An obscure federal agency has killed 18,700 animals in San Diego County since 2005, and we set out to find out why.
Starting in May, we began a rolling investigation to learn why the agency called Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had killed mountain lions, ducks, bobcats, coyotes, even an alligator here. The agency works in secrecy, refusing to allow reporters to watch its trappers in action.
Now, five months later, we still don’t have complete answers from the agency. Though Wildlife Services has promised records we requested under the federal Freedom of Information Act, it has repeatedly delayed their production. Now, our May request isn’t supposed to be fulfilled until sometime later this month.
Unfortunately, Oct. 5 was my last day at Voice of San Diego. While I plan to follow up on this story for VOSD once I receive those records, I wanted to outline where we stand on six major questions we posed when we began investigating Wildlife Services.
1. Why were seven mountain lions, 26 bobcats, 24 gray foxes and 1,464 coyotes killed here? We still haven’t been able to completely answer this question. It’s not clear exactly why each animal was killed.
We learned that two mountain lions were killed after attacking livestock that hadn’t been adequately protected at night. Some coyotes, foxes and bobcats were killed because they threatened endangered species. But that doesn’t explain all the killings.
Only Wildlife Services’ records would definitively answer it.
During my investigation, I spoke with two former trappers who said the agency would do all it could to delay releasing those answers. They said coyotes, in particular, are often killed — “taken,” in their parlance — simply because people don’t like them. Across the West, Wildlife Services kills tens of thousands of coyotes each year.
“This is why I think they don’t want to talk about it,” said Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services supervisor in Montana. “How many were causing a problem to people compared to how many were in a place where people called them up and said: ‘I don’t want them here’?
“Preventative control is a major source of the high take of coyotes by the government.”
2. Where were the animals killed? We know some were killed on protected coastal land where endangered species nest. We know some were killed in Mission Bay and at Lindbergh Field. One mountain lion was killed near Japatul. Another was killed near Warner Springs.
But we’ve had to piece this information together from anecdotes and records from local governments that have hired Wildlife Services — not the agency itself. Without Wildlife Services’ records, it’s difficult to know more. Even San Diego County’s government, which hires Wildlife Services, doesn’t know where it’s killed animals under the contract.
Wildlife Services acts as a contractor for many public agencies here in San Diego County. One of its largest contracts is with San Diego County’s government, which pays Wildlife Services $170,000 annually to kill animals across the county.
When it works for the Unified Port of San Diego, city of San Diego and Airport Authority, Wildlife Services provides detailed reports explaining when, why and how it killed predators.
The county hasn’t received the same explanation. Every three months, Wildlife Services provides the county a two-page report, devoid of key details, like why and where it killed hundreds of animals — or whether any died accidentally.
3. Were their deaths avoidable? This is difficult to answer.
Refuge managers who oversee protected land around San Diego Bay told me it was lamentable but unavoidable to kill predators there. They said the killing was necessary to ensure the recovery of endangered birds like the California least tern.
But those deaths only represent part of Wildlife Services’ work here. We don’t know whether thousands more killings could’ve been avoided.
Two mountain lions killed after attacking livestock left out overnight are more questionable. There are no laws, however, requiring ranchers to keep their sheep or goats penned in a barn at night.
4. Why were songbirds, ducks and beavers shot and killed if they weren’t causing damage or posing any threat? We don’t know.
Western meadowlarks, a small bird, were killed because they threatened the eggs of endangered birds, a refuge manager told me. But the other killings remain a mystery.
5. Where were animals unintentionally killed? In total, 19 animals have accidentally been killed here since 2005, according to reports provided by Wildlife Services. We don’t know exactly where. A few house finches, a small bird, were accidentally killed on refuge land when they landed in traps meant to kill predators of endangered species.
The two former trappers said they believe those numbers are too low. They said from their experience, it would be impossible to have only 19 accidental killings among 18,700 total animals killed.
They said trappers frequently don’t report accidental kills because they don’t want to damage the agency’s reputation.
“If they told the truth, and gave the documents that news reporters and others asked for, they’d be out of business,” said Gary Strader, a former trapper who worked in Nevada before losing his job. “The public wouldn’t put up with it.”
Niemeyer, the former supervisor, said when he reminded his trappers of their responsibility, “One of them said, ‘We start telling people what we’re catching, the goddamn environmentalists will shut us down.’ ”
6. How much has the agency’s killing cost taxpayers? We don’t have a full picture here. Wildlife Services has a $126 million annual budget for its work nationwide. In the county, the port district, city, county, state Department of Fish and Game, airport authority and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pay Wildlife Services $479,000 annually to kill animals. But we don’t have a complete list of agencies or private entities, like ranches and golf courses, that may have hired Wildlife Services.
What Impact Our Investigation Has Had So Far
• Citing our investigation, Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., introduced legislation in August that would require more transparency from Wildlife Services.
The bill, which has bipartisan support, would require Wildlife Services to annually report how many animals it kills in each municipality in the country, as well as the method used to kill them. It would also require Wildlife Services to explain the reasons that each species posed a threat and why killing was necessary.
It has not cleared the committee level since its August introduction.
• San Diego County’s government has asked for more detailed reports from Wildlife Services about its work. A county spokesman said future contracts would require more disclosure.
Our Next Step: We’re awaiting records from Wildlife Services. Though I’m leaving VOSD, I’ll follow up when I’ve received them.
Rob Davis is a senior reporter at Voice of San Diego. You can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0529.
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