RENO, Nev. – Conservationists are suing three federal agencies over the adequacy of an environmental review the government has said satisfies requirements to resume the killing of coyotes, mountain lions and other wildlife in federally protected wilderness areas in Nevada.
The move comes five years after the U.S. Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services division settled a similar lawsuit by suspending the operations aimed at protecting livestock from predators.
The WildEarth Guardians group long has battled Wildlife Services over the predator management program that Congress approved in 1931 and costs U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars annually.
The program allows USDA to “eradicate, suppress or bring under control” native species — including mountain lions, bears, wolves, coyotes and bobcats — “for the benefit of agribusiness.”
The New Mexico-based environmental group and the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project filed the lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Reno.
It accuses the agency of failing to fully disclose or adequately analyze the impacts of its plan to expand use of aerial gunning from small planes and helicopters and poisoning and trapping of the animals on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands in Nevada. Those two agencies are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.
The conservationists claim Wildlife Services routinely ignores the science about the efficacy of what they characterize as a “large-scale slaughter” program which kills 1.3 million native species across the U.S. annually. The vast majority of those killed are coyotes.
“While society has evolved to understand the importance of native species as a key part of ecosystems and the need for coexistence of wildlife, Wildlife Services continues to rely on antiquated practices in the name of ‘managing’ conflicts with wildlife,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director with the WildEarth Guardians group.
After WildEarth Guardians sued over the program in 2012, Wildlife Services agreed in 2016 to halt predator control activities in wilderness areas and wilderness study areas in Nevada with few exceptions for public health or safety.
The settlement dictated that the operations — which typically stem from ranchers’ requests for action — could not resume until the agency fully complied with federal law.
An update to the agency's July 2020 assessment includes a conclusion that imperiled sage grouse birds would benefit from killing of predators that feed on the birds' chicks, including coyotes and ravens.
The lawsuit said making that conclusion was an illegal use by Wildlife Services of the Animal Damage Control Act, which only allows agency officials to do what's necessary to control “injurious animal species.”
The assessment by the agency “fails to establish that ravens and coyotes are depressing or otherwise injuring populations of sage grouse,” according to the lawsuit.
The three agencies are violating the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act by sanctioning an impermissible “commercial enterprise” within designated wilderness areas without demonstrating that lethal predator controls are needed for a valid “wilderness purpose” or preventing serious losses of domestic livestock, the lawsuit added.
Bureau of Land Management spokesman Chris Rose said in an email that the agency had no comment on the lawsuit. Wildlife Services and the Forest Service did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
The lawsuit added that Wildlife Services officials do not review circumstances surrounding ranchers’ requests to kill predators they say are killing their livestock to determine whether lethal means are “necessary to prevent serious domestic livestock” nor to ensure “only the minimum amount of control necessary to solve the problem will be used.”
Under the plan to resume killing predators, Wildlife Services “must simply provide email notification to the bureau before and after conducting (such management in) bureau-managed wildernesses and wilderness study areas,” the lawsuit said.
Alternatives the agency did not consider include temporarily curtailing livestock grazing activities in areas where officials have determined conflicts between livestock and wildlife often recur at the same time of year when newly born lambs and calves graze on U.S. lands and native carnivores are rearing their offspring, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said U.S. government officials have also failed to adequately evaluate local impacts of predator management across nearly 9,700 square miles (25,000 square kilometers) of wilderness and wilderness study areas in Nevada.
The environmental assessment by government officials said there’s an “extremely high likelihood (95 to 100%)” that lethal control of wildlife will be conducted in eight wilderness areas and five study areas in Nevada over the next 10 years.