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As our SUV navigates the road through the marshy preserve in southern Chula Vista, shorebirds take flight in all directions: Plovers, stilts and terns, alighting in a whirlwind of squeaks, peeps and wing beats.

What’s not immediately obvious is what isn’t here in the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, at the bay’s southern end. No crows, red-tailed hawks or Cooper’s hawks soar overhead, predators commonly seen over San Diego’s canyons.

Their absence is by design. Trappers working for Wildlife Services, a little-known arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have been hired by the government agencies that manage this preserve and other protected land around the bay. Their job: To hunt and kill predators that might otherwise prey on endangered birds using the area to nest and breed.

Government officials, local biologists and environmental groups laud the work, saying the targeted killing is essential for the recovery of endangered species like the California least tern and Western snowy plover. The birds have been pushed to the brink by dense coastal development atop their former nesting habitat.

If Wildlife Services was just judged on that, the agency would be popular. But protecting the endangered birds here represents only about a third of the agency’s work in San Diego County and even less nationwide. The 1,700-employee agency spent just 5 percent of its $126 million budget in 2010 (the most recent year available) to protect endangered species.

Many who support Wildlife Services’ efforts for rare species stop short of condoning all the agency’s killing. Since 2005, Wildlife Services has killed 18,700 animals in San Diego County. Thousands have been targeted not because they threatened rare birds, but because they damaged golf courses or threatened livestock.

Elsewhere, a former Wildlife Services trapper said wildlife found near livestock was often killed indiscriminately, regardless of whether it actually posed a threat. Here, the circumstances for many of those deaths remain mysteries, because the federal government has not released information we’ve asked for that could answer those questions. It has promised a response by late August.

David Hogan, director of the Chaparral Lands Conservancy, a local environmental group, said Wildlife Services performs some legitimate activities, such as protecting endangered species and keeping airport runways clear of wildlife. But those efforts are on the periphery, he said.

“The fundamental issue is that we have a rogue agency, Wildlife Services, indiscriminately killing wildlife elsewhere for the benefit of ranchers and hobby farmers who should be taking care of their animals — where there are few proven benefits to control and very significant concerns,” Hogan said.

Though it’s a public, taxpayer-funded agency, Wildlife Services operates in secrecy. It doesn’t allow news reporters to follow its trappers while they work, even though they do publicly funded work on public land every day.

After I wrote about Wildlife Services’ killing in the county, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — a different federal agency that’s responsible for protecting endangered species — invited me for a tour of refuge land around the bay. One of its local project leaders, Andy Yuen, said he wanted to talk about the need for Wildlife Services to kill predators at refuges — a practice known as predator management.

Yuen and Brian Collins, the refuge manager, spent two hours showing me around the refuge along southern San Diego Bay, explaining that hunting predators is essential to ensuring the recovery of birds like the California least tern and Western snowy plover. Collins said Wildlife Services trappers are hired because they’re good at what they do. While trapping and killing predators is undesirable and lamentable, he said, it’s also unavoidable if the least tern and snowy plover are going to recover.

Population figures show the efforts are helping. The least tern’s population dropped as low as 600 pairs in 1973, before rebounding to 7,100 pairs in 2005, a recovery the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said was contingent on predator-control efforts.

“We’re dealing with a legacy of bad land use we’re trying to heal,” Collins said. “It brings me no joy to do this. It’s to help the species we’re tasked with protecting.”

Wildlife Services has reported 19 accidental killings in San Diego County since 2005. While I was out with Yuen and Collins, they answered one question we’d had since we started investigating Wildlife Services: Where in the county five house finches died accidentally. They landed in traps set out in the bay refuge to capture owls, Collins said. Two or three were immediately killed, he said, and two finches were euthanized after the traps broke their legs, Collins said. He emphasized that such accidents are rare and regrettable.

“There’s no perfect way to catch a wild animal,” Collins said. “Every time, you run the risk of hurting it. But it’s low — that’s why we hire professionals.”

But Gary Strader, a trapper who worked for Wildlife Services for five years, said accidental killings are frequently underreported or not reported at all by trappers because it gives a black eye to an agency that’s sensitive to criticism from animal rights groups. He said it would be impossible for Wildlife Services to have only accidentally killed fewer than three animals a year in the county.

“It’s such a lie,” he said. “Oh God, it’s not even remotely possible to catch only 19 non-target animals. I’d bet my house against a two-week-old doughnut that it’s closer to 1,000 non-target animals in seven years. If they’re trapping and snaring, they’re catching non-target animals. You can’t put up a sign that says ‘Coyotes Only.’ “

Wildlife Services’ accidental kills have brought heavy scrutiny to the agency. Each year, it reports accidentally killing hundreds of foxes, badgers, otters, porcupines and other species. It’s mistakenly killed five bald eagles, a federally protected bird, in the last two years. In 2010, it accidentally killed a wolverine, a species proposed for endangered species protection.

One of its most notable accidents happened in 1983, at a time when every California condor was vital to the species’ survival — just two dozen remained. One was unintentionally killed in Kern County by a spring-loaded cyanide trap Wildlife Services had planted to kill coyotes. California voters banned the traps in 1998, but the agency still uses them across the West, where they accidentally kill dozens of animals each year.

The mistake with the condor was well-known in the department. On his first day working at Wildlife Services in Utah in April 2004, Strader, the former trapper, said his supervisor told him the agency had accidentally killed condors — plural — in California with the spring-loaded cyanide traps. Trappers apply a smelly paste to the top of the device, then plant the rest of the tube in the ground. When an animal pulls on it, the device shoots poisonous cyanide into its mouth.

If anything similar happened, Strader’s boss told him to immediately report it. But when Strader moved to Wildlife Services’ Nevada office, he said he got a very different message. After Strader found a golden eagle dead in a trap he’d set for a coyote, he called his supervisor there and asked what to do with the protected bird.

The supervisor asked: Did anyone see it? Strader said no. His boss’s instructions were simple. “He told me to get a shovel and bury it.”

Strader’s job was eliminated in 2009, he said, after he reported two colleagues for illegally shooting two mountain lions from a plane.

Both Collins and Yuen said they had no evidence that accidental deaths haven’t been reported in the refuge. Both said they had close working relationships with the trappers working there.

Jim Peugh, the local conservation chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society, said the trappers he’s met here have all been professional and conscientious, even willing to go door-to-door in a neighborhood seeking the owner of a collared cat found wandering in sensitive habitat.

But Collins and Peugh both stopped short of endorsing all of Wildlife Services’ work.

One of its most controversial programs kills tens of thousands of coyotes a year to protect livestock on ranches and private farms. Since 2005, it’s killed 1,400 coyotes in San Diego County and 585,000 coyotes across the country, records show, drawing criticism across the West for being indiscriminate and ineffective. Strader said many coyotes are killed even when they haven’t attacked anything.

“When Wildlife Services does it, they have to justify their existence,” he said, “so they do a massive amount of killing, and they kill coyotes that don’t need to be killed.”

I asked Collins about the challenges that arise from targeting coyotes in the refuge, where five were trapped and killed last year. Research has shown that removing coyotes allows smaller predators like skunks and feral cats to proliferate and feed on birds.

“That’s the gray-hair inducing part of the work,” Collins told me. “If they’re over there —” he gestured toward the far side of the refuge boundary, where coyotes reduce the population of small predators “— they’re doing us a favor.”

Once coyotes cross into the refuge, he said they pose an acute risk. Collins said a few years ago, two coyotes killed 1,200 adults, chicks and eggs of different bird species in days. In the 1990s, a coyote destroyed 260 least tern nests in a week. Because the birds nest in the open, they’re vulnerable.

But Collins also limited his comments to the coyotes that Wildlife Services kills in the refuge.

“Wildlife Services does things with coyotes elsewhere that we won’t speak to,” he told me. “They know what we want and don’t want, and when to ask.”

It is still unclear how many animals Wildlife Services has killed in San Diego County to protect endangered birds compared to those killed to protect livestock. Wildlife Services spokesman Larry Hawkins said his agency doesn’t track that. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wouldn’t release reports it maintains that document those figures within its refuge, unless I filed a formal Freedom of Information Act request, a process that can take weeks.

But other government agencies have responded, including the Unified Port of San Diego and the city and county of San Diego. What’s clear from those reports is that thousands of ducks have been killed not because they threatened endangered species, but golf courses instead. Hundreds of coyotes have been killed to protect livestock, though it’s not clear whether the animals targeted posed a threat.

We’ll look at the documents local agencies have provided in our next story.

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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Rob Davis

Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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