Body count tripled in 20 years
Can it be that USDA Wildlife Services agents are now killing animals mostly just for the hell of it?
Comparing the 2015 body count with that of 1996 certainly raises the question.
USDA Wildlife Services purportedly kills only livestock predators, animals who jeopardize crops, and “invasive species.” The latter is a term of no actual biological meaning often used to describe adaptive species that have arrived in North America since the beginning of European settlement. (See How adaptive species became “invasive.”)
Who pays for it?
USDA Wildlife Services kills livestock predators and animals who might harm crops under the agency’s original mandate.
“Invasive species” are killed mostly under contract to other federal, state, and local agencies, under an expanded mandate which in 1999 made USDA Wildlife Services in effect the official exterminator for all branches of government, usually available at less cost than private exterminating companies.
Predictably, the body count of animals killed by USDA Wildlife Services has more than tripled since 1999, with approximately half the toll being animals deemed “invasive.”
Examples of “invasive” animals now killed in large numbers include iguanas, francolins, and mannakins, respectively a group of closely related lizard species now common in Florida and two bird species common in South America and South Asia, respectively, now found in various parts of the continental U.S. and Hawaii.
Iguanas, francolin, & mannakin
Iguanas were not on the USDA Wildlife Services hit list as of 1996, when the political issues erupted that led to the hit list expansion, but 2,617 iguanas were killed in 2015.
The numbers of francolin killed increased from 1,426 to 5,374 over the same years, while the numbers of mannakin killed rose from 1,666 to 32,642.
Those rates of increase, ranging from trebling to more than twentyfold, would suggest, if nothing else, that escalating the body count does not appear to be effective in reducing whatever threats francolin and mannakin allegedly present, through competition for habitat, to native birds.
On the contrary, the numbers simply suggest that francolin and mannakin may now be better adapted to U.S. and Hawaiian habitat, as result of climate change and human transformations of habitat, than the “native” birds who are apparently now less and less able to hold habitat niches to which they are less and less suited.
The habitat to which the “native” birds are best suited may now be somewhere else entirely, where climate conditions today resemble those that prevailed long ago where the “native” birds evolved.
But as steep as the rise in USDA Wildlife Services killing of non-native species has been, an ANIMALS 24-7 comparison of the USDA Wildlife Services “nuisance wildlife” body counts from 1996 and 2015 shows by far the greatest jumps, both in numbers and by percentage of increase, afflicting species––both native and non-native––who might be shot for sport.
Most of the biggest increases are among birds, but the numbers of mammal species classed as “game” also took startling jumps.
Deer killed by USDA Wildlife Services agents, counting all deer species combined, rose 858%, from 871 to 7,477.
The numbers of hares and rabbits killed, all species combined, leaped 2,241%, from 531 to 11,900.
The numbers of feral pigs killed rose more than twelvefold, from 3,420 to 44,450.
The numbers of raccoons killed increased from 4,883 to 19,454.
The numbers of prairie dogs killed by USDA Wildlife Services agents ballooned from 1,256 to 20,777.
In fairness, however, individual ranchers often poison prairie dogs in far greater numbers than all USDA Wildlife Services agents combined, and prairie dog shooting contests probably kill at least as many.
The difference of significance between the killing done by private citizens and the killing done by USDA Wildlife Services is that taxpayers pay for the latter.
Giant non-migratory Canada geese
USDA Wildlife Services agents also seem to be doing quite a lot of what other hunters would call waterfowling at taxpayer expense.
Among USDA Wildlife Services’ waterfowl victims were a 70-fold increase in geese killed, from 375 to 26,369.
The overwhelming majority were nonmigratory giant Canada geese, whose ancestors were wild Canada geese and domestic geese cross-bred for use as live decoys in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
After the use of live decoys was federally prohibited in 1935, confiscated decoy geese were bred and stocked by both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies to create huntable populations in habitat then deemed suitable for waterfowling, in rural areas close to big cities.
Some non-migratory giant Canada goose-stocking programs continued into the mid-1990s, even after suburban expansion swallowed much of the habitat to which had been introduced.
Ducks, swans, coots
Ducks are also increasingly often in USDA Wildlife Services agents’ sights. The toll of ducks shot, all species combined, rose from 147 in 1996 to 2,900 in 2015.USDA Wildlife Services’ agents killed only two mute swans in 1996, but killed 752 in 2015.
Only one coot was killed by USDA Wildlife Services’ agents in 1996, but 1,820 were killed in 2015.
Leading the USDA Wildlife Services avian body count, however, were several rarely eaten species favored by wing-shooters for target practice:
* Starlings killed trebled, from 477,144 to 1,290,806.
* Blackbirds killed increased ninefold, from 76,285 to 710,572.
* The number of pigeons killed by USDA Wildlife Services approximately doubled, from 47,773 to 74,816.
* Doves killed increased eightfold, from 4,706 to 37,335.
* Sparrows killed increased fivefold, from 1,214 to 10,740.
“Threats to wildlife”
Of course most of these birds were shot on the pretext that they were devouring crops.
Many other birds were shot as alleged threats to other wildlife.
Cowbirds were the species killed in a third-greatest number in 2015, at a 35-fold increase since 1996, from 13,464 to 475,905.
Cowbirds appear to be targeted primarily because they are nest predators of other bird species. Some of those other bird species are perhaps endangered or threatened, but the birds most often victimized by cowbirds are also favored “target” species.
USDA Wildlife Services killed 484 crows in 1996, another species abhorred as a nest predator of smaller birds, but killed 25 times as many, 12,152 crows altogether, in 2015.
Comparably, just nine cormorants were killed by USDA Wildlife Services in 1996, but 16,663 cormorants were shot out of the skies in 2015, chiefly to prevent predation on “sportfish” including salmon, trout, and catfish. (See also Feds kill 2,400 cormorants but claim why colony fled nests is a mystery.)
Nominally to protect endangered fish species, but also to protect sportfishing, USDA Wildlife Services killed 63,297 pikeminnows in 2015, up from none in 1996.
Iguanas and pikeminnows were only two of the many species added to the USDA Wildlife Services hit list between 1996 and 2015. Others of whom at least 1,000 were killed in 2015 were red affadavats, a songbird native to Asia; chickens; killdeer; larks; and meadowlarks.
Finches killed increased from 69 in 1996 to 1,717 in 2015, a 25-fold jump.
Good ol’ boys goin’ huntin’?
Looking at the raw bloody numbers, it is difficult to escape suspecting that working for USDA Wildlife Services these days is just a way for good ol’ boys to get paid for goin’ huntin’, and that much of the huntin’ is done mainly to keep living targets abundant for more huntin’.
But there have been modest decreases in USDA Wildlife Services killing of most species for whom there is a vocal advocacy constituency:
- Beavers killed dropped from 24,498 to 21,557, though privately contracted “nuisance wildlife” trappers may have more than made up the difference.
- Bobcats killed dropped from 1,786 to 781.
- Feral cats killed dropped from 771 to 682. As with beavers, unfortunately, privately contracted “nuisance wildlife” trappers appear to have much more than made up the difference, perhaps more than a thousand times over.
Coyotes killed dropped from 89,207 to 69,397, believed to be the lowest number since Animal Damage Control, the agency ancestor to USDA Wildlife Services, debuted in 1931, with the declared mission of trying to extirpate coyotes from the continental U.S.
USDA Wildlife Services killed 202 domestic dogs in 2015, only three more than in 1996, when significantly more of the U.S. dog population roamed at large. Since 1996, however, the numbers of pet animals and hoofed livestock killed by dogs has increased from circa 22,000 per year to more than 40,000, coinciding with the pit bull population having approximately doubled. (See also How many other animals did pit bulls kill in 2014? and Pit bulls killed 24,000 other dogs & 13,000 cats in 2015.)
Bears & pumas
The numbers of black bears killed by USDA Wildlife Services increased from 267 in 1996 to 480 in 2015, but the bear population itself has increased significantly. Roadkills of bears in Florida, for example, have risen from around 30 per year circa 1996 to 243 in 2015 alone.
The total Florida bear population has more than doubled, inducing the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to reintroduce a bear hunting season in fall 2015, selling more than 3,700 licenses to hunters with a cumulative quota of 316.
The quota was approached in two days, causing the 2015 hunt to be suspended with 304 bears dead and causing a second hunt proposed for 2016 to be cancelled.
While the increase in the U.S. bear population may not be enough yet to sustain the resurgent bear hunting industry that hunting proponents hope to see, the rise in the numbers of alleged “problem” bears killed by USDA Wildlife Services is proportional and perhaps to be expected.
Likewise, the slight increase in the numbers of pumas killed by USDA Wildlife Services, from 280 to 284, might mostly reflect a rising puma population.
Retreating from high-profile controversial killing
What appears to jump out from looking at the animals who were not killed in vastly increased numbers in 2015 as compared to 1996 is that USDA Wildlife Services seems to be retreating from killing that might subject the agency to intensified public protest and political scrutiny, even as the USDA Wildlife Services workload continues rapid growth.
The USDA Wildlife Services retreat from high-profile, controversial killing amounts to redefining what the agency exists to do.
The original mission
Ancestrally part of the U.S. Geological Survey, funded to kill wolves in the early 20th century, the agency which is today USDA Wildlife Services was moved to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, retitled Animal Damage Control, and reassigned to exterminate coyotes in 1931.
Under the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, coyotes were massacred in record numbers year after year, yet spread from the southeastern quadrant of the U.S. to all 48 states plus Alaska.
By mid-1986 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wanted to abandon Animal Damage Control as a failed and ecologically unjustifiable mission which the Fish & Wildlife Service itself recognized as in conflict with the rest of the Fish & Wildlife Service mission.
Renamed & redefined
But politically influential ranchers wanted Animal Damage Control to kill even more coyotes.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan resolved the conflict by moving Animal Damage Control to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA renamed the agency Wildlife Services to try to shake the murderous reputation established by Animal Damage Control, but without success.
USDA Wildlife Services, with a 1998 budget of $28.7 million, was in June 1998 nearly abolished as a money-wasting boondoggle by the House of Representatives. A motion by Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) that would have in effect disbanded Wildlife Services actually cleared the House on first reading.
But the DeFazio motion was defeated on a second vote, after frantic rancher lobbying.
The Invasive Species Council
At instigation of then-U.S. Vice President Albert Gore, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in February 1999 reinforced and enormously expanded the role of USDA Wildlife Services by creating the Invasive Species Council.
Gore thereby forged a strategic alliance between ranchers and some of the major conservation organizations with whom they had been in apparently intractable and perpetual opposition over critical habitat designations involving grazing land mostly leased from the federal Bureau of Land Management.
In effect, instead of blaming introduced livestock species for habitat damage contributing to the decline of some “native” species, many of the largest and most influential conservation organizations agreed to scapegoat––literally, in the case of feral goats––“non-native” species, and to re-align themselves with the ranchers in favor of preserving USDA Wildlife Services to kill the “non-natives,” as they were then mostly called.
Within a few more years the “non-native” designation would mostly be replaced by the more emotionally evocative term “invasive.”
Bipartisan political success
Under former U.S. President George W. Bush, a Republican, the USDA Wildlife Services budget expanded to $78 million in fiscal 2007, nearly three times the 1998 budget.
Under current U.S. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, the USDA Wildlife Services budget has increased to $121 million, despite renewed efforts by DeFazio in 2011-2012 to effect about $10 million in cuts.
The expansion of USDA Wildlife Services could thereby be described as one of the few genuinely bipartisan political goals achieved during the past two decades of a usually polarized Congress and Executive Branch.
Candidates of both major parties tend to court support from ranchers, the major conservation organizations of pro-hunting philosophy, and––especially––from the gun lobby, of whom hunters are a key component. (See also Why U.S. Senate Democrats dance with Elmer Fudd & his hunting buddies.)
That, in short, appears to be why USDA Wildlife Services agents are now doing more huntin’ than ever before, yet to less notice now than nearly two decades ago.