SCOTT SONNER Associated Press Writer RENO, Nev.
A former professional hunter for the U.S. government claims in a whistleblower complaint that he was fired in retaliation for reporting co-workers who illegally shot two mountain lions from an airplane in northeast Nevada. Lawyers fo r Pu b l i c Employees for Environmental Re s p o n s i b i l i t y to l d The Associated Press they would file an administrative complaint today on behalf of Gary Strader, who worked for the Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services until April. "This is a blatant case of reprisal," said Christine Erickson, the staff counsel for the Washington D.C.-based watchdog group for government workers. "It is now up to the Obama administration to either defend this crude retaliation against Mr. Strader or to restore him and clean house at Wildlife Services," she said. In the complaint Strader says two aerial gunners who were working under a federal contract to help the Nevada Department of Wildlife control predators that attack livestock shot the lions from a government- owned plane in Elko County in October 2006. Strader of Wells said he reported the incident to his district supervisor in the fall of 2007 when he learned that while it is legal to shoot coyotes from the air, big game animals like mountain lions cannot be killed that way. Strader said his supervisor reacted angrily and accused him of making up the story. He said he was told later that aerial gunning crews also had shot three other mountain lions in northeast Nevada. Violation of the federal Airborne Hunting Act is punishable by up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. "We shouldn't go around as government employees committing felonies in government airplanes," Strader told the AP. But if shooting the lions was a bad deal, the cover-up is worse, Strader told AP. "It's the old cliche kill the messenger. They are bending over backward to make me the bad guy." The Whi s t l e b l owe r Protection Act forbids discharging a federal employee for disclosing crimes or other waste, fraud or abuse, Erickson said. She said an employer who breaks the law could be fired. USDA's Animal, Plant, Health Inspection Service, which oversees Wildlife Services, investigated Strader's allegations but determined they were "unfounded or there wasn't any substance to it," USDA spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said. She said Strader was one of two employees let go in Nevada this year because funding for a cooperative program with the state expires at the end of June. Mark Jensen, state director for Wildlife Services in Nevada, did not immediately return telephone messages or e-mails seeking comment. A spokeswoman for the agency said he was on vacation and could not be reached. Chris Healy, spokesman for the Nevada Wildlife Department, confirmed his agency investigated Strader's claims but determined there was no way to prove them. PEER and other environmental groups have called for an end to the federal aerial program that destroyed 35,505 predators in 2006, mostly coyotes but also badgers, bobcats, foxes and wolves. They argue the program is a misuse of taxpayer dollars to benefit agribusiness, and it's dangerous. Since 1979 the program has had more than 50 plane or helicopter crashes causing 10 fatalities and 28 injuries. Strader said he's never shared that point of view and thinks the program serves an important purpose. Strader, a former Montana rancher with a long career as an expert in tracking and killing coyotes, said he had taken the full-time job in Ely, Nev., in 2006 after having worked as a seasonal employee for the agency in Utah. "I was so proud to work for Wildlife Services and now I'm so ashamed of what has happened," Strader told AP. Strader said the men who killed the mountain lions were his friends. "I thought I would just put a bug in (the supervisor's) ear to tell these guys not to let it happen again to put a stop to it," he said. "People buy licenses to go hunt mountain lions. By shooting a lion, they are stealing game from the hunters." He took his concern to state officials in October 2008 and then to the federal agency's regional office in Denver in December 2008. He said an investigator there asked him if he realized how serious his allegations were, that the two men involved could lose their jobs and that the aerial gunning program in Nevada could be jeopardized. When no action was taken, he said he reported the incident in February 2009 to an FBI agent, who Strader said referred the case to the USDA's Office of Inspector General. FBI Special Agent David Staretz in Las Vegas confirmed Tuesday that Strader's complaint was forwarded to the appropriate office but could not elaborate. Paul Feeney, deputy counsel for USDA's inspector general, said he was looking into the matter. Strader said he had been assured last August that his job was secure. But he said after contacting the FBI, Jensen told him in March he would be terminated June 30 as part of a reduction in the agency's work force. Then his exit date was moved up to April 9 with no explanation, Strader said. Strader said before he complained he got along fine with his supervisors, who he said had put him in charge of a seminar on how to track coyotes at the agency's annual conference earlier in the year. "And a few months after that, they can't get me out of the door fast enough," he said. "It's obvious why." April Hollingsworth, a Salt Lake City attorney representing Strader, said an administrative law judge likely will hear the case this summer. "Ultimately we don't have to show the lions were wrongfully killed for us to prevail, just that he was retaliated against for bringing up the complaint that they were illegally killed," she said.