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A New Mission for Wildlife Services? Feral Swine Is a Better Target Than Native Wildlife

Andrew Wetzler

Posted May 23, 2013 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, U.S. Law and Policy

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Sequester.  Budget deficit.  National debt.  With words like these swirling around Washington, DC -- and the political pressure they have generated to find ways to cut federal spending (we’ll leave aside whether that’s wise fiscal policy for now) -- I was a bit taken aback when I learned that President Obama had recommended that the federal government increase the budget of a once-obscure, but now controversial, federal program called “Wildlife Services.” 

The Orwellian-named program (formerly known as Animal Damage Control) spends nearly 100 million taxpayer dollars a year to kill millions of wild animals across the United States.  Most disturbingly, the agency spends much of this money on a relentless mission to kill native carnivores, ranging from coyotes and bears to mountain lions and wolves.

But all is not as it appears.  As it turns out, the increase in funding that the USDA is pushing for, and the Obama Administration has signed off on, is actually meant for feral swine (wild pig) control, which is an entirely different beast (literally and figuratively).  The need to invest in feral swine control was highlighted last week in a Senate appropriations hearing, and today Wildlife Serviferal swine (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)ces is hosting a scoping meeting for a national feral swine “damage management program.”

Feral swine are an invasive and highly destructive species.  They have steadily spread -- sometimes with human help -- across much of the Southeastern and Western United States and, increasingly, into the Midwest, as highlighted recently by the New York Times.  Feral swine have few natural predators, are omnivorous (and often predatory) eaters, and their rooting and wallowing behavior can cause severe damage to native ecosystems, particularly forests and wetlands.  In fact, feral swine are often cited as a threat to native endangered wildlife.

So refocusing the agency’s attention on feral hogs -- instead of wolves, mountain lions and bears -- isn’t a bad idea.  But there are a few things to be careful of:

  • First, Wildlife Services’ own assessment of the benefits of its control programs is often flawed.  As NRDC laid out in our report Fuzzy Math, Wildlife Services’ cost-benefit analyses of its programs often fails to follow either federal or basic academic standards.  
  • Second, Wildlife Services’ budget is notoriously murky.  In fact, the agency often can’t even tell Congress exactly how it spends its money.  In a 2011 letter to members of Congress, for example, the agency noted that because “we do not use a management accounting cost system” it could neither tell them how much money it spends on various management techniques nor break out the cost-categories (e.g., local governments, private business) to whom it was providing these services.

So, before anybody decides to give Wildlife Services more money to play with, we need to make sure it will actually be spent for its intended purpose – that is, dealing with feral swine – and that it will be used in a cost-effective manner that benefits the public and America’s natural landscape. 

Right now, all of that is a big “if.”

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Comments

Oliver StarrMay 23 2013 06:17 PM

It just shows you how backwards wildlife policy is in the US. Just leave the wolves alone and soon enough they feral swine population will be managed more effectively than we ever could.

(and it will solve most of the wolf/livestock conflict while saving millions in payments to ranchers with their hands out on both counts...

Robert GoldmanMay 23 2013 07:48 PM

Wildlife Services must be defunded and shut down. It has been a completely criminal enterprise for a hundred years. Enough! It is a perverted and criminal government-funded, paramilitary mafia that slaughters native wildlife with tax payer money on behalf of vicious cattlemen thugs, Monsanto loving agribusiness and ecologically disrespectful farmers. A decent, respectable, publicly accountable and firmly regulated department can replace it, whose mission is to restore and protect native wildlife and wild lands, while removing invasive, destructive, non-native animals and plants from the North American landscape.

Merlin BennerMay 23 2013 09:44 PM

I am against a federal agency competing with private businesses who do the same work. Wildlife Services is that. I think it is wrong to spend more tax money instead of promoting private business which will generate more tax money. They have been doing this with deer, now with swine.
Feral swine are indeed a real problem. Both economically and ecologically. They are extremely invasive and rapid reproducers.

Robert HoskinsMay 24 2013 09:24 AM

I hate to rain on your parade, but--having grown up with feral pigs in the rural South--it is highly unlikely that any policy and suite of control practices will put a dent in feral pig populations in this country.

First of all, pigs are dangerous to any potential predator; wolves in pig territory would find out quickly that there are easier, less resistant, less lethal prey available, like deer. Wolves aren't stupid. Further, the numbers of feral pigs in affected areas are in the millions, and the species is prolific reproductively. Even widespread government sponsored control programs would ultimately prove inadequate to limit pig numbers and densities (note how irrelevant government predator control is for coyotes, another prolific species). Finally, a warming climate is opening up more habitat to pigs, making them even more difficult to control than they are now.

To put it bluntly, pigs are here to stay. Get used to them.

As for Wildlife Services, it is a rogue, virtually criminal agency. It needs to be abolished rather than be given more money to kill indiscriminately.

RH

Andrew WetzlerMay 24 2013 09:36 AM

Thanks for your comments. Oliver, I agree with you that we need to recognize the potential role that predators such as wolves could play with regard to feral swine control, and while I think Robert is right that there are no magic bullets here, it's not unreasonable to think that wolves would, in fact, incorporate feral swine into their prey base. Mountain lions, for example, will occasionally take wild pig and wolves regularly predate adult bison -- not exactly easy or safe prey.

Merlin, I think you also make an excellent point. We shouldn't forget that Wildlife Services is subsidized by the taxpayer to the tune of 50 cents on the dollar, which makes their competition with private wildlife services companies a bit of a rigged game. Having said that, it strikes me that that there is a role for government agencies to play in controlling invasive species on public lands, like national forests, and supporting state and local governments that are trying to control invasive species.

Gary CascioMay 24 2013 12:39 PM

Even as some federal agencies spend millions to protect wildlife, another federal agency spends millions more to kill wildlife in record numbers. The federal government destroyed 2.7 million wildlife in 2004 – one animal every 12 seconds – because they were deemed a nuisance to ranchers, farmers, or municipalities.

That agency?…Wildlife Services!

Eliminate Wildlife Services NOW!

Travis DayMay 24 2013 05:57 PM

Feral pigs and Wildlife Services deserve one another. Sounds like a match made in heaven.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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