SACRAMENTO, Calif. — 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.
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 non-lethal 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."
Wildlife Services has broadened its reach in recent decades, thanks to an expansion of its mandate to “nuisance mammals and birds" in non-agricultural 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.
The agency also works for government agencies and 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 non-lethal 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 day.
“The deck is stacked against the private guys because Wildlife Services is operating as a subsidized source," said Dixon Herman 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. They include shooting and dispersing waterfowl around airports and on golf courses, trapping beavers, skunks and raccoons in suburbs and killing pigeons, house sparrows, starlings 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 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."