Washington, DC — A federal agent who reported that his colleagues had illegally used government airplanes to hunt mountain lions was fired in retaliation, according to filings released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The legal complaint filed by Gary Strader, a professional hunter for U.S. Wildlife Services, is one of the first whistleblower cases arising during the Obama administration. How the case is handled may give important clues as to whether civil servants can expect a respite from the heavy-handed personnel practices that characterized the Bush administration.
Gary Strader worked for Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as a hunter and tracker, principally of coyotes, out of the agency’s Ely, Nevada office. His job was abruptly eliminated after he reported both to his regional office, as well as the FBI, that his agency co-workers had –
- Illegally shot as many as five mountain lions from government airplanes. These actions constitute a felony under the Airborne Hunting Act, as well as violating Nevada state hunting laws; and
- Filed false statements to cover up the offenses.
Mountain lions are difficult to track overland in rugged Nevada terrain. Federal employees in search of trophies (the heads were removed but the animals were not pelted) took the easier course of spotting and shooting mountain lions from the air.
After his supervisors determined that Strader’s reports would not likely result in prosecution, he was notified that there were no longer funds to support his position. When Strader asked whether his termination was due to his pursuit of the violations, the Director of the Nevada Office for Wildlife Services, Mark Jensen, responded affirmatively. The Whistleblower Protection Act forbids the discharge of a federal employee in connection with his or her disclosures of crimes or other waste, fraud or abuse.
Strader’s whistleblower complaint will be heard this summer by a judge of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, the court system for the federal civil service. His lead attorney is Salt Lake City attorney April Hollingsworth assisted by lawyers from PEER, a national environmental whistleblower defense organization.
“This is a blatant case of reprisal,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson. “It is now up to the Obama administration to either defend this crude retaliation against Mr. Strader or to restore him and clean house at Wildlife Services.”
Besides the legal violations and misuse of taxpayer funds, aerial hunting is an inherently dangerous activity. Nevada has had several aerial gunning accidents in recent years.
Wildlife Services has also drawn growing opposition from conservation, taxpayer and humane groups who see the agency as a misguided, ineffective subsidy for agribusiness. Each year, Wildlife Services kills approximately 87,000 coyotes as part of an annual wildlife take of more than 2 million animals.