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Lawsuit challenges federal predator control program in Northern California counties

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Three environmental groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court seeking to halt part of a controversial government program that kills predators, including coyotes, bears and mountain lions, in ways that the groups allege are cruel, outdated and ineffective.

The lawsuit challenges a U.S. Department of Agriculture program called Wildlife Services that uses leg-hold traps, strangulation snares, poisons and guns to kill animals at taxpayer expense, mostly to benefit livestock operations.

In 2018, the program killed nearly 1.5 million animals nationwide, including 26,441 in California, according to USDA records.

The statewide toll included 3,826 coyotes, 859 beavers, 170 foxes, 105 black bears and 83 mountain lions along with 5,675 birds.

Wildlife Services had a $167 million nationwide budget last year, including $8.7 million in California, with a significant portion coming from cooperating partners, such as county governments.

Filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and two other groups in a San Francisco court, the lawsuit specifically targets a USDA district that covers 10 counties, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Marin, and follows a successful challenge to the program in 16 Northern California counties, including Mendocino, in 2017.

Sonoma County terminated its predator control contract with Wildlife Services in 2013 under pressure from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a Cotati- based national nonprofit that is also one of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit. The contract, then worth about $113,000, had been routinely renewed by the Board of Supervisors for decades.

Tony Linegar, the county agricultural commissioner, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Marin County dropped its Wildlife Services contract in 2000 as a result of public protest over the use of poisons and killing animals in dens, according to Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Project Coyote, a national nonprofit that is the lawsuit’s third plaintiff.

Marin adopted a nonlethal predator control program, sharing costs with ranchers, that is now in its 19th year, Fox said.

“Wildlife Services’ cruel killing practices are ineffective, inhumane and totally out of touch with science,” said Collette Adkins, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Nonlethal methods of addressing wildlife conflicts are proven to work.”

The lawsuit alleges that the program in USDA’s Sacramento District is unlawful because it is based on an environmental assessment more than 20 years old and “can no longer be reasonably relied upon without supplemental analysis.”

California law has since prohibited bobcat trapping as well as killing mountain lions unless under a special permit, and a 1998 ballot measure banned use of various traps, snares and poisons for capturing or killing wildlife, the suit says.

Leg-hold traps are known to cause serious injury to animals struggling to free themselves, including mangled limbs, fractures, cuts, loss of circulation, frostbite, amputation and eventual death from exposure, the suit notes.

“Most of the public is outraged when they hear about it,” Adkins said.

In addition to killing targeted predators, the program unintentionally kills thousands of other animals, including protected species such as California condors, gray wolves and grizzly bears, as well as eagles, falcons, red-tailed hawks, horned owls, great blue herons and others, the suit says.

A major 2012 investigative series by the Sacramento Bee documented many of the issues included in the complaint.

Calls to USDA offices in Washington and Sacramento were not returned Tuesday.

The Wildlife Services program in California protects more than $700 million in livestock resources annually, its website says. The most recent federal reports indicate predation on nearly 450,000 head of livestock resulting in losses of more than $119 million, it says.

In urban areas, skunks, coyotes, opossums and raccoons forage in backyards and hide under porches and in attics, causing damage and potentially carrying diseases, the website says.

The lawsuit notes that numerous scientific studies in the last two decades have questioned whether killing predators reduces livestock losses, and one found that the killings can backfire and may increase depredation.

It also says that Marin County’s non-lethal program, using livestock guard dogs and llamas, night corrals, fencing and lighting proved less expensive and more effective than lethal control.

The suit asks for a court ruling that Wildlife Services’ failure to update its environmental analysis is illegal and halts the program until a new evaluation has been completed.

Adkins said she hopes the case can be settled through negotiation, similar to the 2017 case that restricted the predator control program pending completion of a new environmental assessment by the end of 2023.

“I am confident we would win this case (if it went to trial),” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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