With the recent dedication of additional management funds from Secretary Of the Interior David Bernhardt, two more people will be on the ground helping to manage grizzly bear and human relations. At first blush, this sounds like fantastic news; people in Montana who live among the bears have been asking for years for more resources to help maintain their lifestyles and livelihoods. Thanks to Bernhardt’s action, a total of $250,000 will be spent to hire two additional bear specialists in the area. Their task? To help residents cope with livestock predation along the Northern Rocky Mountain Front. Something to celebrate for grizzlies and humans, right?
Not so fast.
Who is receiving the funds?
The Montana agency of Fish, Wildlife and Parks will hire two agents from Wildlife Services, which is run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), to be on the ground in the state. According to their website, these individuals are trained wildlife professionals who have knowledge of how to manage complex human interactions with wildlife. Their mission statement reads: “The mission of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services (WS) is to provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.”
But the reality of “conflict resolution” and “coexistence” is darker than it sounds. Agents from Wildlife Services have been scrutinized for years due to their approach of dealing with animals on behalf of humans. The mindset that dominates Wildlife Services seems to be removing barriers to profit without considering the implications of the killing they do on the ecosystem, or on the individuals they extinguish. According to the USDA website, for the year 2018, Wildlife Services killed over 2.6 million animals, including almost 1.5 million native animals. And those are the reported kills. See this link where you can review the data for yourself. Be warned: it’s hard to stomach.
In fact, their approach, both psychological and tactical, is considered brutal and abusive by many watchdog organizations. For example, several years ago, a series of Facebook posts revealed the egregious actions of a Wyoming trapper, who was employed by WS, and facilitated abhorrent torture of a trapped coyote by his dogs. From a 2019 article in Buckrail: “Wildlife Services’ cruel killing practices are ineffective, environmentally harmful and totally out of touch with science,” said Collette Adkins, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney representing the conservation groups involved in the lawsuit. “The science shows that nonlethal methods of addressing wildlife conflicts work. We’re suing the agency to force a closer look at alternatives to its mass-extermination program.”
This is also the agency that continues to want to use M-44 devices to “manage” coyote populations – weapons that when triggered disperse sodium cyanide. The topic was the focus of a documentary film released in 2019 by University of Montana Graduate student Jamie Drysdale. He’s quoted in an article by the Idaho State Journal: “Wildlife Services in general is just such a shadowy organization that I have wanted to do an exposé on them for a long time,” Drysdale said. “And secondly, the use of M-44s is the most egregious example of what Wildlife Services does, though the entire agency is archaic and antiquated in their practices.”
In another documentary, Exposed, produced by Predator Defense, many wrongdoings on the part of Wildlife Services are revealed. George Wuerthner, Ecological Projects Director for the Foundation of Deep Ecology says, “[This film] not only reveals the extent and depth of the abuse of both animals and power inherent in this little-known rogue agency, it documents with indisputable evidence and 100% credible witnesses… It’s time to shut down this publicly funded agency which acts as handmaiden to livestock and hunting special interests.”
Christopher Ketchum, author of This Land, describes Wildlife Services in similar terms: “True to its mandate, Wildlife Services kills anything under the sun perceived as a threat to stockmen, deploying an arsenal of poisons, traps and aerial gunships at a cost of tens of millions of dollars a year annually.”
What will it mean for grizzlies?
Funded by the USDA, it’s clear that Wildlife Services prioritizes the needs and desires of ranchers and farmers above ecosystem health and balance. Their track record speaks for itself: hundreds of thousands – likely millions – of dead animals in their wake. Is this really “conflict resolution” and “coexistence?” The world is ready for another way to mitigate conflict, one that addresses root causes and is sustainable into the future. There are people engaging in repairing our relationship with nature in innovative, non-violent ways. It’s time to let them lead.
These funds are going to an agency who sees killing wildlife as the only answer. There’s no reason to believe that Wildlife Services will handle grizzly bears in any different manner.