Ammon Bundy has led a takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in response to prison sentences for Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. Credit: Rick Bowmer/AP Photo

While Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond have been battling the U.S. government over arson charges, another federal agency quietly has helped them kill predators.   

Internal government records obtained by Reveal show that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services has gunned down coyotes from the air over Steven Hammond’s ranch as part of a far-flung aerial gunning program targeting predators for ranchers across the West.

In recent months, the Hammonds have become folk heroes to anti-government protesters, serving as the inspiration for the armed group that seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge visitor center in Oregon over the weekend. (The Hammonds haven’t taken a position on the occupation.)

Public land ranching is controversial in the West, where federal agencies manage millions of acres for everything from livestock production to endangered species protection. Protesters say government laws and policies are too restrictive and threaten ranchers’ livelihoods.

But those policies and government payments also help make those lifestyles possible. The Hammonds, for example, collected nearly $300,000 in federal disaster payments and subsidies from 1995 to 2012, according to federal data gathered by the Environmental Working Group. Last month, Reveal reported that a group of Nevada ranchers who fought a federal drought declaration had collected millions in drought subsidies from the USDA.

The government also leases public land to ranchers at rates far below market value, as reported Monday by FiveThirtyEight. Even Ammon Bundy – leader of the armed group occupying the refuge visitor center and son of anti-government Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy – has benefited from a federal small business loan guarantee, Mother Jones reported Monday.

And the Hammonds have gotten help from Wildlife Services, a division of the USDA that has long specialized in killing animals deemed a threat to ranchers in ways that can be inhumane, excessive, at odds with science and sometimes illegal.

The aerial gunning of predators takes place on private and public land across more than a dozen Western states. Federal data show that more than 350,000 coyotes and other animals have been killed over the past 15 years. The document shows that the government killed five coyotes by air for the Hammonds between 2009 and 2011.

Wildlife advocates say the killing is indiscriminate and a waste of tax dollars. Even some former Wildlife Services employees agree.

“Basically, it makes no sense to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to save tens of thousands of dollars of private livestock,” said Sam Sanders, a former Wildlife Services trapper and aerial gunner in Nevada. “In the long run, it would be cheaper to just buy the ranches and shut them down.”

“We averaged a coyote about every $1,600,” Sanders added. “You pay me $1,600 per coyote, I’ll work for three years and never have to work again.”

One invoice obtained by Reveal shows USDA Wildlife Services spent $11,270 to kill five coyotes by helicopter in Nevada in 2010.

A secret Wildlife Services database obtained by Reveal shows the agency killed more than 6,000 coyotes and other animals in Nevada by aerial gunning from January 2009 to January 2011. Among those benefiting from the killing were several ranchers who also received hefty drought subsidy payments.

“I see so many people complain about the feds,” Sanders said. “Yet here they are taking all the federal handout money they can get. If you look at how much they take and how many services they get – like all that Wildlife Services stuff – it’s ridiculous. It confounds me.”

Tom Knudson is a reporter for Reveal, covering the environment. He is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a 2004 award for global environmental reporting from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Reuters. Over the years, he has reported on a wide range of subjects, including the abuse of migrant forest workers in the American West, overfishing in Mexico's Sea of Cortez and the environmental degradation of California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. Knudson is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.