A little-known US government agency tasked with killing or disposing of animals that may threaten livestock, crops, or public safety accidentally killed nearly 3,000 animals in 2021.
Wildlife Services, part of the US Department of Agriculture, killed 1.76 million animals in fiscal year 2021. But its many unintended victims included federally protected species such as a harbor seal , three golden eagles and a bald eagle, according to a National geographic data review. Other unintended victims included 12 black bears, four mountain lions and 17 alligators.
For the majority, state and local authorities call on wildlife services to trap or eliminate animals that may kill livestock, eat crops or cause other damage. The agency uses a variety of traps, such as snares, foot traps, and handles designed to crush the animal caught inside.
Critics say the traps are not only inhumane and deadly, but also indiscriminate.
Wildlife services declined a request for maintenance, but said in a statement that last year “more than 99.8% of animals lethally removed were intended targets.”
Wildlife Services also uses poison in the form of spring-activated M-44 cyanide capsules. They resemble the head of a garden sprinkler and are baited with a sweet scent, attracting a “bite and pullresponse from animals such as coyotes, according to Wildlife Services. Any animal that shoots an M-44 triggers it to spray its deadly poison.
“Death is very quick, normally within 1-5 minutes after the device is triggered,” a wildlife services fact sheet says. Yet in 2017, a pet dog suffered an excruciating, slow death after being exposed to one of these “cyanide bombs”. National geographic reported. Between 2000 and 2012, more than 1,100 dogs were killed by the devices, a investigation by the Sacramento bee found.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit, animals sprayed with M-44s can suffer internal bleeding, seizures or lung failure before dying.
Accidental M-44 fatalities last year included 266 gray foxes, 16 red foxes and 23 raccoons, according to wildlife services data. The animals were killed directly by the devices or had to be euthanized after being exposed to them.
Collateral damage is inevitable
“There’s no way to catch other species as collateral damage,” says Carter Niemeyer, who worked as a trapper and supervisor for wildlife services for 26 years before transferring to US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000. He is now retired.
When trappers are deployed, their approaches and results can vary significantly. “We are the professionals, so the people who contract with us assume that we would be human and that we would check our traps [quickly]but that’s not always the case, especially with the large number of traps wildlife services set up, says Niemeyer.
Some states require traps to be checked within a certain time frame, and a 2021 wildlife services directive states that all traps and devices must be checked “no less frequently than required by state law, unless specific exemptions are obtained”.
If a pet animal, say a dog or cat, falls into a trap and doesn’t die immediately, dehydration or constriction injuries will likely kill it within days, Niemeyer says.
Count involuntary deaths
Wildlife services reported more than 2,700 unintentional deaths of native animals in 2021, a figure slightly higher than each of the previous three years. (The 2021 tally reaches 2,795 when species it calls invasive, such as some snakes, wild dogs and rats, are included.)
“We track and report involuntary withdrawals and make adjustments to field operations, where possible,” the agency’s statement said. “Four out of five accidental captures are released or moved unharmed.”
Collette Adkins, director of carnivore conservation at the Center for Biological Diversity, explains that trapped animals may initially appear unharmed due to an adrenaline rush from the stress of trapping. “It’s only when they’re safe that they realize their foot has been crushed,” she says.
Any accidental deaths by wildlife services “cannot be accurately characterized as accidents, as the agency is fully aware of the indiscriminate nature of their lethal tools,” says Michelle Lute, national carnivore conservation officer at Project Coyote, a non-profit organization based in California.
Death by taking the body
Animals will go to extreme lengths to free themselves from traps, Adkins says. “Sometimes the only evidence an animal has been caught is that its toes are still there.”
Last year, one of the agency’s “unintentional kidnappings” was a harbor seal that died after being caught in a body trap. The harbor seal, like all marine mammalsare protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
A bodily trap is a metal device intended to kill any animal that enters and attempts to pass. “It just crushes the body and extracts life from it,” says Niemeyer. They are sometimes placed underwater to catch animals like beavers, he says.
But with a larger animal, like a harbor seal, the trap may close on its face or neck, Niemeyer says. “A seal would have a pretty firm neck, so it would probably die from a combination of strangulation and drowning.”
In 2021 alone, the devices unintentionally killed 544 river otters, 11 cottontail rabbits, 44 raccoons and three white-crowned sparrows, among other animals.
Adkins and Lute outline other proven, more humane ways to alleviate the problems wildlife can cause. To protect livestock, ranchers can build better fencing around their animals and deploy bright lights and guard dogs, though government support may be needed to help defray some of those costs, Lute says.
Other measures, such as prompt disposal of carcasses and afterbirth cleaning of farm animals, could help keep predators away from livestock, Adkins says.
“The only way to resolve conflicts is to target the individual [animal] involved, the site where the predation occurred and the time it occurred,” says Lute. Interventions that occur long after the incident are imprecise and will not resolve the problem.
“It just results in a dead animal,” she says – “not necessarily the one that was involved, and most certainly opens up territory for a new individual.”