RENO, Nev. – The Great Depression-era program the Department of Agriculture uses to kill coyotes, mountain lions and other predators that threaten livestock is outdated, illegal and a waste of federal money, conservationists say in a new lawsuit.
Wildlife Services, an agency under USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, has refused for nearly two decades to conduct the environmental reviews necessary to justify the mass killings with traps, snares, poisons and aerial gunning, according to lawyers for WildEarth Guardians based in Sante Fe, N.M.
They are asking in a lawsuit filed Monday that a federal judge in Nevada shut down the agency that spent $127 million in 2010 to exterminate more than 5 million animals.
"We want the court to ban its poisons, silence its guns, and pull up its traps because it's a horrendous misuse of our tax dollars to slaughter the nation's bears, wolves, coyotes, and myriad other species," said Wendy Keefover, the group's director of carnivore protection.
APHIS spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said Tuesday agency officials had not yet reviewed the suit and she had no immediate comment directly on pending litigation, but added that the conservation group had misrepresented the agency's overall mission.
"Wildlife Services conducts its programs, at local request, and seeks to manage local damage, not to eradicate any native species," she said Tuesday.
About 38 percent of the agency's 2010 budget was spent to protect agricultural resources, she said in an email, and the service also chased away more than 20 million animals from areas where they were "causing damage or conflicts."
"That included making airports safer from wildlife strikes, collecting almost 90,000 samples of 47 diseases carried by wildlife, and protecting 131 different types of threatened or endangered species," Bannerman said.
The suit filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas said the program primarily benefits a small number of larger agribusiness operations in the West. It says the agency ignores modern science about critical roles of native carnivores in the ecosystem.
"Wildlife Services continues to rely on their environmental analysis from the early 1990s because they want to avoid public scrutiny of their expensive and ineffective program," Ashley Wilmes, the group's staff attorney based in Boulder, Colo., said on Tuesday.
Wildlife Services conducted its last programmatic environmental impact statement on the "wildlife-killing" program in 1994, based largely on outdated studies from the 1980s, the lawsuit said. It argues a new EIS is required under the National Environmental Act.
From 2004-10, the agency spent $1 billion to kill nearly 23 million animals, along with thousands of "non-target" species that were killed accidentally, mostly by traps and poisons, the lawsuit said.
The Sacramento Bee reported in a series that began April 28 that the agency had accidentally killed more than 50,000 animals since 2000 that were not causing problems, including federally protected golden and bald eagles and more than 1,000 dogs, including family pets.
The service's roots date to 1915 when Congress spent $125,000 to kill wolves in hope of boosting beef production for World War II, beginning in Nevada. The government initiated "massive poisoning and trapping campaigns that greatly diminished America's wildlife" after Congress passed the Animal Damage Control Act in 1931, the lawsuit said.
About half of Wildlife Services' budget is funded from federal tax dollars and the other half from states, local governments and industry groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, American Sheep Industry Alliance, and American Farm Bureau Federation.
They were among more than 150 organizations that wrote to the chairman of the House and Senate appropriations committees in March continued support for Wildlife Services. They said wildlife damage to U.S. livestock, aquaculture, small grains, fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products has been estimated to reach nearly $1 billion annually. That includes $619 million crop losses and $126 million in livestock deaths, they said.
"As a result, WS is an essential program in agriculture production in the United States," the groups said in the March 27 letters to Sen. Daniel Inoue, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
The lawsuit argues most modern livestock producers lose few sheep or cattle to carnivores when compared to unintended losses due to illness, disease, birthing problems and weather.
"All this killing has no real benefit-even to the massive agricultural industry it purports to support," Keefover said.
The lawsuit said killing coyotes does not work as a long-term strategy to benefit livestock because new migrants move into the unoccupied territory. It said coyotes benefit populations of sage grouse and other game hens because the coyotes help control populations of foxes, badgers and ravens, which are more likely to prey on sage-grouse eggs and their young.