By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The number of animals poisoned, shot or snared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture more than doubled last year, and environmentalists who are critical of the killings are renewing their effort to cut the program's funding.
The USDA's Wildlife Services division killed more than 4.9 million animals during the 2008 fiscal year, some of them pests that threaten crops. That's more than double the 2.4 million animals killed the previous year, but the agency contends the increase is due to more accurate counting methods.
Wildlife Services, which released the annual death count last week, reported that 90 percent of animals killed in 2008 included crows, blackbirds, magpies and three species of invasive birds: European starlings, sparrows and pigeons.
Other animals included the nonnative Coqui frog in Hawaii, gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains and jackrabbits in New Mexico.
Agency spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said the agency is charged by Congress to respond to individuals and government agencies that are having problems with wildlife, including invasive and nonnative species. For example, she said the agency killed more than three dozen Gambian rats in Florida last year to ensure that the large rodents would not damage fruit and vegetable crops.
In other areas of the country, starlings that were eating the feed at dairies were removed. Bannerman said milk production can drop if dairy cows are not getting enough protein and that bird droppings can harbor bacteria and viruses that can make livestock sick.
Bannerman pointed to a project that began Monday in New York City that calls for removing up to 2,000 Canada geese from parks that are within a 5-mile radius of John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport in an attempt to avoid the type of collision that forced an airliner to have to ditch in the Hudson River in January.
"It's something more than predator management," Bannerman said of the agency's mission.
But the environmental group WildEarth Guardians accuses Wildlife Services of "waging a war on wildlife" with taxpayer money. It was particularly concerned about the agency's use of the pesticide DRC-1339 to kill birds.
"Wildlife Services killed a record number of wildlife, including gray wolves, birds and other wildlife at a time when most Americans have deepened their commitment to conservation," said Wendy Keefover-Ring, the group's carnivore protection director.
The agency said the higher number was reported using a new computer model to more accurately estimate the number of birds removed from dairies, feedlots and agricultural fields where they were causing damage.
The modeling method stems from Wildlife Services' efforts to be more accurate, accountable and transparent, Bannerman said.
Wildlife Services was criticized in years past for its refusal to post the annual tally of animal kills until conservation groups reminded agency officials of an earlier federal court ruling requiring the agency to do so under the Freedom of Information Act.
When it comes to managing problem species, Wildlife Services said it will try to use non-lethal tactics such as getting local officials to enact no feeding policies at parks or encouraging airport managers to make their facilities less attractive to wildlife.
But Keefover-Ring argued that the agency has been indiscriminate in its use of trapping, shooting and poisoning animals.
"Literally, they are waging a war on wildlife," she said. "Year after year, we just roll out these numbers and try to get people to pay attention to what's happening because they've operated for decades in absolute secrecy."
WildEarth Guardians has been meeting with congressional members in an effort to take away Wildlife Services' funding for lethal control.
Wildlife Services is funded by the federal government as well as by states, counties, agriculture groups and private property owners for whom it protects crops, livestock, golf courses, swimming pools and other property.
Bannerman said the agency's overall budget for 2008 was $120 million, with portions of that going toward research, predator control and protection of threatened and endangered species.