U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, Thursday introduced legislation in Congress that would require Wildlife Services, an obscure arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to disclose far more about the millions of animals it kills across the country than it does today.

Wildlife Services, which has killed 18,700 animals in San Diego County since 2005, works in secrecy. It doesn’t allow reporters to watch its trappers in action and it hasn’t promptly released numerous public documents about the animals it’s killed here, despite a formal request we filed under the federal Freedom of Information Act. When I asked for a database of kills it maintains, two of its employees laughed out loud at my request.

The agency posts limited information online about its operations, reporting the number and type of species it kills in each state as well as how the animals were killed. But it doesn’t explain why it killed animals or in what counties or cities it occurred.

Davis’ bill, the Transparency for Lethal Control Act, would require Wildlife Services to annually report how many animals it kills in each municipality in the country, as well as the method used to kill them. It would also require Wildlife Services to explain the reasons that each species posed a threat and why killing was necessary.

Davis, a member of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, cited the problems we’ve encountered getting that basic information from Wildlife Services and said in a statement that vigorous public review is needed to ensure that killing isn’t the government’s routine, reflexive response.

“This lack of transparency and public reporting makes oversight impossible,” Davis said in a statement. “The USDA could be acting inappropriately or recklessly and without this data, we can’t know.”

The legislation has bipartisan support and is co-sponsored by Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and John Campbell, R-Irvine. DeFazio and Campbell have previously called for an investigation into Wildlife Services in the wake of a Sacramento Bee investigation, and in March introduced legislation that would ban the agency’s use of two poisons.

The legislation would address some of the hurdles we’ve encountered trying to get information from Wildlife Services to determine what animals it kills and where and why it kills them. But the agency’s secrecy isn’t just limited to its public disclosures about killing. In contracts with local government agencies, Wildlife Services prohibits localities from talking with the media about its involvement without its written permission.

The requirement is spelled out in contracts with four local government agencies, most of which have hired Wildlife Services to kill predators that pose threats to endangered birds: the city and county of San Diego, the Unified Port of San Diego and the Airport Authority. It’s right there on the first page: “When either of the Cooperating parties address the media … both Cooperating parties must agree, in writing, to have their identities disclosed when receiving due credit related to the activities covered by this agreement.”

The agencies say they don’t interpret the requirement as signing away their rights to talk about the federal agency’s involvement without its written permission. Representatives of the port and airport authority both said they wouldn’t seek the federal government’s permission before talking about Wildlife Services.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, whose office reviews the city’s contract with Wildlife Services, said the provision makes little sense.

“I think they wanted to ensure that we don’t speak for Wildlife Services when publicly discussing the program, and we won’t,” he said in a statement. “The provision is obviously not clearly worded, but we won’t give it a broad interpretation that would impair transparency.”

Larry Hawkins, a Wildlife Services spokesman, said the requirement is included in contracts to ensure that accurate information is given about who has performed the work.

“All we’re asking them to do, any work we do, they cite who does the work,” he said. “If work is done by Wildlife Services, you say it’s done by Wildlife Services.”

But that’s not what the contract says. It says the agencies must give written permission to have their identities disclosed to the media.

It’s not just the news media that’s kept in the dark. The agency provides little information about its operations even to one local government that hires it.

San Diego County pays Wildlife Services $170,000 each year to trap and kill hundreds of animals on private property across the county. It’s federally subsidized work that benefits the county’s agriculture industry. The USDA picks up $100,000 of the cost annually for three trappers to work in the county.

Sandy Parks, a county agricultural official, said the agreement’s purpose is simple: to protect people, property and the county’s $1.6 billion agricultural industry from predators and nuisance wildlife.

But it’s not clear exactly how Wildlife Services has done that for the county. When it works for the port district, city of San Diego and Airport Authority, Wildlife Services provides detailed reports explaining when, why and how it killed predators.

The county hasn’t received the same explanations. At the end of each quarter, Wildlife Services provides the county a two-page report, devoid of key details, like why and where it killed hundreds of animals — or whether any died accidentally. It provides a checklist of the death toll by species, a general summary of non-lethal work and the dollar value of damage attributed to animals.

Wildlife Services has killed more than 1,300 American coots, a small black duck, as part of its county work. The agency offered specifics about the reason for killing the ducks in only one report to the county in 2010. The report said they were killed because they were grazing on residential yards, parks and golf courses.

County spokesman Michael Workman said the county isn’t paying to have ducks killed on golf courses. County officials met with Wildlife Services in 2011 to ensure that trappers weren’t killing ducks on golf courses as part of the county contract. Wildlife Services said the work had been done outside of its county contract.

Without more specific reports, however, it’s not possible to verify where the ducks were killed or who paid for it. Workman said the county would ask for more detailed reports from Wildlife Services in the future.

Gary Strader, a former Wildlife Services trapper who worked in Nevada and Utah, said coyotes were often killed indiscriminately by the agency, regardless of whether they attacked livestock or posed a threat. He said more animals ended up being killed because federal and local taxpayers were paying for work on private ranches.

“If a rancher can get his coyotes killed for free, then he’s going to do it,” Strader said. “But they kill coyotes that aren’t killing. If that rancher has to pay the private enterprise, then he’s not going to call someone until he needs someone to kill them.”

In the last decade, both Marin County and the city of Davis have terminated contracts with Wildlife Services after concerns were raised there. Davis’ City Council most recently ended its deal after the federal agency killed four coyote pups and an adult coyote at a golf course there on June 15, the Sacramento Bee reported. A city official said the animals hadn’t posed a threat but were killed anyway.

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 was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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