Monday, February 23, 2009

Wildlife activists target USDA agency

By Audrey Hudson

Environmental activists Tuesday called on President Obama to abolish an obscure Agriculture Department office they say is a "federal wildlife-killing agency," yet is also responsible for guarding against bird strikes at airports across the country.

The Wildlife Services division was established under the Animal Damage Control Act of 1931 to manage wildlife damage to agriculture and property, and its mission was later expanded to assist airports in reducing the number of birds and other animals that take up residence near airports that costs lives and millions of dollars in damages after colliding with airplanes.

Ranchers and cattlemen defend the need for the program to control predators, but 60 environmental groups and individuals led by WildEarth Guardians say it's a gruesome waste of taxpayer dollars.

"Wildlife Services litters the American landscape with deadly poisons and traps that are inherently indiscriminate and often kill curious pets, threatened and endangered species, and other animals that are unintentionally killed," the groups said in a letter and a 108-page report they sent to the Obama administration.

Eliminating the Wildlife Services division would not only save animals' lives, but would serve as a cost-cutting measure, saving taxpayers $100 million annually, the environmentalists said in their report. Bird-mitigation efforts at airports, it argues, should be shifted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

A White House spokesman declined to comment, saying they have not yet reviewed the report.

The report criticized the lethal use of aerial gunning - shooting animals from planes - as "inhumane, expensive and biologically unsound." Since 2001, the main targets in aerial shootings were coyotes - more than 200,000 - and nearly 35,000 feral hogs.

Predators such as foxes, wolves, bobcats, mountain lions and bears are also controlled by using poisons or traps.

The report said that nonlethal methods should be used to manage wildlife and cited cases in which lethal methods were deployed on private property without the owners' knowledge.

The Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen´s Beef Association say Wildlife Services "plays a key role in protection of livestock from predation, mitigating wildlife damage to agriculture, and disease prevention."

According to the organizations, livestock losses to predators cost producers more than $100 million annually.

"Without non-lethal and lethal predator control by Wildlife Services, these numbers could easily double or even triple," Skye Krebs, Public Lands Council president, said in a letter last month to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The letter was signed by 76 organizations in support of Wildlife Services.

"While we realize wildlife plays an integral part of the rangeland ecosystem, it is important to sustain a balance between species. Through Wildlife Services, we are able to limit disease, enhance public safety and minimize economic losses to ranchers," Mr. Krebs said. "Additionally, they play a vital role in public safety, reducing threats to aircraft by controlling bird populations around airports, reducing bird strikes to aircraft."

Between 2004 and 2007, the groups say Wildlife Services killed more than 8.3 million animals. A breakdown of the numbers shows that number included 750,000 mammals and 7.6 million birds.

On Jan. 16, a US Airways Airbus struck Canadian geese just after takeoff from La Guardia Airport in New York, forcing the pilot to crash land in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew members survived.

"WildEarth Guardians believe that a small number of Wildlife Services' actions that may be needed, could be better handled by other more responsible entities, such as the FAA or individual states," the group said.

Neither the FAA nor the Agriculture Department returned calls for comment.

However, USDA spokeswoman Carol Bannerman told the Associated Press that Mr. Vilsack intends to review all agency programs, but that it would be weeks before he had any idea about possible changes he wants to make.

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