Op-Ed: Grazing on Wildlife—USDA Killing Millions of Wild Animals each year to protect livestock

The Blue Ridge Mountains are home to awe-inspiring wild animals. Our childlike excitement when we encounter one of these beings in their natural habitat is a testament to their mystery and majesty. Many of us care deeply about preserving America’s unique wildlife, yet the majority of us do not know that our tax dollars are funding a mass slaughter of these beautiful creatures.

It is not okay that our hard-earned money is funding an essentially unregulated government agency that continues to kill millions upon millions of wild animals.

In the nine years from 2004 to 2013, the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services operatives killed 34 million animals (the latest numbers from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Source). This includes eagles, bears, wolves, deer, beavers and the list goes on and on. Although Wildlife Services has gone through many name changes over the years, its top priority has remained the same since its inception: to serve the livestock industry.

According to the agency’s own website, the Bureau of Land Management oversees about 245 million acres of land and allows livestock grazing on more than half of that. These lands, which are public lands owned by you and me, are leased to ranchers at a fraction of the price of what private land would cost them. This subsidy allows livestock owners to occupy such massive expanses of land that they can no longer afford to adequately protect their animals.

Enter Wildlife Services. Since ranchers now manage such enormous swaths of cheap, public land, it is impossible for them to control the inevitable predation that occurs. They simply cannot protect all of their livestock from wolves, coyotes, cougars and other predators who are going to eat docile, domesticated animals when they’re put right in front of them.

Once ranchers have had their livestock killed by predators, they call their state’s branch of the USDA and request assistance in eradicating them. Without requiring any proof, Wildlife Services sends in its agents on foot and in the air, and they kill any predators they can find in the area. They have no way of knowing if any of the animals they’ve killed actually harmed any livestock. They do this over and over again, indiscriminately, to innocent wolves, bears, bobcats and more.

Another way they “protect” livestock is by setting poisonous traps in high predator areas. Some of these traps are very difficult to identify and have often killed non-target animals such as dogs and cats. Victims of these traps suffer convulsions and ultimately die from cardiac failure or respiratory arrest. It can take five to fourteen hours for them to die a torturous death. Wildlife Services is supposed to put signage in these areas, warning recreationalists that the poisons are there, but often they do not do this for fear of scrutiny from environmental and wildlife protectors.

All of this and more is thoroughly documented in reporter Christopher Ketcham’s 2016, “The Rogue Agency: A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species” (Harper’s Magazine). In his piece, Ketcham uncovers Wildlife Services’ use of neck snares, leghold traps (illegal in 80 countries), aerial gunning and other cruel devices and methods. His sources, previous employees of Wildlife Services, report that they witnessed or took part in these operations, which they say continue to this day.

A few concerned members of Congress have tried for decades to reform Wildlife Services by demanding accountability, calling for a reduction of the agency’s budget, and requesting an overhaul of its decision-making process. Their efforts have, for the most part, been unsuccessful. The livestock industry has such powerful lobbyists that Wildlife Services remains the unregulated, “rogue” agency that it has been for decades.

Unfortunately, we citizens are not innocent bystanders in these atrocities. Our increasing demand for animal products is directly related to this mass killing of wildlife. In addition to propping up heinous programs like Wildlife Services, our taste for beef, dairy and other livestock products also contributes to huge swaths of natural habitat being destroyed for grazing and feedstock croplands, which displace and result in the death of even more wild animals. The evidence is clear and there is no denying that our current consumption standards are wreaking havoc on wildlife.

As we shift away from diets, clothing, furniture and other items dependent on animal products—as we move toward vegan living—we save far more creatures than we previously imagined. Not only do we save the animals on our plates, but the wild ones we hold in such high regard.

Our public lands and animals in the wild deserve better. Our tax dollars should not be funding the mass slaughter of eagles, bears, bobcats, coyotes, cougars, wild horses and wolves, not to mention dogs and house cats. Our lifestyle choices need not be so destructive.

We need to speak out against Wildlife Services. We need to tell our friends and neighbors about the terrible harm being done. We need to contact our congresspersons and demand that they pass legislation to reform this out-of-control agency. And we need to choose diets and products that do not contribute to the needless suffering of so many animals.

A more peaceful and sustainable world is possible, but we must not be spectators. We must act.

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