John Peavey told me that range-lambing — in which ewes give birth on open public lands rather than in protected sheds on private land — is the only way for ranchers to make a profit. Shed-lambing requires a lot of hay, at great cost. “Six hundred thousand dollars is probably not enough money to outfit a hay crew,” he said. “Shed-lambing is too expensive. Our business model is to range-lamb when the weather is warm and the grass is growing. And when the wolves come in, it’s incredibly disruptive. We’re very vulnerable.”
Carter Niemeyer, the retired Wildlife Services agent, said that Peavey’s range-lambing operation is also expensive, but the cost gets shifted onto the federal government. “The history of John Peavey over the years has been that when he’s out range-lambing, it’s led to a lot of calls to Wildlife Services for the removal of wolves and coyotes,” he said. “His range-lambing is a long way from home, out there in sagebrush. When the sheep are lambing, the herders aren’t supposed to crowd them. You leave them alone. So you’ve got sheep strung out for miles, ripe for the picking. All you’re doing is inviting attack. In some cases, when you put livestock way out there in the backcountry where it’s beyond the capability of the owner to protect them, it’s a form of animal cruelty. Do we continue to reward this bad behavior by bringing in gunships to kill predators that are simply reacting to lambs on the range as predators should and must react?”
Niemeyer said that it was galling to watch stockmen use public lands for forage while refusing to accept the real price of their business model. He told me about a former Wildlife Services agent who described sheep ranchers as “cry boys and cheap men” — because, as Niemeyer put it, “they’re always whining and they’re incredibly cheap, demanding the public pay their costs.”
I asked him about Peavey’s claim that predators are the number-one problem facing ranchers. The most recent reports from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, a branch of the USDA, suggest that stockmen annually lose almost 500,000 head to predators nationwide. The USDA data, however, is based on self-reporting by ranchers.
Niemeyer told me I should also look at the methods Wildlife Services used to confirm depredations. The agency was supposed to conduct its own due diligence of ranchers’ reports, but the investigations were farcical. “A rancher calls up and says, ‘Goddamn wolves killed twenty-eight of my stock,’ but he can’t prove a thing. And we say, ‘All right, Charlie, we’ll get ’em.’ The trapper shows up to the site and toes the carcass of the animal with his boot. ‘Yep. Wolf did it.’ And that’s the investigation. Of course a wolf did it — the rancher says so, which makes it the truth.”
After Rex Shaddox left Wildlife Services, in 1980, he worked as an undercover narcotics cop in Texas and Colorado, an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States, and a wildlife-crimes detective with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, where he is still posted. He has continued to follow Wildlife Services’ activities as a part of his current job. “If you’re a wildlife cop,” he told me, “you constantly hear about Wildlife Services doing bad things.”
Between January 1990 and September 1991, Shaddox led an undercover investigation into the illegal distribution and use of a poison called Compound 1080 in Wyoming. The tasteless, odorless toxin has no known antidote. A single ounce can kill 200 adult humans, or 20,000 coyotes, or 70,000 house cats.
Stockpiles of the poison were supposed to have been destroyed or turned over to the Environmental Protection Agency after it was banned in 1972, but the State of Wyoming never complied with the destruction order. Instead, Wildlife Services, along with members of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, the Wyoming Farm Bureau, and the state’s Department of Agriculture, secretly sold Compound 1080 to ranchers for use in what Shaddox described as a conspiracy for “the illegal poisoning of wildlife, the illegal lacing of cadavers with poisons on public lands, and the illegal killing of endangered species.” Not one government official implicated in the conspiracy went to jail. “Some of these guys got better jobs in Wildlife Services,” Shaddox said.
Doug McKenna, who retired in 2012 after twenty-five years as a wildlife-crimes enforcement officer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, worked with Shaddox on the Wyoming investigation. I asked McKenna whether he thought Wildlife Services had reformed its ways. “I don’t believe it for a minute,” he said. “The agency still disregards federal and state environmental, wildlife-protection, and resource regulations.”
He told me about an Arizona rancher named Jose Manterola, who, in 2002, had poisoned — accidentally, by his account — bald eagles that were roosting on the public-land allotments where he was running sheep. “We went to Wildlife Services and asked them for help with the investigation. The trappers told us, ‘We can’t talk to you because this guy is a client of ours.’ I was shocked. We’re a federal agency asking another federal agency for help in a criminal investigation, and we were stonewalled. We eventually prosecuted the rancher, and his federal grazing lease was revoked, but we got no help from Wildlife Services.”
When domestic pets were accidentally killed by poisons that had been distributed by Wildlife Services, Shaddox told me, the motto was “Shoot, shovel, and shut up.” Shaddox said that Charles Brown, the supervisor who poisoned the collie with M-44, ordered him to “cover up the killing of these nontarget dogs, to remove the collars and bury the dead animals, and make sure always to separate the collars and the bodies.” (Brown, who is now the agency’s eastern regional director, declined to comment for this article.)
I asked Shaddox whether he believed that Wildlife Services was acting extralegally today. “I know absolutely that it’s still going on,” he said. “I hear it from state and federal wildlife agents. I know absolutely that the cover-up of the illegal killing of domestic pets, the illegal poisoning of wildlife, and the illegal use of 1080 and M-44s is still going on.”
Samuel Sanders, another former trapper I spoke with, worked for Wildlife Services in Nevada for seven years. He rose to the rank of supervisor before quitting in 2011. “Violating both federal and state law when it comes to the application of pesticides is encouraged by Wildlife Services,” Sanders told me. Employees, he said, weren’t properly certified for the use of poisons in the field. “The certification test was fixed so that employees always pass. The supervisor reads the answers off to employees.”
Shortly before he quit, Sanders filed a complaint against Wildlife Services in the federal Merit Systems Protection Board court, charging that his higher-ups retaliated against him for whistleblowing about the agency’s violations of federal and state law. The judge dismissed the case on a technicality.
“Although many employees have witnessed some of their co-workers and even supervisors violate laws,” Sanders told me, “they say nothing, fearing the retaliation they’ve witnessed when others have reported the violations. They think it will just stop happening after time, but it doesn’t. They know the supervisors are aware of the violations. When an employee does report violations by W.S. employees or management, upper management does a token investigation to cover up the incident. Even the national leaders in D.C. have been made aware of this, and they do the same thing.”
In 2012, a Wildlife Services trapper named Jamie Olson posted a series of graphic photos to Facebook that appeared to depict his dogs attacking and killing a coyote caught in a leg trap in Wyoming. He included portraits of himself smiling beside a coyote’s mutilated cadaver. (Olson declined to comment for this article.)
In response to the photos, Peter DeFazio wrote a letter to Thomas Vilsack, the secretary of the USDA, requesting an audit of “the culture within Wildlife Services.” His letter stated that Olson “may have apparently committed acts of animal cruelty” that violated the agency’s directives about trapped wildlife. Those directives include instructions that trapped animals “be dispatched immediately” and that employees “exhibit a high level of respect and professionalism when taking an animal’s life.”
An internal investigation by Wildlife Services concluded that the trapped coyote was being used by Olson to train his dogs “how to ‘posture’ when confronting a trapped coyote.” Shaddox scoffed at this account. “I’ve read the report and findings and looked at the photos. The dogs are absolutely attacking and killing the coyote in the series of pictures,” he told me.
Olson was not fired or reprimanded for his treatment of the coyote. His behavior, according to Wildlife Services documents, “violated no existing rules.”
In September 2014, I drove into Idaho’s Salmon-Challis National Forest with Natalie Ertz’s brother, Brian, who had spent many hundreds of hours tracking Wildlife Services trappers to document their kills. We had gotten information about a pending lethal-control action against a pack of wolves in Moyer Basin, a remote valley of the Yellowjacket Mountains, where Wildlife Services agents, according to our source, would be out prowling the sky in one of the Piper Cubs, a noisy yellow single-prop known as the Killer Bee.
We camped on a forested bluff overlooking the valley. We’d have a fine view of the airplane’s kill zone. The landscape was splendid. The soft-contoured mountains faded in distant blue shrouds, the great forests of conifers sighed in the breeze, the autumn aspens glowed in the slant light of the afternoon sun, and the rich bottomlands were flooded behind beaver dams. “Prime wolf habitat,” Ertz said.
A September storm erupted during the night and bent our tents, pelting us with rain and sleet, and soaking our sleeping bags. Ertz awoke before me, keeping his ear to the sky at dawn. But no Killer Bee.
Over breakfast he recounted the two days he’d spent in the spring of 2010 looking for members of the Buffalo Ridge wolf pack, which he heard had been targeted with a kill order. The pack had been seen near Squaw Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River that ran seventy-five miles south of Moyer Basin. Ertz arrived before the trappers, ascended through an aspen grove, and found where the pack was denning. The adults were on a hunt, and had left their pups behind. The afternoon was overcast, Ertz said, and threatening rain. Each time the thunder rumbled, the pups, young and innocent, howled in response, volleying their high-pitched cries in a kind of conversation with the sky. “It was one of the most profoundly wild experiences of my life,” Ertz told me.
Ertz and I set out in his car, driving up and down rough dirt roads for several hours until at midday we found a flatbed Ford parked in a meadow next to a stream. The decals on the door said usda, and a ramp attached to the bed suggested that it had carried an A.T.V. whose driver was off in the backcountry.
There was a warning on a fence post nearby:
mechanical devices (traps, snares, or other restraining devices) have been placed in this area to capture animals causing damage or harm. these devices and the animals captured in them are the property of the united states government.
The notice had been issued by Wildlife Services.
We waited. After two hours, an A.T.V. came trundling toward us, driven by a trapper in his thirties who wore a hooded sweatshirt and a trucker’s cap. Strapped across the dashboard was a four-foot pole with a loop at its end. The loop is meant to cinch around a wolf’s neck so that an animal can be killed without close contact.
The trapper wouldn’t give his name. I asked him about the trapping of wolves in Moyer Basin. “I’m not supposed to be talking to you,” he said. “Talk to Todd Grimm” — referring to the Idaho state director of Wildlife Services.
Indicating the nearby sign, I asked what kinds of traps he was using, where they were located, and whether they posed a risk to the public. “Talk to Todd,” he said. “That sign has warned you, and that’s all I’m going to say.”
When I asked for a phone interview with Wildlife Services, Lyndsay Cole, an assistant director of public affairs at the USDA, asked me to provide all my questions in writing. I submitted thirty-five questions related to specific points in this article and to Wildlife Services policy as a whole. Cole didn’t answer the questions; instead, she emailed me a single-page statement with links to various public-relations documents the agency had put out. “Wildlife Services experts use a science-based Integrated Wildlife Damage Management (IWDM) decision-making model,” the statement said. “Activities are conducted to minimize negative impacts to overall native wildlife populations.” Cole eventually responded to questions sent by a fact-checker from this magazine. She stated, in part, “We aren’t able to speculate on methods that may have been used against policy in the past,” and called the examples of agency misbehavior “not representative.”
When I asked Wildlife Services if I could talk with Todd Grimm, the agency did not respond to the request.