Fighting for predators

Conservationists sue Wildlife Services over carnivore culling across Northern California

Endangered and threatened species, such as Sierra Nevada red foxes, are susceptible to trapping under Wildlife Services practices last assessed in 1997.

Endangered and threatened species, such as Sierra Nevada red foxes, are susceptible to trapping under Wildlife Services practices last assessed in 1997.

Scope of the suit:
Butte County is among the 13 counties covered. The others: Humboldt, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Sierra, Shasta, Siskiyou, Sutter, Trinity and Yuba.

People have killed wild predators to protect livestock for as long as ranchers have settled the west.

Mounting scientific evidence, however, suggests that killing predators either doesn’t help eliminate attacks on farm animals or makes things worse. According to a study published last year in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, there’s little to suggest that killing predators accomplishes the goal of protecting livestock. Previous research has shown that hunting older male wildcats, wolves or bears actually leads to more predation, because the elders drive away younger, more aggressive males.

This shows how little we understand about the complex fabric of life in the wild, says Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and policy expert. “When you pull one thread,” he told the CN&R by phone, “you don’t know where the fabric is going to tear.”

Molvar is executive director of the Western Watersheds Project based in Laramie, Wyo., and specializes in the impacts of livestock ranching on western public lands. Killing predators has never been much of a scientific exercise, he said.

“It was always meant to be a part of the pacification and domestication of wild country so the landscape can be completely dominated by human use and economic development,” he said. “Running around killing one class of wildlife disrupts the entire food chain. It is the opposite of a science-based approach to living with nature.”

Even so, at the behest of the ranching industry, killing carnivores has long been a practice of the federal government. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services reported killing more than 1.6 million wild animals nationwide. In California, the program killed 3,893 coyotes, 142 foxes, 83 black bears, 18 bobcats and thousands of other creatures deemed risks to sheep, cattle and other livestock.

Conservationists such as Molvar say it’s time to stop.

On June 21, a group of environmental advocacy groups—including the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watersheds Project—sued Wildlife Services for its trapping and killing activity in 13 counties that make up California’s North District, including Butte.

“This lawsuit against Wildlife Services is a big deal,” said Grace Marvin, conservation chair for the Sierra Club’s Yahi Group, which covers the North State.

The legal action claims that the continued use of leg-hold traps, strangulation snares, cyanide mines, aerial gunning and poison bait is cruel, ineffective and not based in current science. The agency’s last environmental analysis of those practices was completed in 1997 (and relied on science from the 1980s). Therefore, the agency is not accounting for changes to endangered species listings and regional ecology that have occurred since then, said Amaroq Weiss, western wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“There are several species that are listed as threatened or endangered that have come into California since 1997: gray wolves, Canada lynx, Sierra Nevada red fox,” Weiss said. “And in the places where these animals have returned, they do end up getting incidentally trapped.”

Indeed, the methods of trapping and killing predators employed by Wildlife Services are indiscriminate and likely to kill more than the target animals, Molvar said: “If they are putting out cyanide bombs and poison bait to kill coyotes, there is no way of ensuring that they are not going to kill rare carnivores like the Pacific fisher, or even birds like hawks and eagles.”

The “cyanide bombs” Molvar refers to are M44s—essentially, chemical land mines that release bursts of poison when triggered by an animal (wild or not). Then there are the claw-like leg-hold traps that often result in animals losing a limb.

“Nature is harsh,” he said. “If you don’t have all four limbs, you’re not going to survive very long in the wild. … Traps are supposed to be checked on a regular basis, but that doesn’t always happen. So, animals can suffer and die of thirst or starvation if a trap line is neglected. It’s a horrifying way to die.”

The lawsuit calls for Wildlife Services to halt its killing and trapping practices until it has completed an updated environmental analysis. It also claims the federal agency is violating state law by continuing to use leg-hold traps, which have been banned in California since 1997.

The federal agency has yet to respond, said Tara Zuardo, an attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute based in Washington, D.C.

“This is a pretty clear-cut situation where Wildlife Services has already admitted that it needs to do a new analysis,” she said. “I don’t anticipate a long, drawn-out court battle, but you never know.”

Andre Bell, a spokesman for the USDA, declined the CN&R’s request for comment on this story.

“We are aware of the lawsuit and we cannot comment on pending litigation,” he said.

Both Molvar and Weiss emphasized that nonlethal methods of dealing with human-wildlife conflicts have been shown to work. Alternatives to killing include protector animals (i.e., dogs, llamas or donkeys) stationed with a herd of livestock; fladry, or a string of fluttering streamers placed along a fence to drive away predators; and a consistent human presence, such as a range rider following the cattle or sheep.

Both Molvar and Weiss said they hope the lawsuit prompts the USDA to catch up to the best available science. Molvar wants better coexistence between ranchers, livestock and natural predators. “It’s long past time that the ranching industry learns how to get along with the native inhabitants of the lands that they use.”