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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