An under-the-radar court settlement could help curb mass-killing of wildlife by the United States government. Under the settlement, which was approved last week by a Nevada federal court, a division of the US Department of Agriculture called Wildlife Services is required to immediately stop killing predators in more than 6 million acres of Nevada’s public lands. Now, Wildlife Services will have to update the way it operates after conducting new scientific analyses.
Wildlife Services killed more than 3.2 million wild animals
Wildlife Services has the mission to "resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist." That includes protecting property and people from wildlife and protecting endangered species from invasive ones, as well as predators and disease. The agency’s mandate also includes protecting livestock from predators like wolves and coyotes. Last year, Wildlife Services killed more than 3.2 million wild animals — more than half of which were native species, including nearly 70,000 coyotes, 385 wolves, 284 mountain lions, and 480 bears. Methods include poison bait, cyanide traps, neck snares, aerial gunning from helicopters, and leghold traps, according to reporting by Christopher Ketcham in Harper’s Magazine and Ben Goldfarb in High Country News.
Wildlife Services claims that "actions considered and employed will be scientifically based, biologically sound, environmentally safe, and socially responsible." But its strategy of killing predators in Nevada is based on a 1994 environmental impact statement that uses outdated and shoddy science, says New Mexico-based conservation organization WildEarth Guardians, which filed the lawsuit against Wildlife Services.
"Wildlife Services did conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) for predator damage management in Nevada, and the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) from that EA was issued in 2011," Pam Manns, a spokesperson with Wildlife Services, told The Verge in an email. That assessment still holds for areas outside of wilderness areas, she says. The agency has begun a new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis, which it expects to take months to years to complete. Manns adds that Wildlife Services "is dedicated to resolving human and wildlife conflicts with the most up-to-date information and best scientific analysis available."
Other recent research doesn’t support killing predators as an effective way to reduce their populations. Several studies (with foxes, feral cats, and ferrets) concluded that some culls can actually increase predator populations by giving young animals access to more resources like food and newly emptied territories, allowing future generations to thrive. Another study found that removing 78 percent of coyotes from a region didn’t significantly increase the survival of white-tailed deer born there over a three-year period. And an analysis of wolf populations and livestock predation in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming showed that wolves actually kill more livestock the year after a cull.
More recent research doesn’t support killing predators
"We call on the program to use this opportunity to accept the clear science demonstrating that lethal control of native wildlife is ineffective and often counterproductive, and to adopt a coexistence mandate," WildEarth Guardians wildlife program director Bethany Cotton said in a statement. We called and emailed Wildlife Services and we’ll update this story if they respond.
The legal battle began four years ago. WildEarth Guardians first took Wildlife Services to court in 2012, saying that the agency was "damaging to biodiversity and recreation value," according to Law360. In 2013, most of WildEarth Guardians’ claims were dismissed. But in 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal based on a WildEarth member’s testimony that Wildlife Service’s activities prevented him from enjoying outdoor activities in Nevada.
Last week, the two groups reached a settlement. Wildlife Services agreed to stop killing predators in more than 6 million acres of Nevada’s wilderness and wilderness study areas until they’ve conducted a new environmental impact analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. The USDA also had to post a notice on their website acknowledging that they will be phasing out their reliance on the older, 1994 environmental impact analysis. The agency covered nearly $100,000 in legal fees for WildEarth Guardians.
Last year, a similar suit brought by several conservation organizations (including Wild Earth Guardians), also argued that Wildlife Services’ plans to cull wolves in Washington State weren’t based on sufficient evidence to demonstrate that killing the wolves would actually curb livestock loss. A federal judge in Washington State ruled that the agency had failed to consider non-lethal alternatives and fully assess their environmental impacts.
Update October 14th, 6:39PM ET: This post has been updated to include a comment from Wildlife Services.