Tuesday , July 03, 2012 - 9:57 AM
RENO, Nev. - Outside the meeting room, gamblers rolled dice and slid quarters into slot machines.
Inside, scientists peppered government officials with questions about a controversial, little-known federal wildlife damage control program, hoping to learn something new.
Like most gamblers, they didn’t have much luck.
"It was frustrating because we knew we were going to get a lot of non-answers," said Bradley Bergstrom, professor of wildlife biology at Georgia’s Valdosta State University, who organized the meeting. "It’s almost exactly what I expected."
The session brought two adversaries together for the first time in living memory: a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency called Wildlife Services, which has long specialized in killing animals considered a threat to farmers, ranchers and the public; and the American Society of Mammalogists, a 93-year-old scientific society that has criticized lethal federal predator control since the 1920s.
"Predator removal is a federal subsidy going to a very select segment of society," Bergstrom said, opening the meeting. "Overall, we feel it is often unnecessary."
Martin Mendoza, associate deputy administrator of Wildlife Services, defended the agency, saying: "Our philosophy for the last 40 or 50 years has been that we try to resolve individual problems caused by individuals animals."
The meeting took place amid growing scrutiny of Wildlife Services, which employs 1,694 people and in 2010 reported a budget of $126 million. The money comes from a range of sources, such as federal taxpayers, state agencies, airports, county governments and private "co-operators," including farmers and ranchers.
In March, two congressmen, John Campbell, R-Irvine, and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., introduced a bill that would ban the agency’s use of spring-loaded sodium cyanide devices - known as M-44s - which have accidentally killed more than 3,400 non-target animals since 2006, including 250 dogs.
Last month, they - along with two other lawmakers - wrote a letter requesting a congressional investigation of Wildlife Services, citing a series of stories in The Sacramento Bee this spring that found agency practices are often indiscriminate, inhumane, expensive and carried out with little or no public input.
The genesis for Monday’s meeting at the Peppermill Resort Spa and Casino was a heated exchange of letters earlier this year between society leaders and Wildlife Services deputy administrator William Clay.
In the audience were about two dozen people, including a mountain lion biologist from California, a former Wildlife Services district manager from Idaho and a handful of environmentalists who have battled the agency for years.
"With their (Wildlife Services’) reputation for being so secretive, I was astonished this was taking place at all," said Trish Swain, coordinator of TrailSafe Nevada, a grass-roots group pushing for a ban on traps and snares. "I was thrilled."
After opening remarks, members of the society’s conservation committee posed questions to Wildlife Services managers who sat together at the end of a table.
The first question: Does Wildlife Services know how much it spends per animal, to kill coyotes, wolves and other carnivores?
"We do not track the information," Mendoza said.
Ana Davidson, a Ph.D. student from New Mexico, asked about the agency’s funding. "Who are the co-operators?" she said. "What are they contributing?"
Mendoza said he could not provide specifics. "A lot of that information . you are asking for is protected by the Freedom of Information and Privacy acts," he said.
In written responses to questions from the society before the meeting, agency officials said their employees "provided predator control . on approximately 10,545 ranches in the 17 Western states in fiscal year 2011."
Adam Ferguson, a Ph.D. student from Texas, pressed further, asking for more detailed breakdown of the agency’s funding sources and finances.
"That data has to be there," Ferguson said. "Couldn’t that data just be made available in raw format to the public and let the public do the . analysis?"
The answer was not encouraging. "Just to give tons of raw data to people would not be smart," said Jeff Green, Western regional director for Wildlife Services in Colorado. "Torture numbers long enough and they are going to confess to anything."
Despite such replies, Bergstrom remained upbeat. "This was our first face-to-face encounter," he said. "I hope they realize now that we’re serious and we’re not going to quit asking questions just because they refuse to answer them."
Questions from the audience were sharp, too, including one from a private trapper critical of the agency’s practice of aerial gunning in which large numbers of coyotes are killed every year whether they have harmed livestock or not.
Green defended the practice.
"When you fly over an allotment of sheep and you see four, five, six coyotes, you take all of them because you just don’t know which ones have done the killing," he said. "And in all likelihood, coyotes will kill eventually."
Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services district manager from Idaho, sat in the audience, taking notes.
Aerial gunning "has always been excessive," said Niemeyer, author of "Wolfer," a 2010 book critical of agency practices. "Simply killing coyotes because they are out there and they might kill a sheep - that’s not justification for a government program.
"I came here expecting to hear some revelations," he added. "I didn’t really learn anything new. The answers were shallow. I expected more. The public deserves more."
Bergstrom said something promising did emerge after the meeting - an invitation from Mendoza, the agency deputy administrator, to society officials to attend a Wildlife Services scientific advisory meeting later this year.
"We intend to participate," Bergstrom said. "That is certainly a positive result."
)2012 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
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