Monday, May 7, 2012

Conservation Gone Rogue

It’s been fascinating, during the last week, to follow the Sacramento Bee’s investigations of Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service.  The nub of the reports has been that Wildlife Services has generated what looks like a reprehensible record of killing the wrong animals, often in large numbers and in quite a brutal manner, and in doing so unaccountably and without any serious evaluation of the effect of their culling on ecosystems.

Wildlife Services follows a tradition of protecting game species
The stories have been interesting to read because they are an example of thoughtful, thought-provoking, and seemingly thorough reporting which cast light—as journalism should—on an area hitherto blanketed in shadow and secrecy.  They have been interesting to read because, if the accounts prove accurate, it is truly remarkable how few lessons Wildlife Services has learned from previous efforts at wildlife or game management in the United States.  And they have been interesting to read because they will undoubtedly provoke a strong reaction on several levels: from animal rights organisations, supporters of which will be appalled by the use of snares and poison; by property-owners who would be justified in resenting the unannounced intrusion of Wildlife Service personnel onto their land, with sometimes-deadly effects for pets and occasionally-dangerous effects for people; and by those interested in conservation, who have understood for some time now what Wildlife Services appears to fail to grasp—that culling has unanticipated consequences, which require analysis of precedent and much more thought than the trigger-happy approach revealed by the Bee’s probing has revealed to be the norm.

My attention was immediately caught by the agency’s name: Wildlife Services.  A company of the same name was set up in the late days of colonial East Africa, and it too, using ‘scientific management’ as its cover, seemed to be primarily interested in killing animals, such that its name was always tinged in bureaucratic correspondence by the odour of distaste, unease and opportunism.  The nomenclature is coincidence, but shows how little can actually be in a name.

Wildlife Service’s relentless (and sometimes economically-untenable—hunting coyotes from helicopters is one example of this) pursuit of predators is particularly curious given previous experiments at targeting animals like wolves, coyotes, mountain lions and bears in U.S. history.  In the U.S. as elsewhere, predators were long labelled ‘vermin’ (similarly, in East Africa, the very animals—lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyaenas—that people fly across the world to see, were subject to efforts at extermination for many years).  Driven by the howls of ranchers, the clamour for ‘civilisation’, and the anger of hunters who saw them as competitors for deer and elk, they were hunted relentlessly.

There are two classic examples of this kind of intervention yielding catastrophic consequences—for the ecology of a given area and, therein, for particular species.  On the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, mountain lion and wolf were almost completely exterminated to protect the deer.  Deer populations predictably spiralled out of control, and totally denuded the landscape.  Desertification ensued, and was accompanied by the mass starvation of the very deer predator control had sought to protect.  The disaster was originally chronicled by Gilbert Pearson, and although subsequent studies (Christian Young’s In the Absence of Predators) have shown ecological causation to be perhaps even more complicated, the fact remains that thoughtless management can have disastrous consequences.

The second major ecological disaster that came about as a result of predator control occurred in Yellowstone National Park, the first such park in the nation or indeed, in the world (although far from being the first instance of wildlife protection or management).  There, to protect the large elk herds, wolves, mountain lion and bear were killed en masse.  Elk populations leaped accordingly, and transformed the landscape, depriving the herds of sufficient food.  Winter saw the mass starvation of the herds, but even this could not totally check the run-away population which threatened to totally devastate one of North America’s preeminent areas of natural beauty.  Hunters were called in to gun down the elk in droves lest they accomplish what they had been unable to do when checked by the natural and sustainable attrition performed by healthy populations of predators—destroy the United States’ first national park. 
...and one of ignoring the consequences of predator culls...

History is replete with similar stories.  In colonial Africa, strict preservation and the suppression of human off-take of wildlife led to spiralling elephant and hippo populations which wreaked havoc on agricultural land, earning wildlife writ large the enmity of society, and necessitating the brutal culling of thousands of such animals to head off the destruction of crops and the ruin of whole ecological zones. 

But Wildlife Service’s crimes against nature appear to go beyond ecological thoughtlessness to embrace outright abuse of their considerable powers.  The Bee reported that countless protected species, to say nothing of people’s pets, have been destroyed by what the paper understandably dubbed the “Killing Agency”.  The numbers are countless because of the culture of secrecy and unaccountability that appears to characterise the agency’s dealings.  Its former employees report being discouraged from reporting mis-kills.  And although administrators contend that employees are enjoined to report every kill, we all know that informal culture more than written rules shapes people’s habits.

The outpouring of documents from Wikileaks in 2010 perhaps illustrates the extent to which secrecy becomes the last and firmest redoubt of the irresponsible, and Wildlife Services seems a good example of this phenomenon.  The organisation appears to realise that much of the killing it does is unnecessary, unethical, and not in the least grounded in any legitimate scientific management.  The nature of their trade—relying on snares and poison—means that when it comes to predator control there is small likelihood of getting the problem animal, no less the right species.  Imagine the fury that would ensue if a snare meant for a mountain lion or coyote killed a jaguar that wandered into one of the border states. its failure to take an ecological view of its task.

It is very much in vogue to rage brainlessly against each and every federal agency, castigating their inefficiency.  Wildlife Services’ record will invariably damage the reputations of other agencies that do good work.  But its existence is a good example of some of the inefficiency that does exist.  The Bee quotes the president of the American Society of Mammalogists: “The irony is state governments and the federal governments are spending millions of dollars to preserve species and then... (you have) Wildlife Services out there killing the same animals...It boggles the mind”.  Indeed, the malfeasance of the latter agency suggests that it might not be a bad idea to fold any culling or control work under the remit of other agencies, to achieve a more coherent implementation of environmental policy, something already made challenging by differing federal and state laws and remits. 

Such amalgamation might allow for a more sophisticated approach to management, because by its own admission, Wildlife Services primarily reacts to complaints.  And when it reacts, it appears to do so without systematic reference to ecological trends, fluctuating population indices, and vegetation and land-use studies.  Consolidating efforts at management and conservation would very likely curb Wildlife Service’s abuses while enabling a more rigorous and thoughtful approach to the problems the agency has been dealing with for decades.

Sally Fairfax wrote an article in 2005 titled “When an agency outlasts its time: a reflection”.  Therein, she argued (with reference to land management in the United States) that agencies come to embody institutional thinking that might not be viable outside of particular ideological and social parameters, and which might reflect very dated forms of interaction between different spheres of government and public.  This seems to be very much the case where Wildlife Services is concerned.  The organisation was founded to perform predator control in the days when a frontier quality continued to characterise western states, and when people had only the haziest ideas about something like an ecosystem or scientific management.  It operates with inappropriate impunity, in a day and age when people have a drastically different sense of what ethical animal management entails. 

I suspect that the storm caused by the Bee’s revelations mean that this is an agency whose days are numbered. 

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