Most Americans have never heard of the federal agency euphemistically known as Wildlife Services. Yet it was a major force in eliminating wolf and grizzly bear populations in the early 20th century, and today spends over $100 million each year using mostly taxpayer dollars to kill more than a million animals -- primarily birds -- but also bears, bobcats, badgers, coyotes, mountain lions and foxes. Over the past several years, Wildlife Services has killed an increasing number of endangered species -- 2,137 animals, most of them wolves -- between 1996 and 2006.

The agency’s killing methods are often cruel and include shooting wildlife from aircraft (“aerial gunning”) and using poisons, traps and gas cartridges to asphyxiate pups in dens. In 2006, to kill thousands of coyotes, Wildlife Services in Texas used aerial gunning, neck snares, gas cartridges, steel-jaw traps, M-44 poison-ejector devices, and Compound 1080, a poison so lethal it’s been banned in several states and countries.

Why such a slaughter? Wildlife Services’ activities are a taxpayer handout to the livestock industry. In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, for example, Wildlife Services spends more than 80 percent of its mostly public funding as a political favor to agribusiness. The underlying claim for the predator-killing program is that it’s a cost-effective way to reduce livestock losses. But large-scale predator eradication does little to help agribusiness grow its bottom line. The most recent data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, for example, show that only 2.9 percent of total U.S. sheep production was lost to predators, while 4.9 percent was lost to other causes such as illness or disease, lambing and weather.

Cattle statistics reveal an even wider gap: In 2005, 0.18 percent of the cattle produced in the U.S. were killed by predators; in comparison, 3.7 percent died from other causes, including respiratory illness, weather and theft. In other words: Predators cause less than 1 percent of total cattle losses, and only 3 percent of total sheep losses.

True, the U.S. General Accounting Office has found a small proportion of producers absorb high losses from predators, but the vast majority sustain no or negligible economic consequences. Effective, appropriate and humane deterrents exist, including guard animals, lambing sheds and electronic scaring devices.

Producers have more to fear from free trade than free predators. In her 2006 study, biological economist Kim Murray Berger established that the most important factors to sheep production are the price of hay, farmhand wages and lamb prices, which represent 77 percent of production variations from year to year.

Berger also found that despite Wildlife Services’ killing of 5 million predators at a cost of $1.6 billion from 1939 to 1998, the effort had little effect on sheep industry trends. Even though the agency has been killing predators for nearly a century, she points out, 85 percent of U.S. sheep producers have gone bankrupt.

Some sheep growers argue that the program isn’t effective because not enough predators are killed. But Berger found identical trends in geographic areas where coyotes existed as in areas where they were absent. Berger concluded that the decline of the sheep industry has been caused primarily by unfavorable market conditions, not losses to predation.

Because predators are wrongly targeted as the problem, their value is too often overlooked. Predators regulate the densities of other predator – as well as prey – species. Wolf reintroduction in Greater Yellowstone, for example, has helped plant and animal systems come back into balance. Elk are naturally vigilant again and, as a result, willows, aspen, cold-water streams and ponds, fish, beavers, and riparian bird species are again thriving.

At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that wildlife-watching activities are booming. For 2006, wildlife-watching generated a whopping $46 billion in expenditures -- higher than hunting or fishing, both which are on the decline. While Americans scan the landscape for critters, Wildlife Services kills them.

After nearly a century of senseless wildlife extermination, some are working for reform. Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, D, has introduced a bill banning the use of Compound 1080 and M-44s. Additional reforms are needed as well, including a shift in Wildlife Services’ funding priorities. Imagine $100 million spent each year on real solutions such as non-lethal practices, compensation programs and recovery of the very species Wildlife Services contributed to making endangered. The American public should no longer be forced to pay for this agency’s inhumane and indiscriminate annual slaughter.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Lisa Upson, is a wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Bozeman, Montana. Wendy Keefover-Ring is the carnivore protection director for WildEarth Guardians in Boulder, Colorado.