SPOKANE — They shot them down from the sky.
It happened two winters ago in Adams County, but the federal government won’t say where. A pilot and gunner did it from a plane while flying low over wheat stubble on the Palouse or some desolate expanse in the Scablands.
The winds would have been calm. It was cold that day, around freezing, according to National Weather Service records. They could have started early in the morning, when wildlife is out and about and easy for a sharpshooter to see.
Exactly who wanted the animals dead and how much the killing cost is a mystery, but on Feb. 24, 2021, a little-known agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture killed 67 coyotes to protect cattlemen’s herds.
Wildlife Services kills and disperses animals. It was founded to aid ranchers and farmers but its role has grown over the decades. Today, the agency also prevents birds from hitting airplanes, rodents from damaging buildings and predators from eating young salmon, to list a few of its responsibilities.
In its own words, Wildlife Services provides “federal leadership and expertise to solve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.”
Many livestock producers say Wildlife Services helps them stay in business. Predators cost ranchers more than $200 million in losses every year, according to the Department of Agriculture.
“When you talk about dollars that predators cost us, personally for me it’s huge,” said Dr. Jill Swannack, a veterinarian and rancher who serves as president of Washington State Sheep Producers.
Wildlife Services didn’t make anyone available for an interview, but public affairs specialist Tanya Espinosa said in an email that the agency’s methods are “biologically sound, environmentally safe and socially acceptable.”
Conservationists tend to disagree.
Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, has spent the past 30 years trying to dismantle Wildlife Services.
He learned about the agency while running a wildlife hospital in Oregon. People kept bringing him pets that had been caught in Wildlife Services’ traps or poisoned by M-44 devices — often referred to as “cyanide bombs.”
Fahy said Wildlife Services’ methods are scientifically unsound, inhumane and little more than a taxpayer-funded subsidy for agriculture.
“It’s a federal program that, on behalf of ranchers, kills predators to supposedly protect livestock,” he said.
Carter Niemeyer, a wolf expert and biologist who spent 26 years as a Wildlife Services trapper and supervisor, said some of the agency’s work is valuable. Unlike Fahy, he has no issue with killing specific animals that repeatedly cause problems.
But Niemeyer also calls Wildlife Services “the hired gun of the livestock industry.”
“We just spend way too much time overkilling carnivores,” he said. “I would term it needless killing. That’s what it is.”
Wildlife Services has an almost $200 million annual budget and kills nearly 2 million animals every year, including tens of thousands in Eastern Washington.
Yet despite its macabre work, few members of the general public know the agency exists.
Sristi Kamal, deputy director of the Western Environmental Law Center, said Wildlife Services is one of the most opaque agencies in the federal government.
“They are shrouded in mystery,” she said.
Animal damage control
American governments have been sponsoring wildlife killing for agriculture since the 17th century.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640 passed a bounty law that promised hunters 40 schillings per wolf. Dozens of bounties, for various species, still exist today. The Foundation for Wildlife Management — funded in part by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game — reimburses expenses for wolf hunters.
The federal government started killing animals on its own in the early 1900s. Different agencies have had the job over the years, and they’ve undergone occasional rebrands. Before 1997, Wildlife Services was called Animal Damage Control.
Fahy said the renaming was an attempt to keep the agency out of the public eye.
“If you asked 99.99% of the public what Wildlife Services was, they wouldn’t have a clue,” he said. “And if they were to guess, they would guess it’s an agency that helps wildlife.”
Even though it keeps a low profile, Wildlife Services receives substantial taxpayer funding. In 2021, the most recent year with data available, the office had a $189 million budget.
Details on that budget are scarce.
Approximately 46% of the funding came directly from the federal government. The rest comes from other federal agencies, state and local governments and private businesses.
Wildlife Services doesn’t offer much detail on where its money goes, either. It spent $76 million on human health and safety, $53 million on agriculture, $37 million on property and $23 million on natural resources in 2021.
While pinpointing Wildlife Services’ spending is a challenge, the bulk of its budget pays for killing and scaring away wildlife.
The agency stresses that it relies on nonlethal approaches whenever possible. In 2021, it dispersed 25 million animals, including 10.6 million starlings, 3.5 million ring-billed gulls and 1.5 million lesser snow geese.
Wildlife Services uses a lot of loud and bright dispersal tools. Firing blanks and setting off pyrotechnics — firecracker-like devices — are common techniques. Other options include lasers, car horns, waving arms, paintballs, dogs, drones and human effigies — aka scarecrows.
Fahy and Kamal support nonlethal strategies, but they and many conservation groups say Wildlife Services should do more to avoid indiscriminate killing.
In 2021, the agency killed 1.8 million animals nationwide and 165,616 in Washington.
More than half of all animals killed throughout the U.S. were invasive species. Poisoning starlings and shooting feral pigs, two species that wreak havoc on North American ecosystems, doesn’t inspire much public outcry.
But wildlife advocates strongly oppose the killing of native animals.
For instance, Wildlife Services in 2021 killed more than 64,000 coyotes, 400 black bears and 24,000 beavers. Those figures include 614 coyotes, 32 black bears and 119 beavers in Washington.
Kamal and Fahy generally oppose the killing of carnivores, which is often done to decrease predation on calves and lambs. Predators control prey populations, they point out, and removing them disrupts native ecosystems.
Conservationists, though, acknowledge the necessity of some lethal removals.
Keeping birds away from airports is one of Wildlife Services’ less controversial jobs, even though it can entail killing uncommon native species.
For example, the agency killed two badgers in 2021 for Fairchild Air Force Base. Wildlife Services also killed four long-billed curlews — chihuahua-sized birds with preposterously long bills — for threatening aviation safety at an undisclosed location in Grant County.
Steve Holmer, vice president of policy for the American Bird Conservancy, said his organization doesn’t view lethal removals at airports as “a conservation concern.”
“Aviation safety is a real issue,” he said.
On Jan. 15, 2009, an Airbus 320 took off from LaGuardia Airport and began its journey to Charlotte, North Carolina.
A few minutes after takeoff, the Airbus hit a flock of Canada geese. The plane’s engines sucked in some of the birds and shut down, leaving the jet without power at 2,800 feet.
Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III landed the plane safely in the Hudson River and all 155 passengers survived. “The Miracle on the Hudson” made Sullenberger a national hero and inspired a Clint Eastwood film, starring Tom Hanks.
But for pilots, the incident is an important reminder of the danger birds pose to aircraft.
Wildlife Services works with hundreds of airports, including the Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base, to avoid bird strikes and other wildlife collisions.
The Spokane International Airport didn’t respond to requests for comment, but airmen at Fairchild said keeping wildlife away from tankers and helicopters is critical.
“Anything that is going to hit the aircraft is a hazard,” said Capt. Brad Daniel, a KC-135 pilot and flight safety officer for the 92nd Air Refueling Wing. “Even small birds — at high speeds and hitting the right component — could be a threat.”
Maj. Brett Neilson, a helicopter pilot and flight safety officer with the 36th Flight Rescue Squadron, said hitting a bird can be catastrophic for a chopper.
“You take a goose in your lap at 100 mph, that could be fatal,” he said.
The best way to avoid collisions is to make the base inhospitable for birds, Daniel said. The Air Force tries to limit pools of standing water and mow grass to discourage nesting.
Still, Wildlife Services kills thousands of birds every year for airports. The agency in 2021 killed 38 animals for the Spokane International Airport and 328 for Fairchild Air Force Base.
Fahy said he understands that bird strikes are a real safety issue, but argues Wildlife Services could do more to keep wildlife away from airports.
Daniel and Neilson said lethal removals are unavoidable when other tactics fail and praised Wildlife Services.
“For our purposes,” Daniel said, “they’ve been amazing.”
Dam birds and fish
Figuring out where Wildlife Services kills animals isn’t always easy.
In Freedom of Information Act requests, the Department of Agriculture redacts anything that could reveal the location of an agricultural operation. The department says it can’t release addresses because federal law prohibits sharing locations of farms or ranches that provide information “in order to participate in programs of the Department.”
That makes it hard to know precisely who uses Wildlife Services. Only a few addresses, often belonging to airports, show up in public records.
The Grant County Public Utility District’s address is one of the few that pops up in Eastern Washington. The electricity provider hires Wildlife Services to disperse and kill predators that eat spring chinook salmon and summer steelhead.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requires the Grant County Public Utility District to protect those endangered species while they make the 58-mile trip on the Columbia River between the Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams, northwest of the Hanford Nuclear Site.
“It’s our task to enhance or improve their survival through our section of the river as they migrate to the ocean,” said Tom Dresser, the public utility district’s fish and wildlife manager.
Passing through dams and turbines leaves fish disoriented and vulnerable. Thousands of young salmon and steelhead get picked off in tailraces, the sections of river immediately following a dam.
Gulls, common mergansers and double-crested cormorants are all adept at fishing for salmon and steelhead. Wildlife Services kills hundreds of those birds in Washington annually.
Northern pikeminnows, a native species that has flourished since the installation of dams throughout the Columbia River basin, eat millions of salmon and steelhead while the fish swim to and from the Pacific Ocean. Wildlife Services caught and killed more than 75,000 pikeminnows in 2021, all in Washington. The Bonneville Power Administration even funds a pikeminnow bounty program.
Dresser said Wildlife Services tries to scare away birds when possible. The public utility district has stretched wires above the tailraces as well, in an attempt to keep birds out.
Killing native birds to bolster salmon populations has spawned legal fights, however. Fahy said he’s “absolutely against” killing one native species for the sake of another.
Dresser said some lethal removals are needed to aid endangered fish.
“We’ve seen predation rates as high as 15%, 18% of our tagged fish as part of research studies,” he said. “It can be a very large percentage of the population without some type of active and passive control efforts.”
The coyote controversy
Wildlife Services’ detractors mostly criticize its efforts to help agriculture, especially the livestock industry.
The agency kills predators that can eat chickens, lambs, calves and other farm animals. In 2021, the agency killed more than 600 bobcats, 300 wolves and 200 cougars.
In the Evergreen State, cougars and wolves are managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fish and Wildlife has killed eight wolves and 114 cougars in the past two years.
Wildlife advocates emphasize that carnivores are an essential component of healthy ecosystems. Removing them can cause prey populations, like deer and rodents, to grow out of control.
“It creates more problems in the long run,” said Timothy Coleman, director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group.
Wildlife Services is probably best known for killing coyotes.
It kills tens of thousands of them every year in more than a dozen ways. Aerial gunning from a small plane, with shotguns, is the most common technique.
Catching coyotes in neck snares, shooting them from the ground and poisoning them with cyanide capsules are also standard methods.
While the job can be grisly, many ranchers say it helps keep them afloat.
The Washington Cattlemen’s Association declined to comment but Swannack, who raises sheep near Lamont, in Whitman County, said Wildlife Services is “a huge boon and benefit to the sheep industry.”
Swannack said predation is her second-biggest cost after feed. Coyotes attacking lambs is a major problem, she said.
“Our take on coyotes is they’re fine as long as they don’t eat sheep,” she said.
Swannack said ranchers do what they can to avoid killing predators. Fencing, flashing lights and loud noises can help. Guard dogs are effective. Some sheep producers will place a llama or donkey with their herds as a protector.
If none of that is enough, Wildlife Services is needed, Swannack said.
“When we can’t handle it ourselves, we can hire them to help us get rid of problem animals,” she said.
Jami Beintema, who has 40 sheep on 33 acres in Ellensburg, said Wildlife Services might have saved her flock last spring when she and her husband couldn’t figure out what was killing their ewes.
“I lost five registered, beautiful, very, very pregnant ewes in a really short time frame,” she said.
Beintema said she did her best to protect her sheep. She put them in a pen at night. She had cameras and a motion detection system that shined a spotlight on predators when they got close. But they still found a way to get in.
A Wildlife Services agent found the weak point in Beintema’s pen, trapped a female coyote and killed it. Beintema hasn’t lost any animals since.
“I don’t kill coyotes just because I see one,” she said. “We’ve killed one in 20 years.”
Kamal disagrees that killing predators is necessary, especially when Wildlife Services isn’t targeting a specific problem animal. She also noted that the agency only puts a small fraction of its budget toward expanding its nonlethal program.
Espinosa said Congress since 2020 has provided dedicated dollars for nonlethal approaches. In the past three years, Congressional funding for nonlethal methods has gone from $1.38 million to $4.55 million.
Wildlife advocates argue killing predators is an ephemeral solution. Studies have shown reducing populations causes female coyotes to produce more pups.
“Killing coyotes just makes more coyotes,” said Samantha Bruegger, executive director of Washington Wildlife First. “We’re killing coyotes to kill coyotes, we’re not killing them for long-term solutions.”
Fahy said if producers lose livestock, they should invest more heavily in sheds, guard dogs and other preventative measures. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize wildlife killing, he said.
“This isn’t rocket science,” Fahy said. “If you’re doing it the right way, you’re not going to have a problem.”
Swannack responds by noting that she pays Wildlife Services directly for its work. She also says criticizing Wildlife Services for being taxpayer-funded is a weak argument.
“Why does the government pay for anything?” she asked. “We have a government for the betterment of the people. I think it would be easy to argue that having a food supply is to the betterment of the people.”
Niemeyer, who helped lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ wolf reintroduction effort in the Rockies, said he believes killing predators is frequently “senseless.” Ranchers lose far more animals to disease and bad weather than carnivores, he said.
Looking back on his career with Wildlife Services, Niemeyer said he was “misguided” and thought he was making the world a better place by removing predators.
“I’ve seen the error of my ways,” he said.
He doesn’t think the agency is going anywhere.
“People have been going after Wildlife Services since the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Niemeyer said. “Cats have nine lives, Wildlife Services has hundreds.”