One of two officers assigned to control coyotes and other predators in Sonoma County will be off the job starting Oct. 1 while the county reviews the legality of a contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides the extra officer.
Having just a single county-funded officer on duty is "going to limit the amount of time we can spend at any given ranch," said Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar. "It's going to take a lot longer to respond to complaints."
Linegar said the agency would focus primarily on major predators that pose a threat to livestock, such as coyotes, and would have to reduce or stop efforts to control nuisance animals such as raccoons.
The county has contracted for predator control services with the USDA's Wildlife Services program for decades. The annual contract, worth about $113,000, was scheduled for routine renewal by the Board of Supervisors this summer but Cotati-based Animal Legal Defense Fund objected, saying the contract might require a full environmental impact report under the state's strict environmental laws.
Linegar defended the program but pulled it from the supervisors' calendar for further study. The review has taken longer than expected, he said this week, and it might be early next year before he and the county counsel's office decide how to proceed.
Linegar did not rule out the possibility that the county might conclude it needs to conduct the environmental review, as ALDF contends.
In the meantime, the most recent contract has expired and funding for the position runs out on Monday, the last day of the federal fiscal year. That means the federal position in the two-man office will end, at least for the moment.
The ALDF seemed surprised by news of Linegar's long timeline for the legal review, but it hailed the end of the contract, even temporarily.
"I think it's a step in the right direction," spokesman Chris Green said. "Ultimately we'd like to see the money that used to go to the contract diverted to non-lethal alternatives."
The group is trying to ramp up pressure on the supervisors to kill the contract. Last month, it enlisted the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust, which recently took over a wildlife preserve in Sonoma County, to send a letter condemning Wildlife Services.
The ALDF also hosted a public showing Wednesday night in Santa Rosa of "Wild Things," a documentary produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council that is harshly critical of the agency's history of killing large predators, such as bears, mountain lions, wolves, and coyotes.
ALDF and other critics say the agency uses cruel, inhumane, and indiscriminate techniques, such as trapping and poisoning animals. They advocate a program modeled on Marin County, which has shifted much of its money and effort to non-lethal control methods such as building fences and deploying guard dogs. Marin officials have said they believe the program is successful, but Linegar said he believes the number of animals killed in Marin is underreported since ranchers are taking matters into their own hands by killing coyotes privately, which is not reflected in the county's reports.
"I don't think you're doing the coyotes any favors" with a program like Marin's, he said.
In 2012, the latest data available, the predator control program in Sonoma County resulted in the deaths of 127 coyotes, two mountain lions and one black bear. Problems with coyotes accounted for 87 percent of the field visits by agents that year.