Burying the Eagle: USDA Wildlife Services and the Essence of America

Bald Eagle in flight over Homer Spit Kenai Peninsula Alaska WinterWhen newly minted American citizens attend their citizenship ceremony, the festivities typically include a collective flag-waving exercise stimulated by stirring images of bald eagles soaring over majestic western landscapes, accompanied by the patriotic songs of Lee Greenwood. Tea Party rallies often draw on similar themes, seeking to tap into the broad vein of stereotypes with which Americans describe their national identity. But, to an extent that would undoubtedly shock most Americans, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Tea Party groups are sugarcoating reality. Neither of these organizations would be able to evoke the emotional responses they desire if they showed the attendees of their meetings how the government of the United States uses taxpayer dollars to kill bald eagles – and many other iconic predators – with brutal and even illegal deathtraps. In reality, those vast western landscapes have long been killing fields, in which federal employees, acting under the cover of a singularly thick fog of secrecy, destroy the living things that Native Americans and newcomers alike associate with the spirit of America. And this little-known fact invites a rarely asked question: What are we to make of a country that deliberately destroys its own spirit?

A Blood-Soaked Subsidy to Rural Royalty

Probably the best reporting on the USDA’s Wildlife Services (not to be confused with the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)) has been done by the Sacramento Bee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, Tom Knudson. In a series of three articles published in 2012 (part 1, part 2, part 3), Knudson exposed the dark secret that almost everyone in Washington has been keeping from the American people for decades. Acquiring its current name in 1997, Wildlife Services traces its roots all the way back to 1915, though its deadly character became clearest in 1931, when the Hoover Administration authorized the creation of an agency “to promulgate the best methods of eradication, suppression or bringing under control” a wide variety of wildlife. Intense scientific criticism and a 1971 federal review of the agency prompted President Nixon to ban the agency from using poison, and to declare that,”The time has come for man to make his peace with nature.” But the respite was short-lived, the poison ban being overturned just a few years later by President Ford.

Since then, Wildlife Services has killed thousands of predators each year, and is now expanding its footprint to include urban areas. Its remarkable tendency to elude reform is accompanied by a mysterious privilege to function largely in the shadows. Knudson quotes Dennis Orthmeyer, acting state director of Wildlife Services in California:”We pride ourselves on our ability to go in and get the job done quietly without many people knowing about it.” Thus, Knudson’s key findings are far from common knowledge:

With steel traps, wire snares and poison, agency employees have accidentally killed more than 50,000 animals since 2000 that were not problems, including federally protected golden and bald eagles; more than 1,100 dogs, including family pets; and several species considered rare or imperiled by wildlife biologists.

A growing body of science has found the agency’s war against predators, waged to protect livestock and big game, is altering ecosystems in ways that diminish biodiversity, degrade habitat and invite disease.

In 2013, Congressmen John Campbell (R-Cal) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore), outraged by the agency’s multi-million-dollar expenditures and counter-productive, outdated methods, sought to stop the agency from using spring-loaded sodium cyanide cartridges and Compound 1080, both of which have resulted in the deaths of thousands of non-target animals, including domestic pets, that posed no threat to livestock or anything else. They were swiftly reminded of the power of the agricultural lobby, which Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services supervisor turned critic, identifies as the ultimate problem: “The government revolves around agriculture and the agriculture lobby. They absolutely call the shots. It’s bizarre, the power they carry.” It is this power that causes Wildlife Services to continue its relentless war on the coyote, which includes expensive aerial targeting as well as poisons and traps, but which has been a dismal failure on its own terms, since coyote populations have risen considerably and coyotes are generally not even guilty of the crimes for which they are targeted. Niemeyer recounts that in his 33 years on the job, he saw only about 20 calves that had actually been killed by coyotes. But facts such as this – or the role that predators like the coyote play in maintaining ecological balance – seem to make no impression on the large-scale ranchers to whom Wildlife Services answers.

Working closely with Knudson in exposing the federal government’s shameful subservience to ranching interests – many of whom already enjoy the public subsidy of cheap access to our public lands – is the Oregon-based group, Predator Defense. In a recently released short film, Predator Defense shows us the ugly reality of how our tax dollars are used to destroy our national treasures. Featuring three whistleblowers and Rep. DeFazio, the film includes accounts of breathtaking barbarism, including the illegal killing and burial of eagles and the deliberate infliction of horrible suffering on domestic dogs used to test expired sodium cyanide cartridges:

Other groups working to stop this senseless slaughter include the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The latter has been working on a documentary film of its own, which is previewed here:

Looking for the Spirit of America

One would think that such an out-of-control federal agency would be a perfect target for the Tea Party, especially since a strong case can be made that animal control – when genuinely needed – can be handled by the private sector. But they are too busy portraying themselves as the victims of government abuse to care about the far greater injuries inflicted on our wild creatures. One might have thought that Christian conservatives – the self-styled guardians of American morality – would be horrified by the needless loss of life. But animal life does not matter to them. And one must wonder, given the remarkable consensus in the halls of power that allows the obscenity of Wildlife Services to soldier on, whether Wildlife Services is not an aberration at all, but a perfect expression of the essence of America.

Let us consider the following video, a rare capture of Wildlife Services engaged in aerial shooting of large wild canids at the behest of a wealthy rancher:

Americans are terribly fond of killing from the air. They did it with devastating effect in Japan, dropping atomic bombs and launching massive conventional bombing missions even when Japanese surrender was assured. They did it again in Indochina, destroying vast tracts of rainforest in a futile attempt to defeat an enemy they never needed to fight in the first place. They did it in Yugoslavia, in Iraq, and in Iraq again with even more feeling. They do it every day – using remote-controlled Predator drones – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, picking off the targets they claim present a danger to our security and killing countless others in the process, perfectly mirroring the insanity of “wildlife control” at home.

Killing from the air is an American specialty. No wonder Americans chose the eagle, a top avian predator, as a symbol of their nation’s spirit. But the Americans have left the eagle far behind in their pursuit of blood and gore, attaining a level of brutality that Mother Nature would neither countenance nor comprehend. They have lost all sense of connection to the environment of which they are a part, destroying it out of pure ignorance and greed. They possess none of the grandeur or grace of the eagle and have no right to associate themselves with such a magnificent creature. No wonder they kill and bury the eagle, for it reminds them of their unworthiness.

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