Activists Devise Successful Strategy to Stop Mass Wildlife Killings
In recent years, the federal government’s role in exterminating millions of wild animals at the behest of ranchers has gone from mostly unknown to highly scrutinized.
News reports and exposés by animal rights groups have blown the cover on the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, an agency with a stated mission “to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.” The death toll, though, is high. In 2014 alone, the agency shot, poisoned, trapped, or snared more than 2.7 million animals, including 61,702 coyotes, 305 mountain lions, 796 bobcats, 22,416 beavers, 1,186 red foxes, and 580 black bears.
The agency does not hold public meetings where citizens can weigh in on the Wildlife Service’s lethal control programs or question the science behind aerial gunning campaigns targeting wolves and coyotes.
“They have their own directives,” said Camilla Fox, founder of Project Coyote, a California-based conservation group with the aim of changing attitudes toward and treatment of wild predators. “So when there’s a state law like a 24-hour trap-set time to limit suffering of animals, they’ll just go by their own directives and decide what works best for them.”
Wildlife Services did not respond to requests for comment.
That lack of transparency has made it difficult for conservation groups to influence how the agency operates, as it rarely divulges details on how, when, and why it targets species. In 2013, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the agency to come up with science-based reasons for why it kills native predators, what methods are used, and who benefits from it.
The USDA subsequently audited Wildlife Services in 2015 but did not change the agency’s methods.
“The audit completely missed the mark,” Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said at the time. “Concluding that the activities are legal doesn’t mean they aren’t outdated, inhumane, ineffective, and a waste of tax dollars.”
But now, after years of stonewalling at the national level, animal welfare groups think they may have cracked the code on how to get Wildlife Services’ attention: by going after it on a local level.
“What we had to do was figure out how Wildlife Services functions,” said Jessica Blome, senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Activists found that the program requires a lot of cooperation across state and local agencies, contracting with counties that hire local trappers to do the killing. When a rancher calls up Wildlife Services to remove a coyote that is a nuisance, Wildlife Services has permission from the local government to take action.
ALDF saw an opening. More than 35 counties in California had contracts with Wildlife Services, and according to Blome, all those counties are in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act, a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify and account for the ecological impacts of certain actions, such as the killing of wildlife, before they are taken.
In 2013, Blome said, ALDF—backed by five environmental and animal welfare groups—sent letters to Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties stating that their contracts with Wildlife Services were in violation of CEQA.
“Because of the secrecy, a lot of people in local government don’t know what kind of impact these contracts with Wildlife Services were having on their local wildlife,” Blome said.
In 2014, Sonoma County decided to opt out of its contract and implement nonlethal predator management.
ALDF sued Mendocino County, which in April settled the lawsuit by suspending its contract with Wildlife Services. The county also agreed to conduct an environmental impact report on the ecological consequences of removing native predators.
“For the first time, they will have to consider alternatives to lethal control and consider the full value and benefits wild predators have on an environment, such as rodent control,” Fox said. “That’s the basis and crux of the whole suit.”
Todd Smith, an attorney with the Thomas Law Group, which represented Mendocino County in the suit, said the decision to settle was partly financial.
“It was a decision to either continue spending money to defend against litigation or to spend the money on conducting the environmental impact report, and that’s what the plaintiffs want anyway,” Smith said. “Given the effectiveness of the program over the last 30 years and its benefits to the community, we thought it should have been exempted from CEQA, but this review will bring understanding of wildlife management to the entire community.”
The environmental impact report will take upwards of six months to complete, which will give wildlife in Mendocino at least a temporary reprieve. But the updated examination of the science and ecological impacts of lethal controls could open the door to alternatives.
“The Wildlife Services’ national level impact assessments are based on 1994 reports and outdated science,” said Lynn Cullens, associate director for the Sacramento-based Mountain Lion Foundation. “The federal agency involved in making these kills was born out of another age.”
“That institutionalized thinking no longer reflects the state’s deep concern for wildlife’s well-being,” she added. “Creating change on a national scale is difficult and slow moving, but the changes at the county level—at the ground level—are incredibly important.”
Recent studies have shown that killing predators can backfire. But it’s not just about a shifting perception of wildlife management techniques, said Fox. It’s about taking science into account.
“When you kill a coyote, two come to the funeral,” Fox said. When a coyote’s family structure is upset and the alpha male of a pack is killed, the younger adolescent coyotes are free to breed, leading to more coyotes and more animal depredation.
Rob Wielgus, a wildlife ecologist at Washington State University, reviewed 25 years of wolf killings in response to livestock depredation in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. He found that an increase in wolf killings one year led to an increase in livestock depredations by wolves the following year.
“Lethal control of individual depredating wolves may sometimes be necessary to stop depredations in the near-term, but we recommend that non-lethal alternatives also be considered,” Wielgus wrote in the study.
So instead of using money to pay out killing contracts for Wildlife Services trappers, county funds could be used to help ranchers implement nonlethal alternatives such as building better fences, purchasing guard dogs, installing light sensors, and corralling livestock at night, when predators are most likely to be active.
But for ranchers, nonlethal measures have limits, said Kirk Wilbur, director of government affairs at the California Cattlemen’s Association.
“No nonlethal methods can be effective 100 percent of the time,” Wilbur said. “They can work for a limited time, but after six or nine months, the animals will outsmart those, whether it’s dogs, or lights, or whatever. There will always be conflicts, and sometimes you’ll have to take those animals.”
Wilbur said what has happened in Sonoma and Mendocino counties following the suspension of Wildlife Services contracts causes concern for ranchers across the state.
“Seeing these well-backed environmental groups kind of strong-arming these rural communities with lawsuits is unfortunate,” Wilbur said. “Wildlife Services has worked well with ranchers to handle predators in a responsible manner. But without their expertise, ranchers will be more apt to control wildlife individually, and their primary concern is their livestock.”
At Bar C R Ranch in Petaluma, California, rancher Keli Hendricks believes the only thing that is 100 percent certain at her cattle ranch is that there will be predation.
“You have to accept some loss. It is impossible to be raising livestock and expect zero loss,” Hendricks said.
She and her husband have run a 300-head cattle-calf operation at the Sonoma County ranch for the past 25 years without using lethal controls to deal with the coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions.
“I’ve been ranching my whole life, and the ranches I’ve been on where they use lethal methods seemed to have more problems than we’ve ever had here, and we’ve never shot an animal,” Hendricks said.
She sees coyotes on the property nearly every day, but instead of calling Wildlife Services, Hendricks has installed camera traps to monitor them and keep an eye on their movements. She also takes extra rides around the cattle if coyotes appear close and pens-in newborn calves at night. Hendricks has also teamed up with Fox at Project Coyote to get the word out to ranchers about the increasing number of nonlethal management options.
“People say that nonlethal programs can’t work or can’t be duplicated across different landscapes or for certain livestock animals, but it’s about adapting,” Hendricks said. “Just because you can say we’ve been doing it this way for 100 years doesn’t mean its right.”