GRANTS PASS, Ore. - Until now, anyone who wanted to know how many wolves, skunks or even robins that hunters for the U.S. Department of Agriculture shot, poisoned or snared across the nation could look it up on an agency Web site.
The department's Wildlife Services agency, whose job is "creating a balance that allows people and wildlife to coexist peacefully," spent $117 million in fiscal year 2007 to kill 2.4 million wild animals representing 319 species, up significantly from the year before.
But the latest report obscured the nationwide numbers.
The report on fiscal year 2007 posted on the agency's Web site last week requires anyone interested in nationwide totals to call up individual reports from each of the 50 states and then do the math.
The new color pie charts and drop-down menus of state-by-state listings came on the heels of the agency's refusal even to post the information for fiscal 2005 and 2006 until after conservation groups sent a formal demand letter reminding Deputy Director William Clay of a 2000 federal court ruling requiring the agency to do so under the Freedom of Information Act, said Wendy Keefover-Ring of WildEarth Guardians. The group does an annual analysis of the numbers as part of a campaign to cut federal funding for killing predators.
"It's meant not to be accessible," Keefover-Ring said from Denver. She said it took hours to enter the state-by-state information in a spreadsheet program and crunch the numbers as part of an annual analysis of the agency.
Wildlife Services spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said the change was not made to obscure the information, but because the agency is organized on a state-by-state basis and the majority of requests for information were directed at what was happening in individual states.
"Certainly, we would be happy to work with people to get that (nationwide) information for them," Bannerman said from Washington, D.C.
She said the decision about presenting the information was made by agency staff members on the basis of recommendations from state directors and staff.
"Additional tables could be added if people are requesting the information that way," Bannerman said.
Wildlife Services is funded not only by the federal government, but also by states, counties, agriculture groups and private property owners for whom it protects crops, livestock, timber, airports and even golf courses and swimming pools.
The agency's Web site on wildlife damages shows that $56 million of its $117 million budget in 2007 came from outside the federal government, but not which outside entities paid or how much.
Besides shooting, poisoning and trapping wolves, coyotes and other animals that kill cattle and sheep, Wildlife Services scares off or kills birds that could cause crashes at airports, bears that strip the bark off young trees, and foxes, ravens and other wildlife that prey on endangered animals.
From the wildlife advocates' point of view, the results of federal animal control projects around the country are not good.
The 2.1 million birds killed in 2007 are about 50 percent more than the 1.4 million killed in 2006, and include 1 million starlings, 307,622 blackbirds, 14,463 Canada geese, 876 robins and 27 woodpeckers. A total of 196,369 mammals were killed, including 340 gray wolves, 90,326 coyotes, and 19,584 feral hogs.
While the total number of animals reported killed is down from 2.7 million in 2004, the number of carnivores, such as wolves, coyotes and foxes, has been rising steadily. The number was 102,345 in 2004, and 121,520 in 2007.
John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Washington, said he has consulted the Wildlife Services lists in the past, found them easy to work with and was amazed to see how many different species and numbers of wildlife were killed.
Marzluff said it would be easy for the agency to provide national numbers, but "the only thing that number is going to bring them is trouble."
The livestock groups and states that support and help pay for the work can easily get the information they want without going to the Web site, but the public cannot, Marzluff said.
"It's one thing for them to say how many wolves were killed. That will upset a segment of society," he said. "But when they start talking about robins and woodpeckers, I think that would be a lot more," upsetting to the public at large.
Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple has done research on the value of top-tier predators such as wolves and cougars on ecosystems. In Yellowstone National Park, for instance, the wolves that were reintroduced killed any coyote they could, which in turn meant more pronghorn fawns survived. Elk are more wary with wolves about, and eat fewer willows along streams, which is good for fish habitat.
"The public is highly interested in this," Ripple said. "They seem to get it once it comes out in the press. But overall in the recent past, there has been a lack of knowledge about the ecological importance of predators. That may be changing now with more research coming out all the time and the public and press picking up on it."
The agency has sought to keep other data under wraps. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a conservation watchdog group, earlier this month sued Wildlife Services to get it to divulge details of a safety review brought on by recent crashes of aircraft involved in aerial coyote hunts and other accidents.
The change in the wildlife death tolls could well reflect Wildlife Services' recognition of a shift in the public perception of wolves and other predators, said Robert H. Nelson, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a senior affiliated scholar at the Mercatus Center, an economics and public policy think tank at George Mason University.
"It's the Bambi thing," he said, "except now we think of wolves as Bambi, and killing them is not so popular."