A little-known branch of the federal government charged with getting rid of unwanted and invasive pests killed 2.7 million animals in 2016, the agency's annual report shows.
The Wildlife Services wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is called on to kill species considered a threat or nuisance to people or their livelihoods, including trapping wolves in northern Minnesota in areas where livestock or pets have been attacked.
The federal trappers and shooters also kill cormorants on Leech Lake and Lake Vermilion where the large birds have been marked by resort owners and other anglers as pests that eat valuable walleyes and perch. The agency killed 12,000 cormorants last year across 37 states, including nearly 2,000 in Minnesota.
Across the country the agency is called on to kill animals that eat crops and livestock, from cowbirds to bobcats to cougars and coyotes.
But the total number of animals killed each year by the government-sanctioned pest removal is staggering. It includes nearly 826,000 red-winged blackbirds across 36 states; 965 bobcats across 18 states; 2,734 cardinals; 2,938 feral chickens; nearly 77,000 coyotes in 37 states; 85,000 urban pigeons, or rock doves, in all 50 states; 8,825 raccoons in 28 states and 56,840 feral pigs in 26 states.
Of the total animals killed in 2016, more than 1 million were considered invasive, foreign species such as the 886,000 European starlings killed across 48 states or the 17,000 brown tree snakes killed in Guam where they have devastated the local ecosystem.
The 2.7 million total, released earlier this month, was down for more than 3 million in 2015 and about the same as 2014, agency records show.
The Wildlife Services division budget for fiscal 2016 was $106 million.
- In Minnesota, the federal government killed 15,425 animals in 2016 of which 10,599 were considered invasive species.That includes 6,000 European starlings and more than 1,200 beaver.
- In Wisconsin, some 21,182 animals were killed, including 1,156 beaver and 2,589 Canada geese. More than half of the animals killed in Wisconsin last year were European starlings.
- In North Dakota, some 7,392 animals were killed in 2016, including more than 2,300 coyotes - most of which were shot from airplanes but also dozens poisoned with cyanide capsules and hundreds caught in leghold traps.
In many cases, the federal agency kills species under federal Endangered Species Act protection - in some cases by accident and others intentionally. The agency killed 415 endangered/threatened gray wolves in seven states, including 165 in Minnesota (163 in leghold traps, two were shot.)
In Minnesota, Wildlife Services' targeted wolf killing efforts have been praised by farmers and even some environmental groups as a "safety valve" to remove problem wolves - or at least wolves near where problems occur - so farmers, hunters and others don't try to take matters into their own hands by indiscriminately and illegally killing wolves.
A coalition of dozens of agriculture, livestock, sporting and other groups, including the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association, last month sent a letter to Congressional budget chairs calling for continued funding for Wildlife Services. The groups said that, without the funding, wildlife damage would spiral out of control.
"Wildlife causes more than $12.8 billion in damage each year to natural resources, public infrastructures, private property and agriculture," the group noted, adding that wildlife control near airports - especially birds like gulls and geese, but also deer on the ground - is critical in preventing collisions with aircraft.
But the sheer volume of government-sanctioned killing is too much for some groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, which has sought both legal and regulatory action to stop the agency from killing some species.
Some 1.6 million of the animals killed in 2016 were native animals in their native habitat, the group said. Most were killed to benefit the U.S. agriculture industry, said Collette Adkins, a Minnesota-based biologist and attorney for the group.
"Despite mounting public outcry to reform these barbaric, outdated tactics, Wildlife Services continues its taxpayer-funded slaughter of America's wildlife," Adkins said in a statement Tuesday. "There's simply no scientific basis for continuing to shoot, poison and strangle millions of animals every year. These cruel practices not only fail to effectively manage targeted wildlife but also pose ongoing threats to other animals, including endangered species."
Adkins said the annual reports "almost certainly underestimate the actual number of animals killed, as program insiders have revealed that Wildlife Services kills many more animals than it reports."
"The Department of Agriculture needs to get out of the wildlife-slaughter business," said Adkins. "Wolves, bears and other carnivores help keep the natural balance of their ecosystems. Our government kills off the predators, such as coyotes, and then kills off their prey - like prairie dogs - in an absurd, pointless cycle of violence."
Agency officials responded Tuesday saying they deliver "a vital service to farmers and ranchers throughout the United States by providing Federal expertise in managing wildlife damage.'' the agency said in a statement to the news Tribune. The agency "also serves the American public as a whole by reducing potentially devastating aviation bird and wildlife strikes in every State, assisting in the recovery of endangered and threatened species, monitoring wildlife across the country for diseases to help protect animal and human health, and saving wildlife species in emergency response situations."
Agency officials say they first try to use non-lethal means to control problem wildlife.
Wildlife Services promotes "the increased use of nonlethal methods and seeks to improve the selectivity of both lethal and nonlethal methods, aiming to have the least negative impacts to wildlife overall. Although we emphasize the use of nonlethal tools, they are not always effective,'' the agency noted Tuesday. "No one tool provides 100% protection and lethal methods are sometimes necessary. In many cases, preventative measures have already been tried and exhausted."