OUR OPINION: Let sun shine in on Wildlife Services

When coyotes threaten livestock, the problem can get very expensive very fast. Farmers and ranchers usually are glad that a federal agency is willing to step in.

Our Opinion

When coyotes threaten livestock, the problem can get very expensive very fast. Farmers and ranchers usually are glad that a federal agency is willing to step in.

So, the predator control that's exercised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program doesn't rankle.

But the secrecy does. And if there's one thing that both critics and supporters of the program should agree on, it's the need for more openness and transparency.

Wildlife Services kills animals that threaten crops, livestock and the environment -- for example, nearly a million coyotes since 2000, a special report by the Sacramento (Calif.) Bee found. (The Herald reprinted the report on Sunday.)

The tally also includes millions of birds and "a colorful menagerie of more than 300 other species including black bears, beavers, porcupines" and so on.


But in most cases, the agency has "revealed little or no detail about where the creatures were killed or why," the story reported.

The newspaper "found the agency's practices to be indiscriminate, at odds with science, inhumane and sometimes illegal."

Two California congressmen -- a Republican and a Democrat -- have called for an investigation. "We have an agency that appears to be wasting federal dollars and actually causing harm while doing it, but yet perhaps covering up what they are doing and why," said Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif.

"That's something Congress should investigate."

Not everyone agrees. Killing problem animals may be violent, but it's also vital, said Bill Karr, Northern California editor of Western Outdoor News, in a Bee column.

After all, "nonlethal predator control does nothing to fix a problem; it only moves the problem somewhere else, exacerbating problems elsewhere," Karr wrote.

"If there are too many predators in an area, the only way to fix that is to kill some of them."

North Dakota ranchers likely would agree. In 2010, Wildlife Services helped 498 livestock producers in the state who had predator problems, saving them an estimated $5 million to $8 million in losses, the agency noted in its annual report.


Wildlife Services also helps keep blackbirds away from sunflowers, wildlife away from airports and beavers away from flood-prone landscapes in the state.

But in its investigation, the Bee found the agency notably closed-mouthed. "Because lethal control stirs strong emotions, Wildlife Services prefers to operate in the shadows," the story reported.

"Basic facts are tightly guarded. ... And while even the military allows the media into the field, Wildlife Services does not." No reporters need apply to watch the agency's hunters and trappers at work, according to the story.

Those habits help explain a 2008 report by the North Dakota state auditor on the state's involvement with the program: "We determined the state has not established an adequate system for monitoring the Wildlife Services Program," the report concluded. "We identified a number of concerns regarding a lack of monitoring."

Those are exactly the problems that develop when an agency operates too far out of the public eye.

Job 1 for Wildlife Services should be to change its culture to one of openness and transparency. Yes, that will encourage critics. But it will empower supporters, too, and generate among them healthy pride in the program's responsiveness and attitude. That's the kind of support a controversial agency needs.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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