You might not know it but there’s a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture whose job includes killing wild animals – to the tune of millions each year. It used to be called Animal Damage Control. Now it’s simply called Wildlife Services. Depending on who you talk to, the agency is controversial and secretive or, well-managed and essential.
Samantha Bruegger is one of the skeptics. I met up with her and her tiny dog, Ghengis Khan, to walk a trail that wraps around a reservoir in Pueblo County, Colorado.
Bruegger is with the environmental nonprofit, WildEarth Guardians. Her work right now is mostly trying to figure out what Wildlife Services is up to in this area, and in the state.
“Wildlife Services operates under the radar so often,” she said, “it's really hard to pin down exactly what they're doing and where.”
The agency’s self-described mission is “managing problems caused by wildlife.” Sometimes that means dispersing birds at airports or managing invasive species. But often it means they kill wild predators on behalf of livestock ranchers.
And Breugger told me we were walking in an area where they might be doing this kind of thing.
Through a public records request, Bruegger said she just found out that Pueblo County, has a contract with Wildlife Services that’s current through this year. And that nine other Colorado counties had contracts as recently as 2016.
But again, she doesn’t know exactly where. What she does know is that Wildlife Services uses a variety of methods to kill animals that are deemed a problem. They use snares, traps, gunning from the ground, and gunning from the air. Breugger also told me Pueblo County’s contract with the agency includes the use of sodium cyanide “bombs” as she called them.
Those are also known as M-44s. They’re spring loaded devices that release sodium cyanide—a lethal poison to canines and other mid-sized animals, including humans at the right dose. The agency uses them across most of the West as one of its killing tools – mostly to target coyotes.
The practice is controversial. In 2017, an M-44 was responsible for the temporary poisoning of a 14-year-old boy in Idaho and for the death of his dog after they stumbled on one on public land behind the boy’s house. Critics have called for a ban on M-44s. They argue the devices are dangerous and sometimes kill non-target animals, including endangered species.
That decision is under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is in the process of deciding whether to re-register sodium cyanide as a legal animal poison.
The EPA received more than 20,000 public comments on the issue earlier this year. Nearly all of them called for a cancellation of sodium cyanide’s registration.
The EPA denied that request but in an interim decision, said they would impose tighter restrictions on the use of sodium cyanide. Those included requiring more signage to warn people of M-44s in the area as well as increasing the mandatory distance of the devices from public roads or paths.
But not long after these restrictions were issued, the EPA withdrew them.
And going back to more unrestricted use of M-44s is fine with Peter Orwick, director of the American Sheep Industry Association. Predators are a serious issue for the ranchers he represents.
“We have to live it every day,” he said. “It’s not just a talking point for our members. They are out there on their land interacting with the wildlife and livestock every day of their lives.”
Orwick said dealing with predators is the second largest expense of most sheep ranches. He said he knows lots of ranchers who’ve invested in guard dogs and guard llamas and other nonlethal methods of keeping predators at bay, and he said they work, but they don’t work in all situations.
“They still need the ability to have a trap or a snare or an M-44 available to take care of a predator,” he said.
And, he said, that’s when a rancher has to call Wildlife Services.
“I think the agency does a tremendous job,” said Orwick.
Noone from the agency was available for an interview but a spokesperson pointed me to the agency’s website where she said “You can find information on our program – from federal allocated funds to what’s given in cooperative funding – to how many animals are euthanized and by what method (both intentionally and unintentionally) by state.”
She also said the reason they can’t disclose which counties, agencies, or entities they contract with is because that information is protected under the Privacy Act and the Farm Bill.
Carter Niemeyer is familiar with those guidelines. He worked for the agency for 26 years.
“We were the hired gun of the livestock industry,” he said.
At first he said it was his dream job. He had been a hunter and trapper in his youth.
“You can almost say I felt like I died and went to heaven,” said Niemeyer, “because I was astonished that there were jobs like that with the federal government. Where you essentially were given a credit card and a pickup truck and a license to kill.”
But over the years, he said the work started to feel futile, especially when it came to coyote control.
“In spite of killing thousands of coyotes every year,” he said, “there were thousands more the following year to replace them.” He felt there had to be better ways to protect livestock.
He said it was when he was tapped to lead the wolf program that he realized there were other ways. Wolves were on the endangered species list, so legally he had to find nonlethal methods to deter them from livestock-- methods like immobilizing them with dart guns or encouraging ranchers to use guard dogs.
He also said he started to look closer at the bodies of dead livestock and realized more often than not, that wolves hadn’t actually been the cause of death. He said that wasn’t popular with his co-workers and he said they questioned his loyalty to the program.
Finally, he left the agency. Now his feelings about Wildlife Services are mixed. He says on the one hand, they do a bloody job that no other agency is willing to do.
“You know,” he said, “the old saying is like ‘you can't sell death.’”
And he believes that partly explains a lack of transparency.
“They've become a very low profile program,” Niemeyer said. “They almost have to hide out so to speak. And some of the responses that involve lethal, though legally, they respond under cloak and dagger.”
Still, for a government agency, he feels they should be more open with the public, even if that means taking more flack.
But he does think the agency should stop using M-44s.
“There’s just too many people, too many pets,” he said. “The potential danger from M-44s in my opinion is just not worth it anymore.”
In a statement, Wildlife Services spokesperson said the agency “understands the public’s concern regarding the use of M-44s and is committed to the safe and responsible use of this effective tool for professional wildlife damage management.”
According to its own reporting, Wildlife Services killed more than 2.6 million animals in 2018, roughly 6,500 of those with M-44s.
There is proposed legislation in Congress to ban the use of M-44s. The EPA is expected to issue its final decision on the re-registration of sodium cyanide in December of 2021.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.