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Mendocino County suspends predator control program to settle lawsuit

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Mendocino County is suspending its longstanding contract with federal wildlife trappers while it reviews its program to combat predators, which includes trapping and killing wild animals and dogs that kill livestock, cause property damage or pose a public safety threat, such as rabies.

The decision was made last week to settle a 2015 lawsuit filed by animal rights groups over the county’s $144,000 annual contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s trapping program, which has operated in the county for nearly three decades.

The wildlife groups called the latest decision a victory in the fight against animal cruelty.

“This agreement is an important first step toward ending the needless slaughter of millions of native animals every year. Cities and counties across the United States must move beyond cruel, outdated, ineffective wildlife-control methods and adopt the proven nonlethal methods that protect the ecosystems we all depend on for our long-term environmental and economic health,” said Cynthia Elkins, a spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of six groups that sued the county.

In 2014, the federal Wildlife Services killed approximately 47,000 animals in California and nearly 3 million nationwide, according to the Center. Wildlife Services trappers nationwide also inadvertently killed more than 50,000 animals that were not their targets, including eagles and pets, according to the organization.

Current data for Mendocino County was not available Wednesday, but trappers in 2012 killed 459 animals, 126 of them coyotes, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The county had previously agreed to do an environmental study to settle a 2014 lawsuit, but then determined it was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act and renewed its trapper contract, triggering a new lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged the county should have studied how the ecosystem is impacted by killing predators. In addition, it said the county did not adequately consider nonlethal methods of controlling predators.

To settle the suit, the county agreed to suspend the contract with federal trappers until it completes an environmental impact study on the program, including an assessment of nonlethal methods of controlling predators.

County and ranching officials say suspension of the program is likely to be temporary because nonlethal methods of protecting livestock — including fencing and guard dogs — are not sufficient to ensure the viability of ranching in a county with 700,000 acres of pasture land spread out over rugged and remote terrain. Mendocino County ranchers raised 17,400 head of cattle and 10,100 sheep in the county in 2013, according to the latest available crop report.

“I am an animal lover,” said Supervisor Dan Hamburg. “I still think we need a (trapping) program in Mendocino County.”

The trapping program, Hamburg said, is a critical tool that will help protect ranching in Mendocino County, including its organic meat industry, and support efforts to create a local wool processing mill.

Animal rights advocates say it’s not necessary to trap or kill wild animals to keep them from eating livestock and causing damage. They point to Marin County, which ended its federal trapping program in 2000 and instead helps ranchers pay for better ways to keep wildlife away from livestock, like fencing and guard dogs.

The University of California’s Hopland Research and Extension Center also has been exploring a variety of nonlethal ways to keep predators away from livestock, especially sheep, which are vulnerable to coyotes, lions and even bobcats, with some success. It now has five guard dogs watching over some 1,000 sheep and lambs, said Kimberly Rodrigues, the center’s director.

But those methods are not enough, she said.

“There are times when you have to use lethal control. That’s an unfortunate reality,” Rodrigues said.

The field station has several staffers with the ability to shoot predators when they’re attacking animals. It also utilizes federal trappers, she said. So far this year, the center has killed four coyotes, Rodrigues said.

Wild animals also continue to be killed in Marin County, despite its ban on federal trappers, according to Rodrigues.

Ranchers “just shoot them (predators) themselves” or hire people to do it for them, she said.

Several Marin County ranchers last year told The Press Democrat they now simply take care of the problem themselves. In Sonoma County, the federal trapper program was replaced with a county program following threatened litigation.

Rodrigues prefers that professional trappers take on predators because they are trained both in how to perform the task and how to determine which predator is responsible for a kill.

“Losing that expertise is a real loss,” Rodrigues said.

But she believes the community conversation that will be generated by an environmental impact report will be a good thing.

A timeline for the environmental impact study has yet to be established, but Hamburg expects it could take from nine months to a year and cost between $50,000 and $100,000.

Wildlife groups said they expect all counties with federal trapping programs to follow suit.

“Any county can and should expect the same challenge we brought here if it employs Wildlife Services without examining and mitigating the impacts of such a heavy death toll,” Elkins said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

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