The federal government's wildlife damage control program is based on outdated science and indiscriminate tools that kill many non-target animals, including protected species, according to a lawsuit filed Monday by WildEarth Guardians, a Colorado-based environmental group.
The focus of the lawsuit is a little-known arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Wildlife Services that has long specialized in killing animals that are deemed to pose a threat to agriculture, the public and – more recently – the environment.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, asks that the agency's activities be halted until it prepares a new, more comprehensive environmental impact statement. The suit also calls for a halt to its aerial gunning of predators in federally designated wilderness areas.
"It's high time for the federal court to take a hard look at Wildlife Services' slaughter of the nation's wildlife on public and private land with our tax dollars," said Wendy Keefover, director of carnivore protection for the group.
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Wildlife Services spokeswoman Carol Bannerman told the Associated Press on Tuesday that agency officials had not had an opportunity to review the suit and had no comment.
But she added that WildEarth Guardians had misrepresented the agency's overall mission.
"Wildlife Services conducts its programs at local request and seeks to manage local damage, not to eradicate any native species," Bannerman told the AP.
The lawsuit says that the agency's most recent environmental impact statement – a broad planning document use to guide agency decisions – was issued in 1994 and is based on decades-old scientific information.
"Significant new information and scientific studies bearing on the biological, ecological and economic facts of Wildlife Services' national program and activities have been published over the past 18 years," the lawsuit says.
"Guardians presented this new information to Wildlife Services several times over the past few years," the lawsuit added. "Nevertheless, Wildlife Services refuses to supplement or revise its (environmental impact statement) and continues to rely on this insufficient and outdated environmental analysis."
A series in The Bee this week reported that the agency has killed about 560,000 predators since 2006, mostly coyotes. The body count also included 25,000 red and gray foxes, 10,700 bobcats, 2,800 black bears, 2,300 timberwolves, and 2,100 mountain lions.
That activity is raising concern among scientists who say it alters ecosystems in ways that diminish biodiversity and invites rodent outbreaks.
The series also found the agency's leg-hold traps, neck snares and cyanide poison have killed more than 50,000 non-target animals since 2000, from raccoons to mule deer to federally protected bald and golden eagles.
The WildEarth Guardians suit alleges that the Nevada office of Wildlife Services violated federal law by failing to analyze the "direct, indirect (and) cumulative" impacts of traps, snares, poison and other tools in a 2011 state planning document called an environmental analysis.
"We want the court to ban (the agency's) poisons, silence its guns and pull up its traps because it's a horrendous misuse of our tax dollars," Keefover said in a statement.
The lawsuit asks that Wildlife Services be required to prepare an official environmental impact statement for its Nevada operations and supplement its national environmental document, too, or issue a new one.
It says the agency's 1994 document analyzes environmental impacts on only 17 species. "Fast-forward to 2010 when Wildlife Services killed over 5 million animals, representing a total of approximately 300 species," the lawsuit says.
It also alleges that Wildlife Services violated the Wilderness Act in Nevada by conducting aerial gunning operations in federally designated wilderness areas that are off-limits to most human activities. "You can't even ride a bicycle in a designated wilderness area," Keefover said. "Yet Wildlife Services strafes these pristine areas with low-flying aircraft."