The government killed more than 2.7 million animals considered public nuisances last year, including wild turkeys and chickens, black bears, coyotes and wolves.
WASHINGTON The government killed more than 2.7 million animals considered public nuisances last year, including wild turkeys and chickens, black bears, coyotes and wolves.
Its primary targets, however, were starlings, troublemaking birds that destroy crops and contaminate livestock feed.
The department said the animals chiefly were killed because they threatened livestock, crops or people in airplanes.
The number of animals killed, an increase of 1 million over 2003, drew criticism from environmental groups.
"Wildlife Services killed more than five animals per minute in 2004," said Wendy Keefover-Ring, spokeswoman for Sinapu, a Colorado-based advocacy group for wolves and other predators. "The toll on ecosystems wrought by this one agency is jaw-dropping."
Wildlife Services, an Agriculture Department program, kills black bears that like to eat campers' food in public parks or birds that congregate near airports and could get sucked into aircraft engines.
"Lethal means is something that we do as a final resort, when we have repeat problems," said Wildlife Services spokesman Dan Perry. "It is not something done indiscriminately."
He described how the department helps landowners, airports and other government agencies cut tall grasses, build fences, drain standing water and take other measures to dampen creatures' enthusiasm for places where they're not wanted.
For example, officials may use fake dead vultures to drive away live ones. "Believe it or not, it works; that's just the way the species reacts," Perry said.
The mission of Wildlife Services is to protect agriculture, property and natural resources and to reduce wildlife threats to human health and safety. The service used to be known as Animal Damage Control.
The program has a research center in Colorado that is developing contraceptives for deer and geese. It also has a rabies vaccination program for wildlife.
The number of animals killed probably rose because the department received more money for its cormorant program, aimed at protecting fish farms from the large, voracious diving birds. Also targeted were flocks of Canada geese that have stopped their annual migrations. The department killed 3,263 double-crested cormorants and 10,735 Canada geese last year.
The largest number of animals killed by far -- 2.3 million -- were starlings, which are attracted to feedlots and spoil cattle feed with their feces. Critics say the poison used against starlings also kills owls, hawks, magpies, raccoons and cats. The department also uses aerial gunning, traps or "denning," which involves killing animals in their dens.
"Most of the public has no idea that a significant portion of the federal wildlife management budget is actually devoted to extermination," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
"Animals that inconvenience humans become expendable `varmints' that are then dispatched with stunning efficiency."
Among animals killed were:
--397 black bears.
--143 feral or free-ranging chickens
--72 wild turkeys.
Source: Associated Press