By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

A new coalition of animal rights, conservation and faith groups is asking for a philosophical change in how the federal government treats the nation’s diminishing wildlife, particularly of top predators, whose presence helps ensure healthy wild ecosystems.

The coalition sent a letter signed by 115 of its member groups to Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack earlier this month asking him to end the federal government’s systematic killings of wildlife, such as wolves, coyotes, bears, cougars and prairie dogs.

The group contends that the killings are excessive and often cruel and that Wildlife Services, a department of the USDA that exterminated 2.4 million animals in 2007 should be reevaluated.

“The agency employs a host of cruel – and expensive and unnecessary – methods to kill coyotes, bears, cougars, wolves, and other wildlife. Animals are shot, poisoned, gassed in their dens, trapped, snared, clubbed, pursued by hounds, targeted from helicopters and planes, or lured to bait stations where they are shot. Other animals, even family dogs and cats, are unintentionally injured or killed by agency actions,” the petition stated.

Many people think of fish and game departments as the primary agents in the field taking action in wildlife incidents. But the USDA’s Wildlife Services is charged with protecting agricultural interests and human safety, and has long exercised wide authority to “control” animal populations around urban areas, businesses, farms and other agriculture operations and airports.

The vast majority of those animals, some 86 percent, that clash with human concerns or present safety issues (such as when birds congregate at airports or eat seeds planted for crops or intended for livestock) are dispersed, not killed, said Carol A. Bannerman, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“There is a heavy emphasis on dispersal, rather than removal,” she said.

The 2.4 million kill tally is accurate, she said, but it includes several scenarios in which lethal actions are justified. The agency, for instance, is killing the invading Gambian rat in Florida, because they are a non-native species that threatens tropical fruit operations. Similarly, millions of non-native European Starlings, which can cause intrusions at airports and also contaminate seeds intended for dairy cows, are killed.

The starlings accounted for the most killings last year, with 1.2 million being exterminated. Predators accounted for 120,000 of the total 2.4 million exterminations.

As for the shootings, poisoning and trapping of coyotes and other native predators, Bannerman says that livestock losses of 500,000 (mostly sheep and cattle) tell the story of why agents sometimes take lethal measures.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who is expected to be confirmed with little debate, has not responded to the coalition’s petition.

The coalition laments all intentional animal killings, but it particularly wants a reevaluation of animals like prairie dogs and coyotes, viewed in some corners as pests, and top predators, whose reputations can fuel a knee-jerk human response.