Washington, DC — What you don’t know surely can hurt you is the theory behind a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) against the federal agency which kills “nuisance” wildlife to force release of information about the inadvertent dangers of its activities to humans. The lawsuit seeks documentation on perils posed by agency operations ranging from stockpiles of high-powered poisons to airplane crashes during aerial coyote hunts.
The agency is Wildlife Services, an obscure, euphemistically-named arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which spent $108 million to kill more than 1.6 million animals in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available. Wildlife Services acts as an all-purpose exterminator for ranchers, farmers, and others by engaging in “lethal removal” of a Noah’s Ark of animals spanning the alphabet from armadillos and beavers to vultures, weasels, and wolves.
Due to a rash of accidents, mishaps and security breaches, Wildlife Services (WS) announced on November 5, 2007 that it was undertaking a nationwide safety review which would address an array of health, safety and bio-hazard issues confronting the agency:
“In the wake of several accidents in WS’ programs, WS is conducting a nationwide safety review focusing on aviation and aerial operations, explosives and pyrotechnics, firearms, hazardous chemicals, immobilization and euthanasia, pesticides, vehicles, watercraft, and wildlife disease activities…”
In response to PEER inquiries as to who will perform the review, how it will be conducted and when it will be made public, WS Deputy Administrator wrote a one-page letter stating that unnamed “parties unaffiliated” would conduct the review which is slated to be “completed by July 2008.” Unable to obtain any more details, PEER filed a Freedom of Information Act request in January 2008. Despite the supposedly imminent review delivery date, WS has yet to provide a single directly responsive document.
“Eradication of badgers and bobcats does not warrant the Soviet style of secrecy exhibited by Wildlife Services,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Adam Draper who filed the complaint, noting two other agencies not even named in the PEER request have already supplied their WS files. “It is not just wildlife that has reason to fear Wildlife Services; we are trying to gauge how much an unsuspecting public is also at risk.”
Besides aircraft crashes and poisoning of hikers (and their pets), one big concern is the bio-terror threat from lethal chemical agents, such as sodium cyanide and aluminum phosphate, deployed across the country by WS as bait, in fumigants, sprays and gases. Audits of WS operations have repeatedly found Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act violations for failing to secure “dangerous biological agents and toxins” and not keeping accurate inventories to detect theft, unauthorized sale or other losses.
“This outfit is running around with chemicals that could poison the drinking water supplies for millions of Americans,” added Draper. “It is hard to take Wildlife Services’ assurances of safety seriously when its review has been subjected to zero public scrutiny.”