WASHINGTON — Biological agents and toxins used to kill wildlife are poorly safeguarded by the Agriculture Department, a federal audit found.
At issue is how the department handles and stores the poisons it uses to kill animals such as starlings, wild turkeys and chickens, black bears, coyotes and wolves that are considered a nuisance.
The department's Wildlife Services program uses chemical agents to kill animals, mainly because they threaten livestock, crops or people in airplanes.
An audit by the department's inspector general faulted the agency for:
failing to keep accurate inventories of agents or toxins.
not restricting access to agents or toxins.
not having complete security plans.
Auditors visited 10 of 75 registered entities where agents are kept and found that none of the 10 complied with security regulations.
Department spokeswoman Karen Eggert said Thursday that officials take their wildlife responsibilities "very seriously and comply with all federal and state laws associated with the use of hazardous materials."
She said the department stepped up its oversight of hazardous materials in 2004 with quarterly site reviews to make sure its inventory database is accurate. Chemicals are secured in locked storage facilities, and employees work closely with states to be certified to distribute chemicals, she said.
Environmental groups criticize the department for poisoning animals.
"The larger question is why the federal government is scattering highly dangerous toxicants all across the country as a wildlife control strategy," said Wendy Keefover-Ring, spokeswoman for Sinapu, a Colorado-based advocacy group for wolves and other predators.
"For reasons of public safety, as well as environmental integrity, the Department of Agriculture needs to move away from its poison first mentality for wildlife management," she said.
The department killed more than 2.7 million nuisance animals in 2004, the most recent year for which data was available. The majority of animals killed were starlings, birds that destroy crops and contaminate livestock feed.