San Diego County’s Wildlife Killers

San Diego County’s Wildlife Killers

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Federal trappers have killed 26 bobcats in San Diego County since 2005. Two of the deaths were unintentional.

 

A little-known federal agency is leaving a trail of death in San Diego County, exacting a body count large enough to stock the San Diego Zoo five times over.

In the last seven years, trappers working for an obscure arm of the U.S. Agriculture Department called Wildlife Services have killed 18,700 animals here, including some of the county’s most iconic creatures: Bobcats, foxes, mountain lions, coyotes, songbirds and ducks.

Hundreds of animals killed here were common urban pests: feral pigeons, skunks, raccoons, opossums, rats. Some, including dozens of great blue herons, hawks and long-tailed weasels, posed threats to endangered species. But federal agents also shot, poisoned and snared thousands of other animals, some whose only mistake appears to have been eating livestock left inadequately protected.

Trappers killed seven mountain lions, including one young male that had been tracked by wildlife researchers and helped them understand how mountain lions had adapted amidst Southern California’s sprawling development. Wildlife Services killed it after it ate sheep in an open pen near Japatul in 2010.

The agency says its mission is to resolve conflicts between people and wildlife. It often kills to accomplish that. But its secrecy makes it impossible to judge whether its trappers are acting judiciously, reasonably and legally as they’ve ended the lives of more than seven animals a day in San Diego County since 2005.

We requested extensive records from the agency. We wanted to know basics:

• What animals were killed and how;

• Where and when they were killed;

• Why each was killed;

• How many animals were killed accidentally and why.

The agency sent a list of animals it killed. It provided another list of the dollar value of damage caused by animals (but not necessarily those it had killed). But it didn’t release information that we specifically requested, even though Wildlife Services has the answers.

• The agency didn’t say when each animal was killed or the specific reasons each died;

• It failed to release reports completed each time a trapper kills a mountain lion or bobcat explaining where and why it happened;

• It didn’t release a database it maintains to track all of its animal killings in San Diego.

Two Agriculture Department employees laughed when I asked during a phone call that the database be released. They claimed the public agency’s database might be confusing to review and wasn’t public information.

The information the agency did release shows the American coot, a small, black duck with an affinity for golf courses and swimming pools, was killed most frequently here. Coots damaged golf courses and pools, so the agency killed 2,990 of them, catching most by hand. They shot 382 and used a type of anesthetic powder called alpha chloralose that can be fed to ducks to capture hundreds more. The powder is meant to immobilize ducks and, when used effectively, be non-lethal. Still, it killed 563 coots.

Wildlife Services’ records offered no explanation for many killings. Trappers shot dozens of other ducks: Three species of teal, a surf scoter, a northern shoveler, lesser scaups, ruddy ducks and buffleheads. It’s unclear why. The ducks caused no reported damage anywhere in the county.

Its trappers have killed 54 beavers since 2005. But it’s not clear why. In the last seven years, beavers have caused only $30 in reported damage (to an irrigation ditch somewhere in the county), according to a database we obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The agency shot and killed two Western meadowlarks, a small bird with a vibrant yellow chest and a warbling song. But no meadowlarks have caused damage in San Diego County.

Carol Bannerman, a USDA spokeswoman, said the explanations for many killings don’t exist on paper, but instead “in the minds of the biologists who are doing the work,” she said.

“The thought that we’re trying to hide something isn’t the case,” Bannerman said. “Wildlife Services puts a tremendous amount of information out on the website. The information is there because we want people to know what it is we’re doing.”

But only to a point. The information the agency has posted online and released to VOSD makes it impossible for the public to completely judge the work that the agency is doing on the public’s behalf.

A groundbreaking investigation from The Sacramento Bee earlier this year reported that the agency killed illegally, indiscriminately and inhumanely. Its in-depth report showed that the agency had accidentally killed house pets, endangered birds and, controversially, hundreds of thousands of coyotes, a killing spree that scientists said was changing entire ecosystems for the worse.

In San Diego, coyotes have been killed to protect endangered shorebirds like the snowy plover and California least tern. So have crows, feral cats and others. One local biologist who spoke to the Bee praised that effort.

But it’s not clear how many coyotes were killed to protect endangered birds compared to the number killed because they damaged nut crops, irrigation lines and fences.

Not all the killing here was intentional. Trappers accidentally killed two bobcats; one was accidentally caught in a wire snare that kills by strangulating an animal. They’ve accidentally killed four horned larks, common songbirds, which were snapped by mouse traps. Five house finches, another songbird, were unintentionally killed in traps. A wild turkey was accidentally caught in a leg snare and killed somewhere in the county. Three raccoons were accidentally caught in traps and killed.

In the coming weeks, we will continue probing Wildlife Services and strive to answer basic questions.

• Why were seven mountain lions, 26 bobcats, 24 gray foxes and hundreds of coyotes killed here?

• Where were they killed?

• Were their deaths avoidable?

• Why were songbirds, ducks and beavers shot and killed if they weren’t causing damage or posing any threat?

• Where were animals unintentionally killed?

• How much has the agency’s killing cost taxpayers?

I’ll go out into the field to see where animals have been killed and where endangered species are at risk. My goal is to understand why this agency is killing animals and what impact its killing is having, good or bad.

And we’ll be pushing the federal government to lift the veil of secrecy that blankets the agency’s actions here. VOSD has protested the adequacy of the federal government’s response to our Freedom of Information Act request and demanded a more complete response. Lyndia Taylor, the Agriculture Department FOIA specialist processing our request, said she hopes to provide more information within a month.

My next step: Within the next week, I plan to look in-depth at the seven mountain lions the agency has killed here and the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at Voice of San Diego. You can contact him directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

 

 

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63 comments
mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa subscriber

I guess we better hope the director doesn't declare people to be pests.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa

I guess we better hope the director doesn't declare people to be pests.

RR Meier
RR Meier subscriber

Great JOB and I hope you continue your investigation I can't believe the federal government uses our tax monies to do this kind of work , they charge us to raise the animals then charge us to kill them ,what a sham ,all for farmers and cattle ranchers,whens the last time a rancher gave the american shopper a discounted steak , political special interest groups like RMEC and NRA and hunting clubs pay politicians to do their dirty work so hunters and farmers have predator free land including federal land ,well I say lets vote on it , how can these people tell the majority who don't hunt what kind of animals to keep on public lands

rr
rr

Great JOB and I hope you continue your investigation I can't believe the federal government uses our tax monies to do this kind of work , they charge us to raise the animals then charge us to kill them ,what a sham ,all for farmers and cattle ranchers,whens the last time a rancher gave the american shopper a discounted steak , political special interest groups like RMEC and NRA and hunting clubs pay politicians to do their dirty work so hunters and farmers have predator free land including federal land ,well I say lets vote on it , how can these people tell the majority who don't hunt what kind of animals to keep on public lands

Frances O'Neill Zimmerman
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

This federal agency that laughs at a reporter's request for public information -- yes, it IS public information -- ought to straighten up and fly right. Everyone who has read Rob's piece also ought to read the Sacramento Bee's three-part expose. It is shocking.

Judy Jacoby
Judy Jacoby subscribermember

I applaud the Voice of San Diego for asking these questions. I am embarrassed to say I've been asking similar questions, but not to anyone who would have the answers. what has happened to our canyon population of coyotes and the occasional fox. When I first moved to my house on a canyon 6 years ago I had almost nightly visits from coyotes. Yes we had to keep small dogs and cats indoors at night but isn't that considered appropriate pet care. I love the idea that we could coexist with nature but apparently we can't. Now I guess they will have to come out to kill all the bunnies whose population was previously controlled by the coyotes.

TiaVerde
TiaVerde

I applaud the Voice of San Diego for asking these questions. I am embarrassed to say I've been asking similar questions, but not to anyone who would have the answers. what has happened to our canyon population of coyotes and the occasional fox. When I first moved to my house on a canyon 6 years ago I had almost nightly visits from coyotes. Yes we had to keep small dogs and cats indoors at night but isn't that considered appropriate pet care. I love the idea that we could coexist with nature but apparently we can't. Now I guess they will have to come out to kill all the bunnies whose population was previously controlled by the coyotes.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

If they are doing things to protect endangered species, why not ask some of the endangered species advocates what their thoughts are on this? If they are protecting ranchers, why not ask ranchers what their thoughts are? This is pure and unadulterated yellow journalism. I am saddened that KPBS is sucked into this vortex.

B Chris Brewster
B Chris Brewster

If they are doing things to protect endangered species, why not ask some of the endangered species advocates what their thoughts are on this? If they are protecting ranchers, why not ask ranchers what their thoughts are? This is pure and unadulterated yellow journalism. I am saddened that KPBS is sucked into this vortex.

IIIhouston
IIIhouston subscriber

Very good point! At least one manufacturer has come up with a revised design but I don't see many environmentalists supporting them. They probably have all their monies invested in the "propeller" type of machine that is doing the damage!

IIIhouston
IIIhouston

Very good point! At least one manufacturer has come up with a revised design but I don't see many environmentalists supporting them. They probably have all their monies invested in the "propeller" type of machine that is doing the damage!

IIIhouston
IIIhouston subscriber

Animals that have such diseases as buponic plague (now in S. D. County as well as other California counties), Lyme Disease (caused by deer fleas) and coccidia (contaminating the waterways see my blog below), rabies which is common in Mexico but not here due to these controls, etc., etc., etc., You have to become more educated about what is going on. Most "animal lovers" have no training whatsoever in animal husbandry or animal medicine, unfortunately!

IIIhouston
IIIhouston

Animals that have such diseases as buponic plague (now in S. D. County as well as other California counties), Lyme Disease (caused by deer fleas) and coccidia (contaminating the waterways see my blog below), rabies which is common in Mexico but not here due to these controls, etc., etc., etc., You have to become more educated about what is going on. Most "animal lovers" have no training whatsoever in animal husbandry or animal medicine, unfortunately!

IIIhouston
IIIhouston subscriber

I had thought the wild pigs might be killed and used for food for the homeless or something, but I was wrong. I later read that they are diseased with intestinal parasites (worms) and burcellosis (undulant fever) and other diseases that non-vaccinated animals get. Too bad, cause it is a pitiful waste of protein that could be put to some good use!

IIIhouston
IIIhouston

I had thought the wild pigs might be killed and used for food for the homeless or something, but I was wrong. I later read that they are diseased with intestinal parasites (worms) and burcellosis (undulant fever) and other diseases that non-vaccinated animals get. Too bad, cause it is a pitiful waste of protein that could be put to some good use!

IIIhouston
IIIhouston subscriber

I believe this post meant to say the irrigation likes were eaten by the rodents. It has often amazed me that the manufactures of these plastic pipes don't make them with a flavor that the rodents don't like. Of course, then they would not be able to resell newer pipes to the farmers! But the one manufacturer who would do this, would soon outsell all the other manufacturers in the business!

IIIhouston
IIIhouston

I believe this post meant to say the irrigation likes were eaten by the rodents. It has often amazed me that the manufactures of these plastic pipes don't make them with a flavor that the rodents don't like. Of course, then they would not be able to resell newer pipes to the farmers! But the one manufacturer who would do this, would soon outsell all the other manufacturers in the business!

IIIhouston
IIIhouston subscriber

rd lesson for both of us which I will never forget. But the message is, coyotes are carnovores and will eat any type of live proteing, be it your poodle, your chickens, or your unborn calves! They also carry rabies, although not too often as the Federal Agencies keep on top of this (rabies is much more common in Mexico, but that border is only 30 miles away from East County!).

IIIhouston
IIIhouston

rd lesson for both of us which I will never forget. But the message is, coyotes are carnovores and will eat any type of live proteing, be it your poodle, your chickens, or your unborn calves! They also carry rabies, although not too often as the Federal Agencies keep on top of this (rabies is much more common in Mexico, but that border is only 30 miles away from East County!).

IIIhouston
IIIhouston subscriber

JUST WANT TO REPORT THAT THERE IS MUCH MORE TO YOUR STORY THAN YOU MIGHT REALIZE~

IIIhouston
IIIhouston

JUST WANT TO REPORT THAT THERE IS MUCH MORE TO YOUR STORY THAN YOU MIGHT REALIZE~

Cara Schmidt
Cara Schmidt subscriber

I usually like a lot of the reporting on this site, but this one is just over the top. If you're convinced people are just going around slaughtering ducks all willy-nilly because they're bored at work or want to please golf course owners, great, investigate that. But the idea of thinking mountain lions were killed for eating livestock in "inadequate pens" is just short-sighted and ignorant. Please, visit barns and livestock owners around the county, talk to people who train and raise horses & ponies and realize that probably 99.something% of us use these so-called "inadequate pens". Maybe we're not all just careless livestock owners?

cara
cara

I usually like a lot of the reporting on this site, but this one is just over the top. If you're convinced people are just going around slaughtering ducks all willy-nilly because they're bored at work or want to please golf course owners, great, investigate that. But the idea of thinking mountain lions were killed for eating livestock in "inadequate pens" is just short-sighted and ignorant. Please, visit barns and livestock owners around the county, talk to people who train and raise horses & ponies and realize that probably 99.something% of us use these so-called "inadequate pens". Maybe we're not all just careless livestock owners?

Thomas Pasenelli
Thomas Pasenelli subscriber

Thank you for making San Diegans aware of this travesty! I will be contacting my congressman..we cannot let this continue San Diego!

tpasenelli
tpasenelli

Thank you for making San Diegans aware of this travesty! I will be contacting my congressman..we cannot let this continue San Diego!

Craig Nelson
Craig Nelson subscribermember

Can we re-train these people to fill potholes and leave the animals alone?

Craig Nelson
Craig Nelson

Can we re-train these people to fill potholes and leave the animals alone?

Nick Bas
Nick Bas subscriber

Whatever your thoughts on whether this is right or wrong, just know that these guys aren't toothless hillbillies looking to blast anything that moves. They are professionals and take every precaution to not cause unintended death or suffering.

NB
NB

Whatever your thoughts on whether this is right or wrong, just know that these guys aren't toothless hillbillies looking to blast anything that moves. They are professionals and take every precaution to not cause unintended death or suffering.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

The bottom line is, if there are legitimate concerns, ask reasonable questions. Don’t make a huge issue of it and demand a laundry list. Unless you are looking for headlines and drama.

B Chris Brewster
B Chris Brewster

The bottom line is, if there are legitimate concerns, ask reasonable questions. Don’t make a huge issue of it and demand a laundry list. Unless you are looking for headlines and drama.

nyob guyak
nyob guyak subscriber

regulations of the commission..

Guyak
Guyak

regulations of the commission..

Kevin Flynn
Kevin Flynn subscriber

You just won yourselves a paid subscriber.

naturenerd
naturenerd

You just won yourselves a paid subscriber.

Kevin Flynn
Kevin Flynn subscriber

Where would draw the line for requiring an explanation: a mountain lion? And endangered species? Don't you expect the government to be able to account for every penny in its budget? This is the same principle, only it has to do with accounting for lives, not pennies. It's reasonable. And by the looks of things, these publicly paid thugs decide if and when they are going to be held accountable at all.

naturenerd
naturenerd

Where would draw the line for requiring an explanation: a mountain lion? And endangered species? Don't you expect the government to be able to account for every penny in its budget? This is the same principle, only it has to do with accounting for lives, not pennies. It's reasonable. And by the looks of things, these publicly paid thugs decide if and when they are going to be held accountable at all.

Nick Hodnett
Nick Hodnett subscriber

Great job, and good for you Rob.

Nick_316
Nick_316

Great job, and good for you Rob.

nyob guyak
nyob guyak subscriber

Wrong agency, its the Forest Service that wants to shoot pigs, wildlife services has nothing to do with the decision making process for feral hog control.

Guyak
Guyak

Wrong agency, its the Forest Service that wants to shoot pigs, wildlife services has nothing to do with the decision making process for feral hog control.

Tracey McNeel
Tracey McNeel subscriber

Now that some of the facts that are presented about the conduct of mankind towards Mother Nature and Wildlife, are they still going to say they are not a problem(when manking causes problems even for its' own species!!!....)?

GalaxianStar
GalaxianStar

Now that some of the facts that are presented about the conduct of mankind towards Mother Nature and Wildlife, are they still going to say they are not a problem(when manking causes problems even for its' own species!!!....)?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

It's not the states business what the feds do (or don't in the case of immigration) do.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

It's not the states business what the feds do (or don't in the case of immigration) do.

Kelly Pryor
Kelly Pryor subscriber

Your statement accomplishes nothing. The government employs people to kill the natural life we value and so they should be held accountable. Just because the numbers boggle your mind doesn't mean the questions should be asked - and answered.

KP
KP

Your statement accomplishes nothing. The government employs people to kill the natural life we value and so they should be held accountable. Just because the numbers boggle your mind doesn't mean the questions should be asked - and answered.

Kelly Pryor
Kelly Pryor subscriber

Thank you for your excellent reporting. I am deeply concerned about this issue and am eager to learn more from your findings. I live just above Rose Canyon because I love to admire nature including the coyotes, opossums, racoons, finches, hawks, etc. It troubles me to discover that individuals are routinely killing the wild life. Please continue to follow up and obtain the answers we deserve to know...Thanks again!