As founder of one of the nation's largest urban wildlife damage control companies, Kevin Clark is no stranger to competition.
But one competitor costs him more business than any other: the federal government.
"Government is not supposed to compete, head to head, with the private sector when the private sector is already fulfilling the need," said Clark, chief executive officer of Critter Control, a franchise with branches in California. "Nuisance wildlife control operators are more than capable of handling these problems."
His concern is directed at an agency called Wildlife Services, which is already under scrutiny for its lethal control of predators and other animals in the rural West. A Sacramento Bee investigative series earlier this year found the agency targets wildlife in ways that have killed thousands of non-target animals, including family pets, and can trigger unintended, negative ecological consequences.
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Now the agency's killing of other species in more populated settings is drawing fire from entrepreneurs who say it siphons jobs away from private companies, lacks transparency and overlooks nonlethal alternatives.
"It's been such an uphill struggle," said Erick Wolf, CEO of a California firm called Innolytics, which developed a form of birth control for Canada geese and pigeons with help from Wildlife Services' scientists in Colorado.
Wildlife Services – which has killed 170,000 geese and more than 950,000 pigeons since 2000 – does not use it.
"All they want to do is shoot, trap and poison," said Wolf. "They don't want to consider anything else."
Wildlife Services spokeswoman Carol Bannerman defended the agency's contracting practices.
"Congress has provided Wildlife Services with the legislative authority to conduct wildlife damage activities, except for urban rodent control, wherever there is a need expressed by the public," she wrote in an email. "Wildlife Services advises all requestors of the existence of other service providers."
Interest is growing in Congress. A bill was introduced this fall to direct the U.S. Government Accountability Office to detail agency activities in conflict with private business.
"Where is the room for business to breathe?" said Gene Harrington, director of government affairs for the National Pest Management Association. "If you are going to suck the air out of the animal control business, what's next? Why not get into roofing? I'm sure OSHA could come up with a good roofing division."
Clientele to die for
Wildlife Services has broadened its reach in recent decades, thanks to an expansion of its mandate to "nuisance mammals and birds" in nonagricultural settings in 1987 by Congress. It also authorized the agency to continue to contract with clients and charge fees.
The agency has long shielded the names of its clients from disclosure. But recently it provided a partial list to The Bee in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The information shows Wildlife Services does business with more than 2,500 customers, from Fortune 500 companies to ranchers, prisons to zoos, country clubs to cemeteries, landfills to airports to other agencies.
Collectively, those clients paid $72 million in fees to the agency in 2011, up from $52 million in 2006.
Corporate clients include American Airlines, Au Bon Pain, BP, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, Ford, General Mills, PG&E, Princess Tours, Pfizer, Toyota, Union Pacific, US Bank, Walt Disney World, Wells Fargo and Verizon Wireless.
Government agencies are even more abundant. They include Amtrak, NASA, the Army, Navy and Air Force, Sacramento County and San Quentin State Prison. The agency also works for hundreds of private individuals whose names were redacted for privacy reasons.
"This list reads like the who's who of potential customers," said Wolf, the nonlethal pigeon control executive. "They are taking the cream of the crop, the biggest and best customers. We don't have a chance."
Entrepreneurs say they face barriers competing with the agency – none larger than its hefty public funding: $89 million for 2011, an average of $243,000 per day.
"The deck is stacked against the private guys because Wildlife Services is operating as a subsidized source," said Dixon Herman, vice president of the National Wildlife Control Operators Association. "They are not responsible for any profit margin."
The agency describes its urban and nuisance wildlife services on its Web page. These include shooting and dispersing waterfowl around airports and on golf courses, trapping beavers, skunks and raccoons in suburbs and killing pigeons and other birds in towns and cities.
"Geese, deer and feral pigs can destroy golf course greens, fruiting plants (and) lawns," the agency says. "The excrement and noise from a roost of vultures or crows can be so severe that backyard swing sets, grills (and) lawn furniture become useless."
That's work private operators say they can do, too.
"If we're talking dengue fever, avian flu, massive crop damage or depredation problems, those things on a big scale, they certainly have a right and a need to be involved," said Clark, the Critter Control CEO. "But they have no business trapping a squirrel or doing a small bird job in cities where they are competing directly with small-business people who are struggling in this economy."
Often, competing for agency work is not possible because many of its clients don't ask for bids.
"In pretty much every case, they are getting work from public entities through sole source contracts," said Harrington. "So operators don't even have an idea that they've lost a contract, because it's never put out for bid."
One of those no-bid contracts is with the County of Sacramento. It pays Wildlife Services $113,300 a year to control raccoons, pigeons, skunks, coyotes, wild turkeys and other animals.
"Why are they not hiring local businesses that could easily do that work?" Harrington said. "That's just nuts."
County Agricultural Commissioner Juli Jensen defended the no-bid contract, saying the county has been working with the agency since the 1920s.
"We feel that private contractors do not have the experience and expertise needed to properly handle our more rural wildlife issues such as coyotes. Many private companies do not handle all wildlife – most do urban trapping," she said in a statement.
She also said Wildlife Services chips in an additional $69,000 to support the work of two agency trappers in the county, something no private company can offer.
"I don't believe any of them are willing to pay for 40 percent of the program," Jensen said. "I believe our taxpayers are getting the best value going this route."
But Carter Niemeyer, a retired Wildlife Services trapper and district supervisor, said such arrangements have hidden costs that hurt taxpayers.
"Behind the trappers, you've got district supervisors. Behind district supervisors, you've got state directors. You have trucks, retirement programs – a whole government infrastructure. Private guys don't have to maintain a government infrastructure," Niemeyer said.
Wildlife Services' Bannerman defended its sole-source work, pointing out in an email that an agency directive forbids it from bidding. "When agencies conduct an open bid process, WS may not participate," she said.
The federal brand
Earlier this year, one agency sales pitch turned up in an email to a New York golf course seeking a federal migratory bird permit to trap and relocate Canada geese.
"In case you do not yet have a wildlife management firm, I have attached the price sheet of Wildlife Services costs," the email reads. "If you do desire Wildlife Services, you would no longer need to obtain a permit as the work would be conducted under our permit."
Instead, the work went to Cody Baciuska, founder of Loomacres Wildlife Management, who said the agency should not be part of the permitting process.
"Wildlife Services' role is a clear conflict of interest and gives WS an unfair advantage," he said in an email.
But Bannerman disagreed. "The letter is a first attempt by WS to gather additional information to complete the required forms," she said.
"Every time we market our services to clients, it seems like they are in the background undermining our efforts," Baciuska said. "It's a continual fight to get work."
To land the job, Baciuska had to drop his bid to compete with the Wildlife Services price of $6 per goose, plus mileage. Others have been less fortunate.
"Everything was all set," said Dave Cheaney, vice president of National Bird Control in Seattle, who was looking forward to a job protecting salmon fry from seagulls at a federal dam on the Columbia River two years ago.
"It was a $200,000 to $300,000 contract," Cheaney said. "At the last moment, we were told USDA (Wildlife Services) was taking charge. Come to find out, they did it for $40,000 or something."
"That started my blood to boil," said Cheaney, whose clients include Lowe's and Costco. "They are taking money right out of my pocket."
Bannerman explained the agency's low prices: "WS is a not-for-profit, service organization. It does not collect funds above the total cost of providing the service."
The agency's client revenue has climbed 80 percent over the past decade, from $39.4 million in 2001 to $71.7 million in 2011. Other figures are on the upswing, too.
Since 2000, the number of Canada geese killed by Wildlife Services has more than tripled from 7,500 to 23,700 last year. Over the same period, its lethal control of seagulls has risen 55 percent, raccoons 58 percent, pigeons 62 percent and mallards more than 200 percent.
One deadly encounter played out early this year at Clear Lake in Northern California where 70 to 80 semi-domestic geese were shot and killed in nighttime Wildlife Services hunting operations.
"I don't agree with how it was handled. It was not humane at all," said Lake County Supervisor Anthony Farrington. "They went straight to the lethal approach without exploring other options. To me, that was unnecessary and a disservice to the public."
Wolf believes there is a better way: birth control.
A decade ago, he began working with a product that prevents the eggs of geese and pigeons from hatching. "It's just remarkable," he said. "The effect is like night and day."
He also turned to Wildlife Services' state-of-the-art National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado. The results were so impressive the agency co-developed the product, called OvoControl, with him and promotes its use for geese and pigeons in brochures and on its website.
"It serves little purpose to just continue to shoot them," said Wolf. "Whatever is left just backfills the population so quickly you never get ahead of the curve.
"It takes about a year to lose 50 percent of the population. It's a very safe, humane, efficient way of managing a pigeon population," he added. "This product is not a toxicant. Nothing ever dies. Nothing is ever in jeopardy."
In recent years, Wolf has sold the product to Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Shell Oil in Martinez and other major clients – but not Wildlife Services.
"They won't even try it," Wolf said. "They take credit for it but don't want to use it. It doesn't add up."
Bannerman disagreed. "The product is an available option," she said. "Typically, the time needed to conduct OvoControl baiting and treatment make it more appropriate for the property owner to apply rather than for federal personnel."
Wolf is skeptical.
"If they can trap, shoot and poison, what would prevent them from using a contraceptive? That's just silliness. It doesn't make any sense," he said.