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For 20 years, Kay Stewart has lived next to Tecolote Canyon in San Diego, enjoying the coyotes and raccoons that often visit. This year, though, she hasn’t seen any.

“I really have missed them,” she told me in an email.

Stewart isn’t the only resident near Tecolote Canyon to notice a decline. So has Sheri Mongeau, who told me in an email that she’s seen fewer coyotes and many more gophers than ever before in her 50 years on the canyon.

“Maybe all of this is really just a cycle,” Mongeau said. “But this is worse than I ever remember it.”

Stewart said she knows that coyotes kill cats that stray into the canyon — she lost a cat that way. But she appreciates the essential role coyotes play in killing smaller predators that would otherwise feed on quail, lizards and other animals.

“Without those species, the balance of nature would slip badly,” Stewart wrote. “Seed-eating birds wouldn’t spread seed, insect-feeding reptiles wouldn’t consume insects, etc., so coyotes are an essential part of our open space being sustained.”

Mongeau and Stewart were among the dozens of readers who emailed after reading my ongoing investigation of Wildlife Services, an obscure arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both wondered whether the agency might be responsible for the animals’ disappearance.

Right now, there’s no way to tell.

The federal agency’s stated mission is to resolve conflicts between people and wildlife, and it frequently kills animals to do that. It’s killed 18,700 animals in San Diego County since 2005, including more than 1,400 coyotes and 460 raccoons. But it’s not clear where and when those animals have been killed. The agency hasn’t promptly provided me that information, even though I’ve submitted a formal Freedom of Information Act request for it.

Stewart wrote:

I’d like to see their records of activity in our area, if they ever provide you with original documents that show day to day activities.

We’ve been investigating Wildlife Services since May, trying to find explanations for why the agency has killed all those animals here. We’ve since learned that some have been killed to protect endangered birds like the California least tern and Western snowy plover.

But thousands of deaths remain unexplained, because Wildlife Services hasn’t provided records that could provide answers. Questions like Stewart’s and Mongeau’s are ones we hope to answer.

Another mystery we want to solve: Whether county taxpayers have footed the bill for Wildlife Services to kill coots, a small duck-like bird, on private golf courses. The county hires Wildlife Services each year, paying it about $170,000 annually. In one report to the county, the agency said it’d killed coots on golf courses.

The county says that didn’t happen under its contract. Without further disclosure from the federal agency, though, it’s impossible to verify that.

In May, I sent the agency a formal legal request for all records it maintains related to animal killings in San Diego County. It sent me a few documents a month later: a list of all animals killed by species and another of the dollar value of damage attributed to animals here.

But it didn’t provide volumes of information, like reports completed each time a mountain lion or bobcat is killed, explaining where and why it happened. It didn’t provide field diaries of its trappers or a database it uses to track each killing.

I protested, and the agency promised to provide more records by today, Aug. 27. Lyndia Taylor, a USDA Freedom of Information Act specialist, wrote in an email that the agency would not only provide records by today, but would provide partial releases beforehand.

That hasn’t happened.

In fact, a Wildlife Services spokesman, Larry Hawkins, told KPBS last week that his agency had already provided me all the information I’d asked for. That claim is false.

We’ll have an update if and when we hear from the USDA.

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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