To Kill a Mockingbird

Fate of contract with Texas Wildlife Services hangs in balance at Tuesday meeting

Within the city and county, coyote-related calls to authorities get directed to 311. Austin's Animal Services responds within the city. Outside, calls go to Texas Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's controversial Wildlife Services program. The county contracts with TWS to manage wildlife in its unincorporated areas, a once-rural patchwork of communities like Del Valle and Steiner Ranch whose population has grown faster than in any other county in the region during the last five years. TWS advises callers on how to handle certain wildlife situations and also makes site visits to intervene and sometimes kill animals. Austin previously used TWS; its contract ended last year. The county's contract is currently up for renewal; commissioners will hold a public hearing on it this Tuesday, Oct. 3.

Two commissioners have already signaled reluctance to spend $45,000 on a TWS employee's salary and supplies: Margaret Gómez and Brigid Shea, who has suggested the county instead partner with the city to handle nuisance animal issues. Shea has been concerned that TWS is killing animals she believes the contract is not intended to address; using cyanide capsules that are lethal to any animal that comes into contact with them; and servicing private businesses "fully capable of paying for it themselves."

As a federal agency, Wildlife Services has been criticized for using taxpayer money to kill millions of animals each year. Most are nuisance birds, but a quarter of its budget is dedicated to protecting livestock owned by ranches and other rural businesses, to which predators pose legitimate threats (mostly to sheep and lambs). Some research shows, however, that lethal removal of predators actually can increase predation. In 2014, Wildlife Services killed hundreds of bobcats, wolves, cougars, more than a thousand foxes, and tens of thousands of coyotes – and it's known for being secretive with its processes and procedures.

During the first seven months of 2017, TWS wildlife biologist Stefan Hunt killed 14 coyotes in Travis County using guns, neck snares, and M-44 cyanide capsules. He also shot three black vultures and killed four beavers using guns and neck snares. And he shot a mockingbird in the Pfluger­ville Wal-Mart using an air rifle. His reports to the county, while vague, state that the coyotes exhibited "damage threats" and "predation" to several pets, and "damages" and "predation" to pen-raised white tail and axis deer and several calves. Though the deer were enclosed behind high fences that appeared secure and maintained, there were "a select few spots where an outside animal could enter." The beavers reportedly damaged structures in water retention ponds.

The mockingbird had reportedly been stuck inside the Wal-Mart "for weeks" and caused $5,000 worth of damage, but store manager Jason Langford said he doesn't specifically recall the incident and that when birds fly into the store, they usually fly back out. If they don't, Wal-Mart uses a third party to remove them, which as far as he knows, traps and releases the birds. He said that typically birds in the store are not a big deal and don't cause significant damage.

Hunt's reports note no data on any additional animals that were harmed in the process of using firearms, traps, and snares to kill his intended targets. But several members of the Animal Advisory Commission, which counsels Austin and Travis County, doubt this. During the time period that Hunt was working inside city limits, Austin Animal Protec­tion was called multiple times to respond to animals, including pets, that were caught in steel leg traps and had been seriously injured (two cats had to have legs amputated). At least one of these traps belonged to Hunt.

Last year, the city ended its interlocal agreement with Travis County and TWS. Craig Nazor, who sits on the AAC, said the city felt TWS wasn't providing adequate reports on its activities and that the job could be done better in-house. A large part of the transition likely stems from the city's coyote management policy, implemented in November 2014, that focuses on keeping pets indoors and hazing coyotes to scare them away instead of killing them. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said shortly after inviting public comment next week: "We are well aware that there is considerable divide between the urban preference for how to manage nuisance wildlife and the rural preference."

According to Katie Jarl, the Texas state director for the Humane Society of the United States, it remains rare for a U.S. city or a county to end its contract with Wildlife Services. "There are no counties in Texas that have," Jarl said. "But there are also not that many counties in Texas that have Austin's Animal Services. Until we have an actual educational program and some tips and tricks for these rural landowners that want to deal with coyotes, it's going to be a constant cost for Travis County taxpayers to hire Wildlife Services to kill any coyote that might not even be the coyote that was bothering them in the first place. We just feel it's best left to the local government to deal with these things rather than a federal government program."

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coyotes, Animal Services, Margaret Gómez, Brigid Shea, Stefan Hunt, Craig Nazor, Sarah Eckhardt, Katie Jarl

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