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Sonoma County officials are reviewing a decades-old predator control contract with the federal government after a Cotati-based animal rights organization denounced the Department of Agriculture's methods as cruel and unnecessary and demanded more environmental review.

"Wildlife Services' methods kill indiscriminately," lawyers for the Animal Legal Defense fund wrote to county supervisors about the division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar said he is unaware of any illegal, unethical or cruel methods used by Wildlife Services. However, he agreed to pull the renewal of the contract from the county Board of Supervisors' agenda last month so lawyers could review the question of whether the predator control program might require an environmental review.

"Whenever anything like that comes forward, we want to be able to give the board reassurance that their actions will be legal," Linegar said this week.

The current contract, worth about $113,000 a year, expires at the end of this month. No date has been set for a review by the board of supervisors.

The contract provides a federal agent to assist a county-funded agent who helps landowners and municipal authorities in controlling dangerous wildlife. Often, Linegar said, the work involves helping farmers protect livestock, but increasingly it means removing coyotes, bears and other predators from urban areas.

Animal rights groups, including the ALDF, long have said the USDA employs brutal and unnecessary trapping methods that sometimes kill pets and harmless wildlife. They argue the century-old agency has a "kill first" ethos to appease skittish livestock owners.

"This is a rogue agency with no checks and no controls," said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has also criticized the program. "Our position is that it should be shut down."

USDA spokesman Larry Hawkins sharply disputed the critics' charges, saying the agency is committed to nonlethal methods, including helping landowners build better fences and other "habitat modification" measures to keep predators away. Trapping and killing animals, while sometimes necessary, is a last resort.

He said the agency also fully complies with state laws that ban particularly cruel or indiscriminate methods such as steel leg traps and traps that inject animals with poison.

"We think it's a valuable program, a valuable resource," he said. "The county has felt the same way for a long time."

Hawkins declined, however, to allow reporters or photographers to observe the work of the agent in Sonoma County, saying agency policy forbids it because of liability concerns and because much of the work takes place on private land.

The agency operates in more than half of the state's counties, he said. It also does wildlife control around the state's major airports, particularly limiting populations of birds that could damage aircraft engines, though it does not perform that service at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

The ALDF is not asking the county to abandon efforts to control predators, including occasionally killing them. Instead, the letter urges the supervisors to follow the lead of Marin County, which ended its contract with the USDA more than a decade ago in favor of a program that emphasizes helping landowners and ranchers build better fences to keep dangerous wildlife out.

Marin County Agricultural Commissioner Stacy Carlsen said the change has "been a good move" that has reduced livestock losses to predators considerably. He said the program now operates at about half the cost that it did during the USDA contract, though it did require some money up front to help fund the fence improvements.

"We've got basically miles and miles of new fences," he said.

Linegar said he is not inclined to change the way the program operates in Sonoma County. In his experience, Wildlife Services "certainly doesn't condone any form of animal cruelty," he said.

"I think the program has been extremely valuable," he said, "Not just to the livestock producers but to the public as well."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.