The new film “Wild Things” exposes USDA’s war on wildlife-

Each year Wildlife Services—a little known agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture—shoots, traps and poisons millions of animals, including about 100,000 native carnivores, ostensibly to resolve conflicts between people and wildlife. However, thousands of these animals are killed unintentionally, and many more are killed before any conflict has even occurred.

How can this be?

As NRDC’s recently released film Wild Things explains, the short answer is because federal and most state laws still allow the agency to use indiscriminate methods that often kill “non-target” and “non-problem” animals and species. The film (which continues its national tour with a screening in Bozeman, Montana, on April 30) carefully documents the non-selective nature of many of the lethal devices and methods used by Wildlife Services, and interviews former Wildlife Services agents who explain that, inevitably, these practices kill many wild animals by mistake.

For example, Wildlife Services uses spring-loaded devices called M-44s that shoot cyanide into the mouth of whatever animal happens to tug on the baited head. In 2012 alone, these devices were used in 16 states to poison more than 14,600 animals. Of these, more than 330 were killed unintentionally, including wolves, foxes, skunks, opossums, raccoons, bobcats and black bears.

Wildlife Services agents also use a variety of traps and snares. These devices often capture non-target animals, including rare and threatened species such as wolverines, lynx and grizzly bears. In 2012 the agency mistakenly caught and killed more than 520 animals in leghold traps and more than 850 in neck snares, including mountain lions, river otters, pronghorn antelope, deer, badgers, beavers, turtles, turkeys, ravens, ducks, geese, great blue herons, and even a golden eagle.

Frustratingly, these non-selective methods continue to be used, even though we have known for decades about their indiscriminate nature. For example, in 1975, a former government-employed trapper testified before Congress about the non-selective nature of leghold traps:

Even though I was an experienced, professional trapper, my trap victims included non-target species such as bald eagles and golden eagles, a variety of hawks and other birds, rabbits, sage grouse, pet dogs, deer, antelope, porcupines, sheep and calves . . . . My trapping records show that for each target animal I trapped, about 2 unwanted individuals were caught. Because of trap injuries, these non-target species had to be destroyed.

And scientists continue to describe the indiscriminate nature of snares. One Alaska biologist studying the impacts of wolf snares on moose noted:

Wolf snares can be even less selective than snares set for smaller furbearers because cable diameter and loop circumference are larger, set height is higher, and the size and strength of a wolf require that minimum breaking forces must be high. . . . Based on my 15 years of experience releasing nearly 40 moose from snares and discussions with other Alaskan biologists, I concluded that most moose restrained in wolf snares die either at the capture site or from frozen limbs or nose subsequent to release.

Another particularly ugly method employed by Wildlife Services is shooting (sometimes killing, sometimes just catastrophically wounding) predators from planes and helicopters each year. In 2012, more than 3,000 coyotes were killed this way in my home state of Montana alone.

Although it targets specific species, this practice is also indiscriminate because it does not differentiate between problem and non-problem animals (i.e., those that are habituated or have preyed on livestock versus those that have not—and may never). Instead, this type of “aerial gunning,” as it is called, has a single goal: to wipe out as many predators in an area as possible, in the hopes of artificially inflating big game populations that humans like to hunt, or, in the words of one agency official, to “clear swaths of land of predators” before livestock arrive to graze.

Of course, in the absence of large carnivores, ungulate populations may grow too large, destroy vegetation, and more easily transmit diseases. And scientists have explained that predators like coyotes respond to lethal persecution by producing more pups, thus potentially increasing the risk of livestock predation (because most depredating coyotes are adults trying to feed pups).

Perhaps most egregiously, Wildlife Services is largely funded by taxpayer dollars, and many of its operations occur on federal and state lands. But much of the trapping, poisoning and aerial gunning is done to benefit livestock and hunting interests. This means that in many instances, the federal government is using public funds on public lands to kill publicly owned wildlife—to benefit a private few.

In the end, there is simply no justification for “accidentally” poisoning, maiming and destroying thousands of native, wild animals year after year—animals that are not bothering anyone, not causing any harm; the exact animals we should most want to keep alive. These creatures are more than just “mistakes” to be chalked up as regrettable tallies on some bureaucratic spreadsheet. They are important contributors to ecosystems, providers for their mates and litters, and great sources of awe and appreciation for millions of Americans. In today’s world, where selective technologies exist for the occasional problem animal that might need to be removed, and effective, nonlethal alternatives are available to protect livestock, there is simply no place left for outdated, brutal, and indiscriminate traditions of lethal control.

That is why NRDC recently supported a ban of body-gripping traps and snares in the City of Los Angeles. It’s why we’ve opposed the trapping and snaring of wolves in the northern Rockies. It’s why we’ve pushed for federal legislation prohibiting the use of poisons to kill wildlife. And it’s why we’ll continue to work toward reasonably reforming Wildlife Services—particularly its program of “predator control”—by banning the use of indiscriminate poisons, requiring prioritization of nonlethal prevention measures, and mandating more transparency about the reasons, regions, and dollars spent on killing wildlife—especially the “mistakes.”

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About The Author

Zack Strong

Zack is a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Bozeman, Montana. His background is law (J.D., University of Montana, 2009) and environmental studies (B.A., Dartmouth College, 2005). Zack advocates for all the iconic creatures that call our last remaining wildernesses home.

21 Responses to Enough “Mistakes.” Wildlife Services Should Put an End to its Indiscriminate Killing

  1. Louise Kane says:

    trapping, snaring, aerial gunning, hard to fathom in 2014 Knowing that my tax money is spent on these activities makes me want to pull a Bundy and worse.

  2. Wolfy says:

    Enough is enough; pull the plug on WS!

  3. Yvette says:

    It’s good that the actions and status quo practices of WS is getting attention. Just need to continue getting this information out to mainstream America. Most people have no idea of how much money is spent, or what is happening. I looked at the latest kill report for my state a few months ago, and there were over 4,000 coyotes killed by poison, leg snares, neck snares, aerial gunning, and other methods. There were so many animals of all species killed, and millions spent. That was only Oklahoma, and only one year.

    I do understand that WS does other jobs like control for rabies and other diseases, but if the public isn’t interested in how many individuals are killed, the methods used, or how many non-target species are killed then maybe they will take interest in the tax money spent for this kill program.

  4. Logan says:

    While I am not opposed the work of WS I am surprised that poison is still used. I would like to see that come to an end. Other than that as long as the populations of those animal species are not in jeopardy then the number of individuals killed does not matter much to me.

    I would be fine if WS was brought to an end or reduced for the reason that a few ranchers are benefiting from our public tax dollars and we are basically subsidizing their business. Were this to happen I anticipate that the cost of aniaml control when needed would be entirely upon the ranchers and farmers. That cost would then be passed on to the consumer. So when we talk about informing the public about this situation that is information that should be passed on as well. Otherwise, I think that yes, the majority of people will think that killing so many animals should be brought to an end (at least on the taxpayer dime) but many of those same people would not support those reductions if it meant that beef prices would rise.

    Ultimately, do not believe that stopping WS current practices will stop these animals from being killed, it will just move the cost off of the taxpayer and on to the farmer/rancher. The rancher rather than calling WS to come and kill off a bunch of coyotes will contact a local trapper to do it and pay him for his time and expenses.

    • Nancy says:

      “Other than that as long as the populations of those animal species are not in jeopardy then the number of individuals killed does not matter much to me”

      Curious Logan, where do you live? Asking because the deaths of so many other living beings doesn’t seem to trouble you much.

    • Marion says:

      “Other than that as long as the populations of those animal species are not in jeopardy then the number of individuals killed does not matter much to me.”

      It doesn’t matter to you that animals that can be managed BETTER nonlethally are killed and this is paid for with your tax dollars?

      The USDA WS also kills 25,000 Canada geese every year, a large number of which are goslings. Egg addling programs effectively manage goose populations in the long term. The USDA WS goes back to the same places year after year because killing geese just creates a vaccuum for other geese to move into. It’s ineffective and just a nice cash cow for the USDA THUGS.

      MEDIA RELEASE: Egg Addling Controls Goose Population

      “In a continued effort to control the Canada Goose population in the Okanagan Valley, the Okanagan Valley Goose Management Program is about to begin its annual egg addling program. Over the PAST SIX YEARS, this program has prevented the exponential increase of the non-migratory resident goose population that inhabits the valley all year long………Since the program began in 2007, approximately 7,700 EGGS HAVE BEEN PREVENTED FROM HATCHING THROUGH THIS MINIMALLY INVASIVE APPROACH…. ….In order for the program to succeed, new nests need to be identified. The PUBLIC IS ASKED TO REPORT lone geese, pairs of geese or nest locations on private or public land.”

      In addition to ground surveys, aerial surveys were conducted in 2007 and 2011 to estimate the number of geese residing in the Okanagan Valley and to determine what proportion of the population were hatched that year. THE CANADA GOOSE POPULATION APPEARS TO HAVE STABILIZED THROUGHOUT THE VALLEY.

    • Randy Fischer says:

      I agree that poisons should’ve never been an option, but I cant help from disagreeing with your assumption that ranchers would take on the burden of killing off predators. The rancher would ultimately find the job time consuming and frivolous, also the consumers would discover the the folly when slapped in the face with the higher price for supper.

  5. Gary Humbard says:

    Great information! We should take a page from the American Indian who called the coyote “Gods Dog”, wolves were a honored fellow being and bears were revered because of their similarities with humans. I’m sure the livestock industry contributes huge sums of money to congress and as with any federal agency it is a self promoting.

    One solution is for non-government organizations like Defenders of Wildlife to put their money where their mouth is and pay a portion of the costs to prevent predator issues. Whether its hiring sheep herders (who are typically of hispanic origin), using guard dogs, keeping the sheep in close proximities with fencing or other effective methods. When organizations incur some of the costs, most predator issues are resolved with the landowners without contacting Wildlife Services.

    • Yvette says:

      Project Coyote is on it, Gary. I’ve been watching this NGO, and really like the approach of their work. Are you familiar with them?

      • Gary Humbard says:

        Yvette, I was not familiar with them but I am now with your help. I financially support Defenders of Wildife as I see that they do a lot of on the ground work and I can dedicate my funds to spent on specific projects.

        I read a great book, Gods Dog by Hope Ryden as she studied 2 packs of the same coyotes for 2 years in Wyoming. Coyotes just like other predators provide benefits to humans if given the chance.

      • Gary Humbard says:

        Yvette, I was not familiar with them but I am now with your help. I financially support Defenders of Wildife as I see that they do a lot of on the ground work and I can dedicate my funds to spent on specific projects.

        I read a great book, Gods Dog by Hope Ryden as she studied 2 packs of the same coyotes for 2 years in Wyoming. Coyotes just like other predators provide benefits to humans if given the chance.

    • Gary – How about having the livestock owners foot the bill for extra guard dogs, fencing and herders. Many of the livestock owners are millionaires and whine all the way to the bank each fall to deposit their subsidy checks. They pay their herders slave labor wages and use part of the money they save with the low federal grazing fees to buy our local state governments.

      • topher says:

        If livestock owners are paying the bill I’m sure they would rather use other methods. A reduction in overall predator density is likely cheaper than extra guard dogs, fencing and herders.

        • Mark L says:

          topher says,
          ” A reduction in overall predator density is likely cheaper than extra guard dogs, fencing and herders.”

          Possibly, possibly not. It could also be that the young of the shot animal are more prone to attack livestock than the older, more experienced animals, and will actually cost more in the long run. Use of non-lethal behavior modification may actually be cheaper than killing, but few will look at this in a long term financial outlook, because the option hasn’t been presented to them in a reasonable way.

          • Louise Kane says:


          • Yvette says:

            ++ Mark L

            I wonder if much research is being done to back up this thesis? I hope so, because I think it’s viable.

            • Louise Kane says:

              I did a quick search the other night and could not find much on whether depredations increase or decrease in newly hunted wolf populations. I think it would be a very hard study as there are a number of variables at play that could impact the outcome especially because wolves have such a unique social structure. For example, if one pack is virtually entirely eliminated in an area predation by wolves would be zero but if those same wolves had learned to avoid cattle because they lived in an area with adequate prey densities or livestock producers used non lethal deterrent methods it would be hard to say what was affecting depredation statistics. I’m hoping some studies are being conducted that can help to understand the situation. Regardless, I am still of the belief that impacts to livestock should not be a driving force in wildlife policy. a factor but not the main concern.

      • Gary Humbard says:

        Larry, I was referring to the landowners who are willing to use methods other than hiring Wildife Services to supposedly solve the predator problem. Lava Lake Ranch in Idaho is one example of a large owner who is effectively practicing non lethal methods. In talking with conservation officers from different state agencies, they consistently said that wildlife conflicts are typically resolved without killing when NGOs are willing to incur some of the costs.

        Research has shown that when coyotes are consistently killed by landowners, predation is higher than when they are not harrassed or killed. Coyotes are territorial and when older coyotes are killed the younger ones may move into new areas where without the teaching of their parents they may prey on livestock.

  6. Marion says:

    One of my big problems with the NRDC is they should stick to predators, which they may know something about. They apparently support the work of the USDA WS to prevent birdstrikes at airports while they obviously don’t know anything about the subject or what the USDA WS is doing. In my mind that affects their credibility a lot so I can’t support them because of this. Just because you care about predators does not mean you should mislead the public that bird killing is any more justified. In most cases it isn’t and accomplishes NOTHING.


April 2014


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey