The recent news that Mendocino County is re-evaluating its contract with the federal wildlife-killing program known as Wildlife Services barely caused a ripple in the West Coast news cycle.
But for biologists like me who have dedicated their lives to studying the most responsible ways to manage the nation’s wildlife, the county’s decision to pause and consider using nonlethal methods of controlling their wild animal populations offers a glimmer of hope.
Wildlife Services and I go way back.
In 1948 I was a field assistant state biologist in California doing research on the widespread impacts on wildlife of the poison known as 1080. The indiscriminate killer not only left foxes, coyotes and other animals dying torturous, convulsive deaths for more than 24 hours but resulted in the deaths of raptors and other nontarget animals that fed on tainted carcasses.
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It wasn’t long thereafter I ran a Wildlife Services trapper off my family’s property above Napa Valley.
Protecting the long-term heritage of our nation’s wildlife has been at the heart of my life’s work. In the early 1970s I was involved in a series of initiatives to protect American wildlife, including being an author of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. One of the important challenges at that time was trying to stop our government from slaughtering our native wild animals – by the millions.
Virtually all of the animals were killed not because scientific research indicated it was an effective management technique but simply because the livestock and agriculture industries wanted them dead.
In an effort to curb the unnecessary killing, a policy I authored stopped the use of poisons in animal control and outlined science-based steps to manage wild animals. This policy was reinforced in 1979 under the Carter administration. But gains were short-lived as subsequent administrations reverted to archaic “preventative” policies designed to simply kill as many potential “problem animals” as possible.
Chilling 2014 “kill” numbers released this month by Wildlife Services reflect how much work is left to be done.
The agency reports killing 2.7 million animals during fiscal year 2014. That means that just since 1996 Wildlife Services has shot, poisoned and strangled by snare nearly 30 million native animals.
Despite increasing calls for reform, the latest kill report indicates the reckless slaughter of wildlife continues, including 322 gray wolves, 61,702 coyotes, 580 black bears, 305 mountain lions, 796 bobcats, 454 river otters, 2,930 foxes, three bald eagles, five golden eagles and 22,496 beavers. The program also killed 15,698 black-tailed prairie dogs and destroyed more than 33,309 of their dens.
Effecting change in Wildlife Services’ activities became even more difficult in 1986 when oversight of its activities was transferred from the Interior Department to the Agriculture Department. During that transition, the Agriculture Department did not follow the routine practice of establishing specific rules governing how Wildlife Services was to operate. As a result, the agency’s activities are not guided by the kind of legally binding regulations that typically structure other federal agencies and require transparency.
But change can come from local communities as well.
The wise decision in Mendocino to stop and consider the consequences of the wildlife killing came in response to legal pressure from a coalition of animal protection and conservation groups. But in choosing to pause and determine the best course forward, officials there remind us that we can stop the killing in the places we live, if we so choose.
To be sure, we’ve got a long way to go. In California, 80,000 animals are trapped and killed each year by Wildlife Services on behalf of commercial agriculture.
But Marin County showed Wildlife Services the door nearly 15 years ago, replacing its Wildlife Services contract with a nonlethal predator control program that decreased predation by 62 percent at one-third the cost.
And in 2013, after a nudge from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors opted not to renew that county’s contract with Wildlife Services.
Now Mendocino County can step up and set a responsible example of how to manage wildlife in a way that reflects the basic rules of science, reason and moral decency.
Lee Talbot is a former head of Environmental Sciences for the Smithsonian Institution who served as chief scientist of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality for Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. He is currently a professor of environmental science, international affairs and public policy at George Mason University and environmental adviser to the World Bank, United Nations agencies and foreign governments.