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Friday, December 06, 2013

Good News for Predators and Whales

There are two pieces of good news for animal advocates coming today from the Obama administration.

CoyoteFirst, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General announced that it will proceed with an independent audit of the agency’s much-criticized Wildlife Services program. I had written back in September that the planned audit was in jeopardy, because the agency was limited by budget constraints on how many audits it could conduct in the coming year. I had argued it was penny-wise and pound-foolish to forgo the Wildlife Services review, because the program wastes tens of millions of tax dollars and an audit could provide recommendations for conducting the work of solving wildlife conflicts in a more humane, effective, and cost-efficient way.

A key issue OIG will investigate is whether Wildlife Services can justify its wildlife damage management activities, and whether those actions have been effective. Wildlife Services kills a vast number of animals (nearly 3.8 million were killed in Fiscal Year 2011) as a subsidy for private agricultural businesses and other special interests. Its lethal predator control program, in particular, primarily benefits an extremely small proportion of private ranchers and big game management interests and focuses almost entirely on costly, inhumane, and indiscriminate methods, such as aerial gunning and the use of highly toxic poisons and steel-jawed leghold traps. In many cases, the costs of killing predators are higher than the financial losses caused by the predation itself, and non-lethal methods have demonstrated better long-term outcomes.

OIG will also look at the controls over cooperative agreements and assess Wildlife Services’ information system for reliability and integrity. The review will follow up on the implementation of prior audit recommendations, such as accountability for hazardous materials and equipment. Wildlife Services, as a whole, is an outdated model, with its mass killing of coyotes, bears, mountain lions, wolves, and other predators, and needs to be brought into the 21st century with more balance, transparency, and accountability.

Second, the National Marine Fisheries Service has finalized a rule to require permanent seasonal speed restrictions for ships in high-use habitat of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. This outcome came in response to a legal petition filed by The HSUS and others as part of an ongoing effort to protect this vulnerable species from a variety of threats. I wrote last week that the rule was set to expire on December 9, and the shipping industry has been putting pressure on the administration to implement another automatic “sunset” provision and continually re-evaluate these speed limits every five years. The final rule rightly rejected the continual expiration of the speed limits.

RightwaleThe rule, now permanent, requires that ships 65 feet or greater in length slow to 10 knots (about 11 miles per hour) in the southeast from Florida through South Carolina, where the whales give birth during the winter. Ships are required to slow during the spring and early summer in the waters off New England, which are an important feeding area for mothers and newborns. From New York through South Carolina, ships are required to slow during the whales’ seasonal migration.

In the five years the speed limits have been in place during the trial period, there have been no whale deaths within 40 miles of any of the protected areas. That’s a huge win for whales, at minimal cost to the industry. Making the rule permanent will continue to save the lives of right whales, and with only 450 animals remaining in this species, we must do everything possible to ensure their survival.

We are grateful to the Obama administration for taking stock of the Wildlife Services program, and for making the ship strike rule permanent. We are also thankful to the members of Congress who weighed in with the administration to encourage favorable action on these important issues. Reps. John Campbell, R-Calif., Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Gary Peters, D-Mich., called for a thorough investigation of Wildlife Services, while Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Reps. DeFazio, Bill Keating, D-Mass., and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., urged the adoption of permanent ship speed restrictions. When reasonable and science-based pathways are available, it’s the right thing to do. This pair of actions will provide an opportunity to develop a new way forward to curb excessive killing of wildlife, and protect a critically endangered species from unnecessary harm.

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