Obscure no more, a secretive government agency that’s exterminated millions of animals — including 18,700 in San Diego County in just a few years — is about to undergo intense scrutiny via a federal investigation.

It’s about time, say lawmakers and animal advocates who have spent years warning that the taxpayer-funded pest controllers at Wildlife Services are out of control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the agency, is launching a probe after getting demands from members of Congress.

But the agency still has defenders who stand by its approach to killing animals that it deems threats to farms, private companies and endangered species.

At stake are the lives of wild animals considered to be pests and the other critters (including innocent species and household pets) that get caught up in the fatal dragnet. Voice of San Diego reported extensively on Wildlife Services in 2012 and found that its trappers have killed mountain lions, bobcats, songbirds, coyotes and other animals — even an alligator and a wild turkey — since 2005.

Some of the animals appear to have posed threads to livestock and to endangered species. (Animals exterminated locally because they’re considered dangerous to other animals include great blue herons and long-tailed weasels.)

Other exterminated animals are considered pests, like pigeons, rats and skunks. A total of 2,900 coots, duck-like birds that damage swimming pools and golf courses, were killed.

In many cases, the agency refused to explain why or where local animals were killed, making it impossible to know where taxpayer money is going. Why, for example, were beavers, meadowlarks and ducks exterminated? The agency refused to say.

This isn’t just a matter of a little federal agency with a major transparency problem. Local government agencies often contract with Wildlife Services — the county paid for coots to be killed, for example. Local private companies also appear to get extermination services from the agency, although the identities of those companies here aren’t clear.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will investigate the agency through its inspector general’s arm. The probe will examine “whether wildlife damage management activities were justified and effective,” according to the Times.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon who called for the probe, hopes the agency in charge of animal extermination will itself be snuffed out. “I have come to the conclusion that this is an agency whose time has passed,” DeFazio told the Los Angeles Times.

DeFazio’s office has “determined that the agency acts as an exterminator for golf clubs and resorts, hunting clubs, homeowners associations, paving companies and timber giants International Paper and Weyerhaeuser,” according to the L.A. Times. At least in some cases, the services are provided for free, apparently at a cost only to the taxpayer.

The defenders of Wildlife Services contend that the animal extermination is needed because it benefits farmers and ranchers. As for animal lovers, they’re divided over its value.

Elizabeth Copper, a biologist and leading bird watcher here in San Diego County, declined to comment. But she told The Sacramento Bee in 2012 that she appreciates the agency’s work here to eliminate animals that pose threats to the endangered least tern, a small migratory bird that nests on beaches along the West Coast.

“I know the reputation Wildlife Services has, and it is particularly inappropriate for the people involved with this program,” she told the paper. “They work really hard with a focus for something that is in big trouble. And they’ve made a huge difference.”

But Stephanie Boyles Griffin, a senior director for the Humane Society of the United States, said that Wildlife Services trappers rely on “wasteful, ineffective and indiscriminate” methods that kill more than the animals that are targeted. For example, “they’re using poison to poison millions of starlings, There’s no telling the countless number of songbirds that are being killed — millions of birds. There’s no way to know how many non-target birds they’re killing.”

The Humane Society of the United States — which is separate from local humane societies that run shelters — appears to accept that some wildlife should be exterminated. But Wildlife Services is “not achieving what the mission of the agency is — a world of co-existence between humans and wildlife.”

A spokeswoman for Wildlife Services didn’t return a request for comment about the allegations against the agency. She told VOSD in 2012 that “the thought that we’re trying to hide something isn’t the case.” However, she also said the explanations for some wildlife killings aren’t written down but instead exist “in the minds of the biologists who are doing the work.”

Brad Bergstrom, a biologist at Valdosta State University in Georgia and chair of the Conservation Committee of the American Society of Mammalogists, is a critic of Wildlife Services. However, he said the agency has a role to play and shouldn’t be shut down. “I would like to see it reform to an agency that embraces the science of the role of native predators — and other important species — in ecosystems and educates ranchers, farmers, and other landowners on the primarily non-lethal methods of preventing depredation,” he said. (Depradation refers to an attack by predators.)

Instead, Wildlife Services is secretive about its methods and statistics, making it difficult to figure out the kinds of effects their actions have on nature. Wildlife Services “simply denies that any of this applies to what they do, but they’re not willing to prove it,” he said.

The new investigation of Wildlife Services by the inspector general’s arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will examine “whether wildlife damage management activities were justified and effective,” according to the Times. It’s not clear how long the investigation will last or what else it will examine.

Members of Congress are also calling for oversight hearings. Congressional critics of the agency include local Rep. Susan Davis.

In a statement to Voice of San Diego, she said the audit is “a great step forward”: “Animals shouldn’t be killed unnecessarily or inhumanely, and taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for those inappropriate  actions. Also, data on where, why, how and which animals have been killed should be more clearly presented to the public. Transparency and accountability are key.”

It’s not clear whether local Rep. Juan Vargas, who sits on the House’s Committee on Agriculture, has expressed concern or is playing any role regarding the probe. (The committee oversees issues regarding the Department of Agriculture, which runs Wildlife Services.) His office didn’t respond to a request for information.

For his part, DeFazio, the Oregon congressman, told the Times that Wildlife Services is “the least accountable federal agency” he’s ever seen.

Wildlife Services has other problems. An audit last year reportedly showed signs of major and illegal financial problems and even a missing $12 million.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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