A little-known U.S. government agency tasked with killing or removing animals that may threaten livestock, crops, or public safety accidentally killed almost 3,000 animals in 2021.
Wildlife Services, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, killed 1.76 million animals in fiscal 2021. But its many unintentional victims included federally protected species such as a harbor seal, three golden eagles, and a bald eagle, according to a National Geographic review of the data. Other unintentional casualties included 12 black bears, four mountain lions, and 17 alligators.
For the most part, state and local authorities call on Wildlife Services to trap or remove animals that might kill livestock, eat crops, or cause other damage. The agency uses a variety of traps, such as neck snares, foothold traps, and body grips designed to crush the animal caught inside.
Critics say the traps are not only inhumane and deadly but also indiscriminate.
Wildlife Services declined a request for an interview but said in a statement that last year, “more than 99.8 percent of the animals lethally removed were intended targets.”
Wildlife Services also uses poison in the form of spring-activated M-44 cyanide capsules. They resemble the head of a garden sprinkler and are baited with a sweet scent, attracting a “bite and pull” response from animals such as coyotes, according to Wildlife Services. Any animal that tugs on an M-44 triggers it to spray its lethal poison.
“Death is very quick, normally within 1 to 5 minutes after the device is triggered,” a Wildlife Services fact sheet says. Yet in 2017 a pet dog suffered an excruciating and slow death after exposure to one of these “cyanide bombs,” National Geographic reported. Between 2000 and 2012, more than 1,100 dogs were killed by the devices, an investigation by the Sacramento Bee found.
Animals sprayed by M-44s can suffer from internal bleeding, seizures, or lung failure before they die, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based conservation nonprofit.
Last year’s M-44 unintentional deaths included 266 gray foxes, 16 red foxes, and 23 raccoons, according to data from Wildlife Services. The animals were either killed by the devices directly or had to be euthanized after being exposed to them.
Collateral damage is unavoidable
“There’s no way around catching other species as collateral damage,” says Carter Niemeyer, who worked as a trapper and supervisor for Wildlife Services for 26 years before he transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000. He’s now retired.
When trappers are deployed, their approaches—and results—can vary widely. “We are the professionals, so the people contracting with us assume we would be humane and check our traps [quickly],” but that’s not always the case, especially with the large number of traps Wildlife Services puts out, Niemeyer says.
Some states require traps to be checked within a certain period, and a 2021 Wildlife Services directive says all traps and devices must be checked “no less frequently than required by state law, unless specific exemptions are obtained.”
If any animal—a pet dog or cat, for example—stumbles into a trap and doesn’t die immediately, dehydration or constriction injuries likely will kill it within a couple of days, Niemeyer says.
Counting unintended deaths
Wildlife Services reported more than 2,700 unintended deaths of native animals in 2021, a figure slightly more than in each of the previous three years. (The 2021 count reaches 2,795 when species it labels as invasive, such as some snakes, feral dogs, and rats, are included.)
“We track and report unintended removal and make adjustments to field operations, wherever possible,” the agency's statement said. “Four out of every five unintentional captures are released or relocated unharmed.”
Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, says trapped animals initially may appear to be unharmed because of a surge of adrenaline caused by the stress of entrapment. “Not until they get to safety do they realize their foot was crushed,” she says.
Any unintentional deaths by Wildlife Services “cannot accurately be called accidents because the agency is fully aware of the indiscriminate nature of their lethal tools,” says Michelle Lute, national carnivore conservation manager at Project Coyote, a California-based nonprofit.
Death by body-grip
Animals will go to extremes to free themselves from traps, Adkins says. “Sometimes the only evidence an animal was caught was that its toes are still there.”
One of the agency’s “unintentional removals” last year was a harbor seal that died after it was caught in a body-grip trap. Harbor seals, like all marine mammals, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
A body-grip trap is a metal device intended to kill any animal that enters and tries to pass through. “It just crushes the body and squeezes the life out of them,” Niemeyer says. They’re sometimes set underwater to catch animals such as beavers, he says.
But with a larger animal, such as a harbor seal, the trap might snap shut on its face or its neck, Niemeyer says. “A seal would have a pretty firm neck, so it would probably die from a combination of strangulation and drowning.”
In 2021 alone, the devices unintentionally killed 544 river otters, 11 eastern cottontail rabbits, 44 raccoons, and three white-crowned sparrows, among other animals.
Adkins and Lute describe other proven—and more humane—ways to mitigate problems wild animals may cause. To safeguard livestock, ranchers can build better fences around their animals and deploy bright lights and guard dogs, though government support may be needed to help defray some of these costs, Lute says.
Other measures, such as quickly removing carcasses and cleaning up farm animals’ afterbirth could help keep predators away from livestock, Adkins says.
“The only way to address conflict is to target the individual [animal] involved, site where predation occurred, and time when it occurred,” Lute says. Interventions that occur long after the incident are imprecise and won’t solve the problem.
“It simply results in a dead animal,” she says—“not necessarily the one that was involved, and most certainly opens up a territory to a new individual.”