The Rogue Agency
A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species
One morning in the fall of 1980, Rex Shaddox got a call from his supervisor at the Uvalde, Texas, office of Animal Damage Control. Shaddox had worked for Animal Damage Control, which was then a branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for seventeen months. His job was to trap and kill wild carnivores, coyotes in particular, that were said to prey on the flocks of local sheep ranchers.
The supervisor, Charles Brown, told Shaddox to meet with his fellow agents at the city dump outside town. “We’re gonna do some M-44 tests,” Brown said. “With dogs.” The M-44, a spring-loaded device that is planted in the ground and ejects sodium cyanide when set off, was among the weapons used by Animal Damage Control to kill coyotes.
When Shaddox arrived at the dump, he found Brown and several colleagues standing over a pit of stinking garbage. A truck from the Uvalde city pound pulled up. It contained abandoned dogs of various breeds. The pound officer removed a small collie from the truck, and Brown took it by the neck. The animal, docile and quiet, stared at its captors.
Brown brandished an M-44 cartridge. He forced the dog’s mouth open and, with his thumb, released the trigger on the device. It sprayed a white dust of cyanide into the collie’s mouth.
The dog howled. It convulsed. It coughed blood. It screamed in pain. The animals in the truck heard its wailing. They beat against their cages and cried out.
“All right,” said Brown to his trappers. “See, this stuff may be out of date, but it still works.” He opened a capsule of amyl nitrite under the collie’s nose. Amyl nitrite is an immediate antidote to cyanide poisoning.
The collie heaved and wheezed. Brown then seized it and unleashed another M-44 dose. The dog screamed again. Shaddox started yelling, telling Brown to stop. Brown kicked the collie into the garbage pit.
“He and the other trappers thought it was funny,” Shaddox told me. “It’s convulsing and dying, and he’s laughing. And this is what he’s teaching his men. That was just a hell of a way to die. No sympathy, no feeling, no nothing. I’m no animal-rights guy. But heartless bastards is all they were. Right there, that’s the culture. And these are federal employees. This is what your government is doing to animals.”
Shaddox quit his job after a series of disputes with Brown over the incident in Uvalde. He went on to a long career in wildlife law enforcement, and spent not a small part of it investigating his former employer.
Over the years, Animal Damage Control has been known by many names. At its founding, in 1885, it was the Branch of Economic Ornithology. It became the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1905, and was known as the Division of Predatory Animal and Rodent Control in the 1920s. In 1985, the agency became a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and in 1997, its name was changed from Animal Damage Control to Wildlife Services. The agency’s purpose, however, has never changed. “The focus of a government trapper is protecting the livestock industry by killing predators,” said Carter Niemeyer, a retired Wildlife Services agent. “Ranchers call us up, and the system kicks in, guns blazing.”
Since 2000, Wildlife Services operatives have killed at least 2 million native mammals and 15 million native birds. Many of these animals are iconic in the American West and beloved by the public. Several are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 2014, Wildlife Services killed 322 wolves, 61,702 coyotes, 2,930 foxes, 580 black bears, 796 bobcats, five golden eagles, and three bald eagles. The agency also killed tens of thousands of beavers, squirrels, and prairie dogs. The goal of this slaughter, according to the agency’s literature, is to provide “federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts and create a balance that allows people and wildlife to coexist peacefully.” The 1931 Animal Damage Control Act, the agency’s enabling legislation, directs it to “conduct campaigns for the destruction or control” of any “animals injurious to agriculture.”
By the time Niemeyer retired, in 2000, after twenty-five years at the agency, he had personally killed hundreds of coyotes and had overseen the deaths of thousands more. On some days, working in Montana, Niemeyer skinned ten coyotes an hour as helicopters hauled the heaped carcasses in from the backcountry. (The government sold the skins for revenue.) Wildlife Services gunned down coyotes from airplanes and helicopters. Its trappers used poison baits, cyanide traps, leghold traps, and neck snares. They hauled coyote pups from dens with lengths of barbed wire, strangled them, or clubbed them. Sometimes they set the animals on fire in the dens, or suffocated them with explosive cartridges of carbon monoxide. “We joked about using napalm,” Niemeyer told me.
Despite the agency’s efforts to wipe out coyotes, they returned in larger numbers. “During my career, it was decades of the same thing repeated to no effect,” said Niemeyer. “I think the word for this behavior is ‘insanity.’ But Wildlife Services has not changed, because their activities are under the public radar, and no one knows how to reform them. Their program fits the western states’ obsession with killing predators.”
Peter DeFazio, a Democratic congressman from Oregon, has repeatedly called for a congressional investigation of Wildlife Services, describing it as a “rogue agency” that is “secretive” and “unaccountable.” He said that he considers the lethal control program a “wasteful subsidy” and has called the agency’s practices “cruel and inhumane.” DeFazio has proposed legislation to reduce government funding for lethal control, but Congress, under pressure from the livestock industry, rejected these attempts at reform.
“We have seen a host of credible leaked information from credible former employees about the inhumane practices,” DeFazio told me recently. He said he has asked Wildlife Services for “detailed numbers about finances and operations, and they won’t give us this information. I’ve served on the Homeland Security Committee, and Wildlife Services is more difficult to get information from than our intelligence agencies.”
When I went to Idaho in June 2014 to document what Wildlife Services calls “control actions,” I asked the agency if I could accompany its trappers in the field. I was told by a spokeswoman that this was not possible. She explained that “only wildlife-management professionals or persons directly involved are allowed on operations, in order to conduct a safe operation.”
I called up Lynne Stone, a wildlife advocate who lives in Ketchum, Idaho, to ask about probable locations for control actions in the state that summer. Stone had cultivated sources — which she refused to disclose — who fed her this highly guarded information.
We met in a café in Hailey, ten miles south of Ketchum. Stone told me that the killing of wolves by Wildlife Services was “merciless and indiscriminate.” In July 2012, for example, trappers discovered four wolf pups holed up in a culvert near Idaho City. The pups were killed immediately. The reason, according to Wildlife Services, was that a single sheep had been killed by one or several “offending” wolves from a pack in the area. “Wolves generally give birth around mid-April, so these four pups were likely just over three months old,” Stone told me. “They were totally dependent on their pack to feed them. How can three-month-old pups be ‘offending’?”
Stone had gotten word that a wolf named B450, a gray male that was the four hundred and fiftieth wolf to be radio-collared by the state’s Department of Fish and Game, was on the move in the Sawtooth Valley, forty miles to the north. In 2009, B450 had survived the destruction of his father, mother, brothers, and sisters, who were alleged to have attacked livestock near the town of Stanley, Idaho, and were shot by Wildlife Services trappers in airplanes and helicopters. For two years, B450 had wandered central Idaho alone, but in the spring of 2012 he found a mate, who bore him three pups. They formed a new pack. It was likely, Stone told me, that B450’s pack would encounter cattle and sheep grazing on the valley’s lush summer grass, and that Wildlife Services would be called in if the wolves opted to prey on the ready meat.
A day after talking with Stone, I drove to the Sawtooth Valley with Natalie Ertz, the founder of WildLands Defense, a nonprofit that monitors wolf packs and their habitats. As we traveled on a dirt road near the headwaters of the Salmon River, Ertz listened on her radio monitor, hoping for a transmission from B450’s collar. A storm blew in from the west, the temperature plummeted, and the sky shook with snow. “Wait,” she said. She got out of the truck to inspect a frozen pile of scat in the road. It was the leaving of a coyote.
We drove on, and passed a man on a horse who was herding several dozen bleating sheep. “Tasty little meals for a wolf,” Ertz said. She admitted that she didn’t like ranchers. “It’s not personal,” she said. “It’s that ranchers, as a means of doing business, get Wildlife Services to kill wolves for them.”
That night we found a campsite on a benchland under tall pines. We set our tents and built a fire and listened again for the chirrup of B450 on the receiver. Ertz stood up and howled in the night, but no answer came. Not even the coyotes sang.
We listened again for the signal in the morning, hiking through the wet forest after the storm had passed and the weather had warmed. Nothing. “That’s good,” said Ertz. “Farther away he is from people, the better.”
Two weeks later, on June 29, after we were gone from the Sawtooth Valley, a calf was allegedly killed by one wolf or several. The calf’s owner called Wildlife Services, whose agents set traps to kill “all offending wolves” in the area. By July 2, a yearling called B647, the son of B450, was found near death in a trap and was killed by an agent. On July 9, a subadult female from the pack, B648, was shot by Wildlife Services. It required two more days to bait and catch B450 in a leghold trap. A Wildlife Services agent killed him too.
John Peavey is a third-generation rancher in central Idaho who runs 7,000 sheep on Flat Top ranch, which lies fifty miles south of the Sawtooth Valley, and on tens of thousands of acres of adjacent public lands. He served for two decades in the Idaho state senate and worked from a young age at Flat Top. During his time in political office, Peavey was known never to appear in public without a cowboy hat on his head.
I told him I was doing an investigation of Wildlife Services. “I suspect this will be an ugly article,” he said. “But Wildlife Services is pretty vital to our making do. Predators are a big problem for ranchers in the West. It’s our number-one problem. We can’t survive without taking care of the predation.”
Peavey told me that he loses at least 200 sheep a year to predators and regularly calls Wildlife Services to his aid. In May 2013, he said, he lost more than thirty sheep to wolves. “We were range-lambing, and the wolves come and scatter them to hell and breakfast. One little lamb, about ten minutes old, was killed by a wolf. Really tragic, it just makes you cry — a ten-minute life span.” At Peavey’s request, Wildlife Services used one of the agency’s Piper Cub airplanes to track and shoot six wolves from a pack that was roaming near Flat Top ranch.
Peavey has attempted to use nonlethal methods to dissuade wolves from attacking his sheep on the range, but he claims that they have had little effect. “My guys are out blaring their radios and flashing their lights and smoking pots — that’s a fifty-five-gallon drum where we build a fire — and we have big guard dogs, one-hundred-pound Pyrenees and Akbash, though wolves often kill our dogs. We’ve probably lost ten to twelve dogs over the last six years.” His wife, Diane Josephy Peavey, who in recent years has read essays on Idaho public radio praising the virtues of ranching, told me, “It’s a little hard to be where we are, with sheep, and watch them get slaughtered, and we’re supposed to put the money in to coexist nonlethally. That’s fine, but it’s a huge expense. Coexistence means the wolves live and all the other animals die.”