Letter Responding to July 17 Editorial

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The following letter from APHIS Administrator Kevin Shea was submitted July 25 to the New York Times for publication on its Opinion page. It responds to an editorial in that paper, published on July 17.

Agriculture’s Misunderstood Program   

If you don’t live in Rural America or work in agriculture, it could be easy to misunderstand the important work the Wildlife Services program at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service does every day to help U.S. farmers feed our country and much of the world. But in Rural America, the fact is that our Wildlife Services program, local authorities, and farmers and ranchers themselves must sometime kill wolves, coyotes, and bears that prey on livestock, as well as birds that can devour a field of sunflowers or a pen of farm-raised catfish in a morning.

But readers of your July 17 editorial (“Agriculture’s Misnamed Agency”) were left with the wrong impression. We want to be clear: lethal control is our last resort. We would much rather chase animals away or dissuade them from approaching a meal. The statistics are clear in this regard - last year Wildlife Services dispersed 8 out of every 10 animals it encountered in damage situations. But that’s not always a long-term solution or possible in every case. So when we do conduct lethal control, we target just those animals causing the damage. Our biologists comply with law and regulations and we report all of our actions on our Agency’s Web site.

For those living in urban areas, it is important to understand the reason for our work. Annually, predators account for the loss of more than a half-million head of livestock valued at $138 million. That’s after ranchers invest nearly $190 million annually in fencing and other ways to minimize losses from predators. Birds cost catfish, rice and sunflower farmers up to $50 million a year. Most often the ranchers and farmers needing our help are small producers, who are the least able to absorb losses due to wildlife.

But it is not just about farmers or ranchers far from mid-town. Overall, protection of agriculture accounts for less than 40 percent of Wildlife Services’ mission. What your editorial failed to mention was that the Wildlife Services program does much across the country –including the New York area – to help many Americans. Property protection accounts for almost 40 percent of Wildlife Services’ work, ranging from residential property to aircraft, roads and bridges. In New York, our efforts around airports to keep airline passengers safe have dramatically reduced bird strikes. Nationally, the program protects more than 100 threatened and endangered species, including Piping plover and least tern in New York.

Wildlife Services also works to protect human health and safety and protect our country’s natural resources. The program distributes rabies vaccines from Maine to Alabama, including New York, to prevent the spread of raccoon rabies. In 2010 during a Central Park rabies outbreak, it trapped, vaccinated and released about 500 raccoons, protecting both wildlife and New Yorkers. And finally, as a simple and cost-effective early warning system, our disease specialists collected 59,000 samples last year from wild birds and other animals, looking for 49 serious diseases that could infect human, domesticated animals, and other wildlife.

We work constantly to improve all of our programs, including Wildlife Services.   We have undergone numerous outside reviews and are also open to suggestions for improving the program; the Secretary’s National Wildlife Services Advisory Committee is a primary way for us to receive direct input into and feedback on our efforts.

We weren’t surprised by the criticism of Wildlife Services, but we were disappointed by the lack of understanding of the program as a whole and the ways we have improved the program over the years. We bring our expertise and professionalism to bear to help not just our Nation’s farmers and ranchers, but all Americans, including many reading this letter today.

Kevin Shea, Administrator

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

U.S. Department of Agriculture