preying) on sheep. But everything should be done in a humane manner. And that isn't humane."
Tom Stephenson, who directs the sheep recovery effort for Fish and Game, declined to comment. But Andrew Hughan, a department spokesman, said the kittens may have survived.
"To say that a female lion was taken and her cubs left to die is completely subjective. They are resourceful creatures," Hughan said.
Pierce, who has studied lions for two decades, disagreed. "They were relying on the mother for milk. It would be a miracle if any of them survived," she said.
In March 2011, two more mountain lion kittens, just days old, were mauled to death in the Sierra when a Wildlife Services hunter's dogs raced out of control and pounced on them. Their mother was then shot, too.
"We all want to see bighorn sheep protected," said Karen Schambach, California field director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "What gives me the greatest angst is how inhumane some of this stuff is. For Wildlife Services to allow dogs to go tear newborn kittens apart is outrageous."
No mammal draws more agency lethal force in California and the West than the coyote. Records show that most are killed in rural regions, such as Lassen, Modoc and Kern counties, where they are considered a threat to livestock.
"It's a very valuable program," said Joe Moreo, agricultural commissioner in Modoc County. "We have very good trappers up here, and we're fortunate we have them."
But coyotes are also killed where people like to hear their howls and yips, including Alpine County, south of Lake Tahoe.
Since 2007, Wildlife Services has killed more than 120 coyotes in Alpine County.
"Coyotes are part of our magical landscape," said John Brissenden, a former county supervisor who manages Sorensen's Resort along the west fork of the Carson River. "Our primary motivator for people coming here is the wildlife and the outdoors. That's what our business is built on. It's what Alpine County's commerce is built on. To take that away makes no sense."
Many coyotes were killed in the middle of winter, when they are easier to spot and shoot, including 15 in February 2010. Hawkins, the agency spokesman, said the animals were killed "in the protection of livestock." Asked where – public land or private? – Hawkins said he didn't know.
Brissenden would like some answers.
"We are 97 percent state- and federal-owned," he said. "There is very little grazing here. To have a federal agency eliminate these animals without public review is astonishing and appalling."