Missoula lawsuit: Feds should stop killing thousands of animals based on old science

The federal government shouldn’t be allowed to kill thousands of wild animals based upon information that’s more than 20 years old, according to a recent lawsuit.

On Tuesday, WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in Missoula federal court, for failing to update its practices in Montana to reflect the latest scientific research related to wildlife ecology and behavior as required by law.

Part of what Wildlife Services agents do is kill animals, such as coyotes, mountain lions, wolves and bears, that could negatively affect livestock or other agricultural operations. Taxpayer dollars pay for the various means of killing, from poisoning to trapping and shooting.

In fiscal year 2018, Wildlife Services spent more than $27 million on killing about 9,000 animals in Montana. Nationwide, the agency killed 1.5 million animals in 2018.

Not all the deaths were intended. Traps especially are indiscriminate and can kill animals that were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as porcupines, bobcats and red foxes.

Also, in August, the Trump administration reauthorized Wildlife Services to use M-44 cyanide bombs. Attracted by bait, animals trigger the canisters to spray sodium cyanide into their mouths, causing painful death. According to Wildlife Services’ data, M-44’s killed more than 6,500 animals in 2018. More than 200 were nontarget animals, including domestic dogs. In May, Oregon banned the use of M-44’s.

The last time Wildlife Services analyzed its killing practices and their effect on wildlife was in 1994. However, that study was based on older research conducted in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to conduct supplemental studies as new information emerges, and a lot has changed since the 1980s, especially in Montana, home to some of the most intact wild ecosystems remaining in the U.S.

So, WildEarth Guardians asked the Missoula federal judge to require Wildlife Services to stop the killing in Montana until the service updates its environmental assessment with the most current scientific information.

Sarah McMillon, WildEarth Guardians Conservation director, said her organization filed a similar lawsuit in January demanding that Wildlife Services update its Wyoming assessment. The agency settled in August, agreeing to do so by a particular date.

“Our experience is that Wildlife Services really has to be forced to take action, from getting documents through the Freedom of Information Act, to getting NEPA analyses updated, to updating archaic practices,” McMillon said.

In 1997, Wildlife Services issued less intensive environmental assessments of its wildlife damage program in eastern and western Montana. According to the lawsuit, Wildlife Services basically reiterated the same information in 2002 and 2008 without any updates other than to report numbers of livestock and wild animals killed.

But grey wolf numbers were starting to increase during that time after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park and Idaho in the mid-1990s. Grizzly bears were also starting to wander into new territory.

Finally, in 2012, Wildlife Services issued an assessment of its wolf damage program in Montana and reported that agents each year had killed about 20% of the minimum number of wolves between 2006 and 2011. The minimum number of wolves in Montana in 2011 was 635.

In 2013, the service made a decision to continue dealing with wolves in the same way without considering that Montana created a wolf hunt in 2009 that kills hundreds of wolves each year. Last year, hunters and trappers killed almost 300 wolves. The lawsuit argues the effect of the hunt should reduce the Wildlife Service’s target number.

Since then, numerous studies have shown that killing wolves randomly can actually cause livestock losses to increase.

Some showed that killing the pack leaders – the alpha male or female – can affect young wolves ability to get food so they may try for easier prey like livestock. Also, pack leaders that have learned to avoid people and livestock may serve to teach younger wolves how to stay out of trouble. Local Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist Liz Bradley also published research in 2015 showing that killing a few members of a pack didn’t reduce the risk to livestock. So either an entire pack has to be destroyed or ranchers can use coexistence techniques to reduce livestock losses such as using shepherds or guard dogs.

“You don’t have to get into this whole cycle of dead cattle and dead wolves,” Bradley said in 2015.

That’s the kind of effort that the Blackfoot Challenge is successfully making to ensure ranchers can survive in a region that’s home to many wolves, bears and mountain lions. There, ranchers line fences with flaggery – waving pieces of bright plastic – to scare off wolves and pick up livestock carcasses so they don’t invite carnivores to get a taste for livestock.

In the meantime, some ranchers are getting more frustrated with grizzly bears. So Wildlife Services killed five between 2016 and 2018 but have never included grizzly bears in its analyses.

At the end of 2016, Wildlife Services started working on a new environmental assessment of predator management in Montana but never finished.

The next year, agency workers in Idaho started asking producers to report all livestock deaths so they could find more wolf kills. They wanted to show the predator control board the problem is bigger than estimated to ease restrictions on wolf removal.

The WildEarth Guardians wants the agency to finish what it started and put more emphasis on non-lethal measures before resorting to killing.

“Every year, Wildlife Services comes in and kills animals. The next year, they come and kill animals. And it just keeps repeating itself, without making any meaningful changes,” McMillon said.

The group also wants the agency to include a cost-benefit analysis weighing the costs of the Wildlife Services damage program against the cost of predator-related losses as compared to non-predator related losses like weather or disease.

In 2018, ranchers had confirmed losses of 116 cattle and 89 sheep, due mostly to wolves and grizzly bears, and received total of approximately $200,000 in compensation from the Montana Livestock Loss Board.

That same year, ranchers lost more than 37,000 cattle to weather-related causes, according to the Farm Service Agency, and received more than $11 million from the Federal Indemnity Program.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.