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Friday, September 18, 2015

OIG Audit Fails to Address USDA’s Cruel War on Wildlife

It’s a government program that’s more than 100 years old, uses outdated and ineffective practices, costs tens of millions of tax dollars, and kills and maims tens of millions of animals, including unintended victims such as endangered and threatened species, and beloved family pets.

No wonder members of Congress and thousands of concerned citizens have urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address these critical problems with its archaic Wildlife Services program, especially the unacceptable and cruel practices that the program conducts in the name of lethal predator control—using toxic poisons, steel-jawed leghold traps, and aerial gunning of wildlife.

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The auditors glossed over the cruel methods that federal agents use, such as leaving animals to suffer in snares, traps, or from poisons. Above, a coyote in a leghold trap.  Photo by Dick Randall

At the request of U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., former Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., and Sen. (then-Rep.) Gary Peters, D-Mich., the USDA’s Office of Inspector General agreed to conduct an audit of the controversial program. The audit was a long time coming, for an agency using a 19th century model of wildlife management and failing to adapt to modern concerns or technologies. In the past decade alone, the Wildlife Services program killed nearly 34 million wild animals, with taxpayers footing a large part of the $1.14 billion bill.

For so many of us, this brought hope that finally the program would be exposed for what it is: a perpetual, irresponsible war on wildlife on behalf of a few private special interests, allowed to operate without transparency, as in the Wild, Wild West. Earlier this year, The Humane Society of the United States released a new white paper, “Wildlife Disservice: The USDA Wildlife Services’ inefficient and inhumane wildlife damage management program.” The paper proposed a series of common-sense reforms, such as incorporating animal welfare and conservation into the decision making process, eliminating the most inhumane and indiscriminate killing methods, such as toxic poisons, and updating the program’s environmental impact statement.

The OIG audit released yesterday, however, answers none of the concerns posed by the lawmakers and citizens who requested the investigation, and offers no pathway for reform. The auditors simply glossed over the extremely cruel methods that federal agents use, such as leaving animals to suffer in snares, traps, or from poisons that did not act quickly. They provided no insight into how more than $1 billion was spent from 2004 to 2013, much of it from federal tax dollars, and whether those funds were used effectively to solve wildlife conflicts.

The main conclusion of the audit is simply that Wildlife Services complied with the law. But arguing that the activities are legal doesn’t mean they aren’t outdated, inhumane, ineffective, and a waste of tax dollars. Our government should be held to a higher standard in conducting its business, and there are better ways of addressing wildlife conflicts than there were a century ago. Legal or not, citizens are demanding less waste, more transparency, and humane treatment.

In an era where cutting federal spending and eliminating government debt is widely encouraged, Wildlife Services lives on as an outlier. It is unacceptable that federally funded wildlife exterminators will continue to freely poison, drown, snare, and shoot wildlife from airplanes and helicopters using the taxpayers’ money and with very little accountability.

There is a legitimate case to be made for a federal agency that helps to solve wildlife conflicts and provides training and research on best practices with an emphasis on innovation and non-lethal solutions.

But Wildlife Services in its current form is a relic of the past. It exterminates wildlife as a government subsidy for private ranchers and other special interests, using inhumane and ineffective methods, and wasting federal funds. We have a right to expect better from our government, especially when humane alternatives are on the rise.

Reform is most urgently needed in order to bring Wildlife Services into the 21st century. Congress should continue to press USDA to adopt a more balanced approach aligned with mainstream American values that support humane, nonlethal methods for wildlife damage management.

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