The meat industry’s war on wildlife

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A red fox killed with a cyanide bomb. A gray wolf gunned down from an airplane. A jackrabbit caught in a neck snare. These are just a few of the 1.45 million animals poisoned, shot, and trapped last year by the euphemistically named Wildlife Services, a little-known but particularly brutal program of the US Department of Agriculture.
The program kills wildlife for many reasons, including poisoning birds to prevent them from striking airplanes and destroying beavers that sneak onto golf courses. But one of the primary purposes of the mostly taxpayer-funded $286 million program is to serve as the meat and dairy industries’ on-call pest control service.
“We were the hired gun of the livestock industry,” said Carter Niemeyer, who worked in Wildlife Services and related programs from 1975 to 2006. Niemeyer specialized in killing and trapping predators like coyotes and wolves that were suspected of killing farmed cattle and sheep.
Wildlife Services has also killed hundreds of endangered gray wolves, threatened grizzly bears, and highly endangered Mexican gray wolves, often at the behest of the livestock industry and enabled by exemptions from the Endangered Species Act.
The top three species Wildlife Services killed in 2023 were European starlings, feral pigs, and coyotes, according to data released last month. How these animals were targeted — from shooting coyotes to poisoning birds — has prompted Congress to fund nonlethal initiatives within the program and conservation groups to call for sweeping changes to how Wildlife Services operates. The USDA didn’t respond to several questions sent via email.
“God was our only witness out there,” Niemeyer said about agents killing animals in the field. “You just hope that everybody makes [choices] morally and ethically acceptable and as humane as possible.”
To Wildlife Services’ credit, the vast majority of its work entails nonlethally scaring animals off. Controversy, though, has dogged the program for decades, as critics like Niemeyer and other former employees say much of its predator killing is unnecessary, imprecise, and inhumane. Conservation groups say it’s ecologically destructive, as such predators are crucial to ecosystem health and biodiversity.
Predator hysteria, explained
Adrian Treves, an environmental science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the origins of today’s rampant predator killing can be found in America’s early European settlers, who brought with them the mentality that wolves were “superpredators,” posing a dangerous threat to humans. “We’ve been fed this story that the eradication of wolves was necessary for livestock production,” he said.
Today, Wildlife Services’ most controversial work is its killings of coyotes and other predators for the supposed threat they pose to American ranchers and the food supply. But according to a USDA estimate, predation accounted for just 4.7 percent of cattle mortality in 2015. Conservation groups say that figure is exaggerated because it’s based on self-reported data from ranchers and shoddy methodology.
According to an analysis of USDA data by the Humane Society of the United States, predation accounts for only 0.3 percent of cattle mortality. (Disclosure: I worked at the Humane Society of the United States from 2012 to 2017 on unrelated agricultural issues.)
The Humane Society points to several flaws in the USDA data, including the fact that ranchers reported livestock predation from grizzly bears in six states that don’t have any grizzly bears. In the Northern Rocky Mountains region, the rate of livestock predation reported by ranchers was 27 times higher than data provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which had actually confirmed livestock deaths by predators.
“When I first went to work, there was just sort of this acceptance that if a rancher called and he said he had a coyote problem, we assumed that [he] had a coyote problem,” Niemeyer said. “We didn’t question it. I didn’t see a lot of meticulous necropsy work done” to investigate the cause of death. The numbers reported to the USDA by ranchers, he now believes, are “exaggerated and embellished.”
The USDA financially compensates ranchers for livestock killed by wolves and some other species, which can create an incentive to attribute farm animal deaths to predators. Robert Gosnell, a former director of New Mexico’s USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service who administered the state’s Wildlife Services program, told the Intercept in 2022 that the agency’s field inspectors had been ordered to report livestock deaths as “wolf kills” for ranchers. “My guys in the field were going and rubber-stamping anything those people asked them to,” Gosnell said.
Niemeyer is not opposed to killing individual coyotes or wolves suspected of killing a particular cow or sheep. But much of Wildlife Services’ predator control, he said (and another former employee has alleged), is done preventively in an attempt to reduce coyote populations.
“Every coyote is suspected of potentially being a killer,” Niemeyer said, which he characterizes as coyote or wolf “hysteria.”
Last year, 68,000 coyotes were taken down by a variety of means, including ingestion of Compound 1080, a poison that causes acute pain in the form of heart blockage, respiratory failure, hallucinations, and convulsions.
Thousands more animals are killed as collateral damage. Last year, over 2,000 were killed unintentionally, a consequence of setting out untold numbers of traps and baited cyanide bombs. These devices have also injured a small number of humans and, between 2000 and 2012, killed more than 1,100 dogs.
Some employees have died on the job, and there have even been allegations of orders within the agency to cover up unintentional kills of pets and a federally protected golden eagle.
An irrational bias against predators has made it hard for Americans, and its regulators, to recognize predators’ many ecological and social benefits. One study in Wisconsin, for example, found that wild wolf populations keep deer away from roadways, which in turn reduces costly, and sometimes deadly, car crashes.
And killing predators may, counterintuitively, lead to more livestock deaths, Treves said.
Some predator species that experience mass killing events may compensate by having more babies at younger ages. That could partly explain why, when wolf killings increased in some Western states, livestock predation went up, too. And when you wipe out some animals, others may fill the void. Coyotes significantly expanded their range in the 1900s after America’s centuries-long wolf extermination campaign.
Finally, Treves said, killing suspected predators from one ranch may simply drive the remaining population into neighboring ranches. One study he co-authored on wolf kills in Michigan found “a three times elevation of risk to livestock on neighboring properties after a farm received lethal control of wolves from Wildlife Services.”
Agricultural sprawl and the war on “invasive” species
Wildlife Services represents yet another example of the USDA’s seeming indifference to animal welfare, but it also highlights a little-known fact of human-wildlife conflict: Most of it stems from agriculture.
Almost half of the contiguous United States is now used for meat, dairy, and egg production — most of it cattle-grazing — which has crowded out wildlife and reduced biodiversity. And whenever wild animals end up on farmland that was once their habitat, they run the risk of being poisoned, shot, or trapped by Wildlife Services.
That’s true for animals that find their way onto fruit, vegetable, and nut orchards for a snack, too. But Wildlife Services’ primary goal is to protect the interests of livestock producers, USDA public affairs specialist Tanya Espinosa told me in an email — yet another subsidy for an already highly subsidized industry.
While much of the criticism lobbed at Wildlife Services pertains to its treatment of charismatic megafauna like coyotes, bears, and wolves, little attention is paid to the European starling, Wildlife Services’ most targeted species. Starlings accounted for a little over half of all animals killed by Wildlife Services, at 814,310 birds.
Starlings, which are targeted because they like to feast on grain at dairy farms and cattle feedlots, are mostly mass-poisoned with DRC-1339, also known as Starlicide, which destroys their heart and kidney function, slowly and excruciatingly killing them over the course of three to 80 hours. It’s not uncommon for towns across the US to suddenly find thousands of starlings dropping dead out of trees or raining from the sky.
Despite these deaths, starlings receive little sympathy — even from bird enthusiasts — given its status as an “invasive” species, a term often invoked to justify excluding a species from moral consideration, according to Australian ecologist Arian Wallach.
Here too, as with predators, we may be in need of a reframe, or at least a broadening of our often one-track conversation about nonnative species like feral pigs and starlings.
“In no way does the starling imagine itself as an invasive species — that is a human construction,” said Natalie Hofmeister, an assistant professor of ecology at the University of Michigan and author of the forthcoming book Citizen Starling.
Rethinking mass killing
Despite Wildlife Services’ high kill counts, it has expanded its use of nonlethal methods in recent years, including guard dogs, electric fencing, audio/visual deterrents, bird repellent research, and fladry — tying flags along fences, which can scare off some predator species.
“The last three years have shown a little bit of a turning of the tide for Wildlife Services,” said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director of the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s been more focus on preventing conflicts versus the Band-Aid of killing animals.”
Treves agrees, but is skeptical there will be meaningful change. Most importantly, he wants to see Wildlife Services experimentally test its lethal methods to see if they actually prevent livestock predation.
“I am cynical,” he said. “I am frustrated that this is 20 years of arguing with this agency that’s entrenched, stubborn, and will not listen to the people who disagree with them.”
There are no easy answers here. While much of Wildlife Services’ work is ecologically ruinous and unjustifiably cruel, wild animals do inflict real damage on our food supply. Better management on the part of farmers and ranchers and further USDA investment into nonlethal methods could help. Even better would be to rethink the USDA’s — and the meat industry’s — license to wage war on wildlife.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!

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