County Budget Includes A Bird-Brained Contract

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Sun, Dec 02, 2012, 7:24 pm  //  Wendy Harris

With the Whatcom County Council set to review the county budget on Tuesday, December 4, 2012, small budget items are likely to go unnoticed. For example, each year the county helps fund part of a Farm Friends program that kills starlings.  The county should not renew its starling control contract with Farm Friends until there is affirmative evidence that lethal removal methods are effective at reducing the net starling population. In times of budget shortages, public funds must be spent on programs that are proven to work.  And where public funds are being used to subsidize private agricultural operations, there should be clear and convincing evidence of public benefit.  

Last year, the county entered into a $15,000 contract to kill starlings based on unsubstantiated and incredulous claims that starlings eat up to 30% of a grower’s blueberry crop, as well as “noticeable” quantities of cattle feed.  The county helped pay for a “baiting and trapping” control plan without asking what bait was being used, where it was being used, and how selective the use of poison would be, or inquiring into the type of trapping that would be instituted and how long it required animals to suffer before being killed.  The county did not require any evidence that this program is successful, although it has been in existence for many years, killing over half a million birds in Whatcom County.

The County failed to impose requirements that farmers first attempt to “bird-proof” their farms with proven farm management techniques.  Yet, scientific evidence indicates that farm management practices are the most effective means of long-term starling control.  Because starlings slowly migrate through an area, lethal removal is successful only in limited situations involving resident populations and localized damage. Strategies for protecting structures and for livestock habitat modification are almost assuredly well known in the agricultural community, but if questions exist, information and suggestions can be found at http://www.urbanwildlifesociety.org/UWS/BrdCtrl/StrlgCntrlUoNE.htm. 

I was advised that the starling control contract between Whatcom County and Farm Friends is a subcomponent of a larger Farm Friends contract with the USDA Wildlife Service (although efforts may be underfoot to deny this fact).  This is a matter of concern.  Wildlife Services has been under public scrutiny after an explosive expose was published in the Sacramento Bee this April by a Pulitzer Prize winning writer.  A bi-partisan coalition from the U.S. House of Representatives is calling for a Congressional inquiry into Wildlife Services policies and management.  Other jurisdictions have terminated contracts with Wildlife Services, or have imposed restrictions on operational tactics.

In the last 5 years, Wildlife Services has killed 3 million animals in the state of Washington, per USDA records. This includes large numbers of seabirds and ducks experiencing concerning population decline. It also includes terrestrial and aquatic predators needed for a balanced ecosystem, such as eagles, hawks, coyotes, bears, river otters, muskrats and beavers.  This is done secretly and without opportunity for public input. Wildlife Services routinely engages in lethal control efforts that kill unintended species, and the agency has been exposed for its long-standing efforts to hide this information.

So it is appropriate to ask questions and require proof before renewing the starling contract.  Are the majority of program expenses attributable largely to a few farmers?  Are other farmers dealing more effectively with starling problems through management techniques, and if so, which ones?  In other words, are public funds being used to assist farmers who refuse to adopt less expensive starling control methods? Does Wildlife Services target migratory or resident starlings, or does it even know?  What methodology, if any, is used to determine the program impact on net starling population? What are the specifics of the baiting and trapping procedures?  Is Wildlife Services using poison, such as DRC-1339?  Are there unintentional impacts to other species?  Are impacts to ecosystem processes being monitored?

To prevent the county council from spending public funds in an unquestioning, wasteful manner, I have asked that they remove budget item no. 29 from the consent agenda so that, hopefully, these issues will be addressed before the contract is rubber-stamped.

Rob Stratton  //  Mon, Dec 03, 2012, 6:25 pm

I am for getting rid of all subsidies. I would ask them to remove this on that point alone.


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