Conservationists Sue U.S. Agencies Over Resumption of Predator Management Program

Conservation groups WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project filed a lawsuit Monday against three federal agencies after the agencies moved to reimplement a predator management program.

This program allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture to "eradicate, suppress or bring under control" native species such as coyotes, wolves and mountain lions in Nevada's federally protected wilderness. This is done to lower the risk that these animals will prey on livestock, hurting the agriculture industry.

The lawsuit asserts that the USDA's Wildlife Services division is illegally using the Animal Damage Control Act, which allows the agency to eliminate animals likely to cause damage.

The lawsuit added that Wildlife Services does not put enough effort into studying the efficacy of what it called "large-scale slaughter." It also said that the agency did not consider restricting or moving the livestock to areas where they were less likely to be preyed upon before deciding to kill the predators.

"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 for WildEarth Guardians.

Nevada, coyote, predator
Conservationists are suing three federal agencies over an environmental review the government says satisfies requirements to resume killing coyotes, mountain lions and other wildlife in federally protected wilderness areas in Nevada. Above, in this November 10, 2015, file photo, a coyote makes its way through the snow on a hillside north of Reno, Nevada. Scott Sonner, File/AP Photo

The lawsuit comes five years after Wildlife Services settled a similar lawsuit by suspending operations aimed at protecting livestock from predators.

The WildEarth Guardians group has long battled Wildlife Services over the predator management program that Congress approved in 1931 and that costs U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

The New Mexico-based environmental group and the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Reno, Nevada.

The lawsuit accuses the agency of failing to fully disclose or adequately analyze the impact 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.

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 the killing of predators that feed on the birds' chicks, including coyotes and ravens.

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 for 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 said to be killing livestock to determine whether lethal means are "necessary to prevent serious domestic livestock" or 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.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.