First Aid for Agencies: Accountability in USDA’s Wildlife Services Program is a Century Overdue

Summary:  The Center for Biological Diversity recently filed a rulemaking petition with US Department of Agriculture about the agency’s rogue animal “control” program. The petition exposes and seeks a remedy for the agency’s diseased conduct, which includes numerous federal statute violations and animal cruelty. It also “pads” the Administrative Record, readying the Center to petition for a court-ordered antidote to USDA’s systemic ails.

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By Lara Maierhofer

In the dark, secrets fester into wounds that inhibit the healing our planet so desperately needs and deserves. In the massive agriculture industry, animal cruelty is one such wound that persists with dissidence. Really, agribusiness poses some of the most potent opposition to the fight for biodiversity and the humane treatment of all things that slither, crawl, fly, swim, and walk. The lobbying giant’s offenses involve chemical pesticides that boil animals from the inside to CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). And these are just the practices we know about.

Fortunately, an advocacy mechanism for combatting these types of injustices exists: the Administrative Procedure Act allows petitioning for rulemaking, a process by which citizens—or organizations on behalf of citizens—may request an agency to make rules about unacceptable practices. And if that doesn’t work—i.e. the practices continue, or the agency makes rules that sanction its own bad behavior—the petition pads the Administrative Record to prepare for the ultimate first aid: a lawsuit.

In December 2013, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a rulemaking petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) about one of USDA’s many dirty little secrets; and none too soon. In its petition, the Center addressed the existence and practices of Wildlife Services, a USDA program that began in the early 20th Century, to mitigate wildlife interference with agriculture. The agency, overseen by APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), regularly contradicts modern sensibilities about how animals should be treated, and maybe more importantly, how government should serve its citizens.

Among many of their empirically substantiated allegations about the dysfunction of the program, the Center exposed that most of Wildlife Services’ activities to “control” wildlife are broadly secretive. For the last century, Wildlife Services functioned with minimal to no public oversight. As Carson Barylak, Federal Policy Advisor at the Animal Welfare Institute points out, the program “instead tak[es] its cues from ranchers and other ‘cooperators’.” This lack of transparent operations and special interest influence is the type of stain on the American Republic that perpetuates dysfunctional governance and unethical conduct.

In its call to action, the Center and its fellow petitioners presented reasonable solutions to the USDA’s black eye. For the past four centuries, legal criteria to regulate the environment and satisfy diverse interests have emerged as part of the environmental movement. While these regulatory mechanisms are not perfect, they standardize conduct to prevent the very activities Wildlife Services is pulling the wool over. As such, the Center is calling for regulations requiring the use of the best available science and technology when implementing wildlife control. Carte blanche political wildlife regulation is a thing of the barbaric past, and Wildlife Services, like any other federal agency, should be subject to deliberate, scientific decision-making.

In an equally appalling revelation, the Center’s petition also challenges the USDA’s multiple federal statute violations—including Endangered Species Act violations—in implementing its Wildlife Services program. According to Amy Atwood, a senior attorney at the Center, Wildlife Services is a “rogue agency that shoots, snares and poisons more than a million native animals every year, many unintentionally—including at least thirteen endangered species.” As a solution to this unacceptable consequence of flagrant catering to special interests, the Center petitioned the USDA to make rules that expressly mandate enforcement officers’ compliance with relevant laws. But if the Center’s petition doesn’t help abolish the USDA’s horrific agency policies, they’ll ask the courts to give Wildlife Services some much-needed first aid. While it seems redundant to impose additional mandates that remind federal employees to comply with federal statutes, the Center is happy to remind USDA of its obligations by merely asking for reasonable remedies to a pervasive problem. The petition reiterates that federal statutes apply to everyone, regardless of who one’s friends or benefactors are.

And to really tie a bow around their indiscretions, the USDA violated several state and local animal cruelty laws, and consistently fails to adhere to established ethical norms for treating ‘target’ animals. Saving you the gruesome details, let it suffice that the Center cites specific incidences of unfathomable cruelty, some of which federal employees taped and posted on social media sites as brags. Individuals being paid out of the American Peoples’ paychecks should be held to a higher ethical standard than the average Joe, and the Center has called for regulations demanding just that. If the Center goes unheard on this ground, perhaps the agency will listen to the courts.

Wounds do fester when they go unchecked, and thus the Center is charging at the USDA’s Wildlife Services program with an industrial sized accountability ointment. Yes, this petition addresses Wildlife Services’ numerous wildlife and animal law violations. It also reminds us that when a federal agency functions at its own whims and at the behest of financially influential constituents, our system of government has self-made mechanisms to remind the government who should actually be calling the shots.

Lara is currently a third-year law student at Vermont Law School, where she is earning her Juris Doctor and Master of Environmental Law and Policy degrees. Lara began her academic career studying Evolutionary Biology and Ecology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In 2012, she served as a Staff Editor for the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law (“VJEL”), and was subsequently elected to be VJEL’s Web Outreach Editor. She recently worked as a Litigation Clerk at The Center for Biological Diversity in Portland. Prior to working at the Center, she was a Summer Legal Intern at Hanford Challenge in Seattle. Lara is incredibly passionate about wildlife conservation, environmental protection, and discovering reasonable and effective solutions to negative human impacts on both.