Rob Davis, Voice Of San Diego
Larry Hawkins, Wildlife Services
Related Story: Is Wildlife Services Killing Too Many Animals In San Diego?
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A multipart investigation by voice of San Diego is questioning the work of federal wildlife trappers in the county. It's also highly critical of the lack of detail in the information released about the animals they trap and kill. The series called wildlife killers focuses on the wildlife services division of the U.S. department of agriculture. Information released to the public says the division has killed more than 18,000 animals of different species in San Diego since 2005. But details about the circumstances of many of those killings remain undisclosed. Voice of San Diego reporter, Rob Davis, the author of the wildlife killers series. Welcome to the show.
DAVIS: Always good to see you.
CAVANAUGH: The mission of wildlife services is to resolve conflicts between people and wildlife. What were you able to find out about the type and the number of animals killed by the agency?
DAVIS: Not information I had hoped to. I sent the department of federal freedom of information act request and asked for all the reports that they had, and all the databases they had about the animals that had been killed here since 2005. And what they provided was just a little more than a dozen pieces of paper listing the number of animals that they had killed by species and then damage reports, you know, dollar values that had been attributed to damage caused by those animals.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So am I right in assuming though, and I think your articles mention, that most of the animals are really the kind that people don't have a lot of feeling for like rats and skunks and things of that nature?
DAVIS: Yeah, some of them are. There have been, for instance, 3,000 American coots killed in the county since 2005. It's a small duck. 1,400 coyotes, 7 seven mountain lions, thousands of possums, raccoons, skunks, rats, and squirrels that have been killed as well.
CAVANAUGH: When you talk about bobcats and coyotes, and even the small duck, those are the animals that people have feeling for, and the idea that you need to preserve them. What do we know about why coyotes were killed? Did they pose some kind of a threat? Is that why these animals are dispatched?
DAVIS: Well, oftentimes coyotes are killed -- this agency has killed hundreds of thousands of coyotes across the west. So we're talking about a small fraction of what they've done here. But they've -- I mean, I don't know. There are coyotes that are killed simply for what is called preventative reasons. And there may have been coyotes killed because they ate livestock or chewed on irrigation pipes. But the agency hasn't provided any explanation for why it's killed each of those animals.
CAVANAUGH: I believe your series begins with the documentation of the killing of one coyote. And off what you call a ranchette. Tell us this story.
DAVIS: It was actually a mountain lion, and it was named M56 by researchers at UC Davis who have been tracking it. And they collared it in Orange County and watched as it crossed from the mountain range up there and came down to interstate 15. A lot of mountain lions get killed when they try to cross I-15. This one found a way either over or under it and started heading down -- south, down to the Mexican border, and at some point in April of 2010 decided that it was hungry, and it was going to feed on some sheep that had been left outside of a ranch. They were kept in a chain linked fence area that didn't have any way to keep mountain lions from jumping into it. And so it killed the sheep and wildlife services were called and killed the mountain lion.
CAVANAUGH: They were called in and I believe gave the owners of the property three choice, right?
DAVIS: Yeah, they said let it go, it might be up in the hills right now watching you. So you can just leave it out there, or we can relocate it, which is not legal to do, or they could trap and kill it, which is what they did.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I'm wondering, when you have a situation like that, that is well documented, where did you get that information? Did you get that information from wildlife services?
DAVIS: No, I got almost no information about it from wildlife services. None at all, really. It was a story that had been well-told in newspapers here because mountain lion was pretty dynamic and had attracted so much attention because researchers were learning a lot about it from it being collard. And they had concerns that mountain lions weren't moving between mountain ranges in Orange County and mountain ranges here, and were learning a lot from it when it was killed.
CAVANAUGH: So this was almost like a star animal, which is why you found out about it. What about the other animals that wildlife services have killed in San Diego County, thinking of course the coots that you mentioned. Beavers, western meadowlarks. Do you have any idea what kind of a threat these creatures might have posed?
DAVIS: In some cases, yes. The agency does work -- a very small fraction of its work is to kill predators that would prey on endangered species like the California least tern. So they do some killing of coyotes and skunks and that sort of thing that would get into the wildlife refugees here locally. The coots are interesting because this duck is often found on golf courses. And one report that we got that I got from the county of San Diego, wildlife services told them we killed coots on golf courses for you all. And it would be a little curious if county taxpayers were paying to have ducks killed on golf courses. And the county questioned it as well, and there's no way to know if they have in fact killed coots for county taxpayers. Wildlife services said in a report that it did, and with the level of disclosure, there's no way of actually knows what's happened.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with rob Davis. His series in the voice of San Diego is called wildlife killers. And on the line with us now, a spokesman from the wildlife services, Larry Hawkins. Welcome to the program.
HAWKINS: Good afternoon.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us about your agency? How do you describe the mission of wildlife services?
HAWKINS: Well, generally, as you stated in the beginning of the program, wildlife services' mission is to manage human/wildlife conflicts. And that may either be through human health and safety, our desire to maintain threatened and endangered species, our for livestock protection, or for the protection of other resources. That might be city infrastructure or any number of things. But in those areas where conflict arises between people and wildlife, our goal is to try and mitigate that problem.
CAVANAUGH: What is the level of expertise of your agents out in the field?
CAVANAUGH: Well, for instance, our state directors hold a masters degree or higher. About 63% of them are certified by the wildlife society. A larger and larger percentage of our field staff are biologists as compared with, oh, as little as ten years ago, and certainly by comparison with 20 years ago. It's not to say every one of our field people is a wildlife biologist. But there's a proportion of them that are, and the others who are not professional biologists do receive training from professional organizations such as the Berryman Institute, an academic research center at Utah state and Mississippi state universities. We also have probably the most significant wildlife research center, in Fort Collins, Colorado, and that organization is a part of wildlife services and is responsible for coming up with new technologies to deal with these issues that need to be mitigated.
HAWKINS: With an emphasis on nonlethal activities.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that was my next question. The killing of animals is not the default of your services. You try to mitigate problems in a number of other ways.
HAWKINS: That's correct. We try to begin at the level that has the at least impact. For instance with homeowners in San Diego County, if somebody calls and they have a problem with wildlife on their residential property, we try and begin with them in talking about ways to exclude the pest. We refer to it as technical advice. It's simple stuff, maintaining your fences, making sure that the gates are closed and the fence is in good repair, but making sure that animals can't squeeze under it. We advise people not to feed their pets or water their pets out of doors because that provides a feeding and watering opportunity for wildlife as well. We ask people to keep their properties clean, free of brush, trash, and other debris. And the reason for that is that type of debris in a residential setting is very attractive to rodents and other prey species that thereby will attract coyotes and other animals, including some, you know, possums, skunks, and others that are frankly seeking food sources, and if a residential property provides, that they're going to be attracted to it.
CAVANAUGH: Larry Hawkins, I really appreciate your taking the time out today to talk with us. Thanks so much.
HAWKINS: You're welcome.
CAVANAUGH: Rob, now, in booking the wildlife services spokesman we just heard from, he told us he did not want to address the issues that were raised in your report. Wildlife services has given you all the information that you have requested, he told us. How do you respond to that?
DAVIS: I mean that's just completely false.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right.
DAVIS: It's not true at all. It's interesting that he said that there's an emphasis on nonlethal techniques. I've talked to a couple of former trappers who have worked for the agency. One of them is now based in Idaho, and I talked to him, and he said how do you justify your job if you're a wildlife services trapper? He said how do I measure your worth, he said you have a kill column. You kill 10, it's better than 2. You kill 50, you might get a commendation because you went off the call of duty. If you went a trapper who went around all summer and didn't kill a coyote, he wouldn't have a job. His job is to kill a coot or coyote or whatever else.
CAVANAUGH: To the point of that information you requested, hasn't congresswoman Susan Davis introduced legislation for more transparency in this agency?
DAVIS: Yes. She introduced a bill just before Congress went into recess a couple of weeks ago that would require the agency to disclose by jurisdiction across the country what it's killed, why it's killed, how it's killed. Right now, you can basically get, you know, state by state breakdowns. We killed 25,000 coyotes in Nevada last year. But not why, or where. There's no level of disclosure for it.
CAVANAUGH: Now, there may be the argument to be made that what you just talked about, the kill list, is not representative of the agency at large. Is it your contention that wildlife services agents actually want to kill animals?
DAVIS: Well, I don't know that it's that they want to. From the folks that I've talked to, it's not an issue of wanting to. But it's the mission of the agency. And it's what they do. They're trappers, and they've killed 18,700 animals in San Diego County since 2005. Whether or not they want to, they are.
CAVANAUGH: They work really very closely with -- to protect endangered species though. Isn't that part of their assignment?
DAVIS: Absolutely. It's about five or 6% of the work that they do across the country. It represents a little bit more of the work that they do here. But they also do work for San Diego County. The county spends about $170,000 a year on their contract with wildlife services. And in return, every quarter gets a 2-page report describing what the agency has done. In that instance, there's very little ability for the county to provide any oversight at all. The county told me they count on the USDA to provide oversight of the work that's done which is of course asking the agency to self-police itself, and not generally how oversight works.
CAVANAUGH: I have to wrap it up, but I understand that you're expecting more information in late August from wildlife services. Have you received that yet?
DAVIS: I have not.