Investigation into Wildlife Services methods sought by four House members

The Sacramento BeeJune 25, 2012 

Two recent documents are drawing renewed attention to the federal government's wildlife damage control program.

One is a bipartisan letter from four members of the U.S. House of Representatives requesting a congressional investigation of Wildlife Services, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency that specializes in killing birds and mammals considered a threat to livestock, the public and the environment.

The other is a "notice of violation" this month fining an employee of the agency $2,400 for placing a spring-loaded sodium cyanide ejector near a family's home in Texas, which killed their dog. Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in Congress that would ban the devices, which have killed more than 3,400 non-offending animals by mistake since 2006, including 250 dogs, records show.

"Why would they put something out that would target animals that are no danger to anything?" said J.D. Walker, a car dealership manager whose dog was killed by the agency's poison southeast of Abilene last year. "It makes absolutely no sense."

Michael Bodenchuk, state director of Wildlife Services in Texas, said the employee is appealing the fine and that the cyanide devices are a "cost-effective" tool for killing coyotes.

"They've been through multiple reviews by EPA," Bodenchuk said, referring to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "EPA has decided not to ban them in the past, and we use them as efficiently as possible."

Known as M-44s, the devices are coated with strong scent to attract wildlife and fire poison into the mouth of whatever tugs on them. Used mainly to control coyotes, they have accidentally killed many other species over the years, including black bears, raccoons, ravens, bobcats, kit foxes, wild pigs, opossums and federally protected bald eagles.

At least 18 agency employees and several members of the public have been exposed to the poison, too. None died, but many were treated for nausea, blurred vision and other symptoms.

"They need to figure out a different way," said Angel Walker, J.D.'s wife. "There are other things that can keep wildlife away from animals and not put children or domesticated animals in harm's way."

After two days of searching, she discovered her dog's body near an M-44 about 900 feet from their home. "It was a horrible thing," she said. "She had thrown up. You could tell it had been a horrible death. It was really, really heart-wrenching … . I was just lucky it was my dog and it wasn't my son."

The agency's toll on non-target species – a subject explored in a series of stories in the Bee this spring – is one of several issues cited in a bipartisan letter June 8 requesting a congressional probe of the agency.

"Information recently brought to light in the Sacramento Bee … documents many serious problems that reinforce our existing concerns about Wildlife Service's operations, especially its lethal predator control activities," the letter says.

"Employees routinely hide non-target animals killed, encouraged by supervisors and the agency's culture … ," the letter adds. "While even the military allows the media into the field, Wildlife Services does not."

The letter to Darrell Issa, R-Vista, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is signed by John Campbell, R-Irvine, and Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon – who last month said they intended to request an investigation formally – along with Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, and Jackie Speier, D- Hillsborough.

"Wildlife Services need to be held accountable for both their animal control methods and use of taxpayer dollars," Campbell said in a statement.

"The investigation … would force Wildlife Services officials to start answering the questions they have been ducking and shed a bright light on the agency as a whole," Campbell added. "They would finally have to open their books, disclose their methods and account for their actions."

Asked for comment, agency spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said Friday by email: "At this time, Wildlife Services has not been advised of a formal request for a Congressional oversight hearing, so speculation regarding that would be inappropriate.

"An objective review will show that more than 80 percent of Wildlife Services interactions with wildlife is solved with nonlethal methods, that the majority of lethal targets are invasive species and that the tools used are 90 percent selective," Bannerman added.

At the state level, the Texas Department of Agriculture cited a Wildlife Services employee on June 6 for violating three M-44 use restrictions, including placing cyanide "in areas … where exposure to the public and family pets is probable," in the case in which the dog died near Abilene. It also noted he was working outside his territory on a cattle ranch leased by his father.

"This investigation is incredible," said Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense who has monitored M-44 poison cases for more than two decades and helped draw attention to the incident.

"What's so glaring is he is using federal funds that you and I are paying to do work on his father's leased land who also happens to be a county commissioner," Fahy said.

The employee, Kyle Traweek, could not be reached at his office by The Bee last week. Bodenchuk, the state Wildlife Services director, said Traweek had approval to work on his father's ranch and that he disputes the violations. "He does not agree that exposure to the family and pets was probable," Bodenchuk said. "This is a very unfortunate situation," Bodenchuk said. "I wish the Walker's dog had not pulled the M-44 device."

A state investigator found that the employee placed several M-44s on ranch land "less than six-tenths of a mile from Ms. Walker's house near roadways that Ms. Walker, her family and the family's dog frequently traveled."

Angel Walker said she did not know the M-44s had been deployed near her house until she came home one Friday afternoon and saw a sign on a gate. By then, it was too late.

She and her husband finally found their dog – a young pit bull named Bella – on Sunday morning about 90 feet from an M-44.

The Walkers said they support the congressional bill that would ban M-44s.

"It's random killing," J.D. Walker said. The devices attract "any animal that might possibly eat meat. … You're talking about coons (raccoons), possums (opossums), a fox. A fox is no danger to a cow. A coon is no danger to a cow. A possum is definitely no danger to a cow."

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