A federal agency responsible for killing wildlife considered a threat to livestock must reevaluate and be more transparent about its methods, according to a court settlement that originated in Missoula.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services reached a settlement with WildEarth Guardians, agreeing to update its study on the effects of its own predator management practices on wolves and other wildlife in Montana, particularly nontarget animals such as bald eagles that can be attracted to the bait in traps.
Part of what Wildlife Services agents do is kill animals, such as coyotes, mountain lions, wolves and bears, to prevent them from interfering with livestock or other agricultural operations. Taxpayer dollars pay for the various means, from poisoning to trapping and shooting.
In fiscal year 2018, Wildlife Services spent more than $27 million killing about 9,000 animals in Montana. Nationwide, the agency killed 1.5 million animals in 2018.
Aside from the body count, wildlife advocates were frustrated with the fact that Wildlife Services has been carrying out its predator elimination program using an environmental analysis that’s more than 25 years old. The last time Wildlife Services analyzed its practices and their effect on wildlife was in 1994. However, that study was based on even older research conducted in the 1970s and ‘80s.
All that is far too old to be legal. That’s why WildEarth Guardians sued Wildlife Services in November in Missoula federal court.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to conduct supplemental studies as new information or new science 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.
“This case advances 21st Century wildlife values: top carnivores living their lives free of persecution and free to carry out their critical ecological roles. Current science confirms that native predators like wolves, bears, and cougars maintain webs of life that serve us all,” said Jennifer Schwartz, WildEarth Guardians staff attorney. “We’re proud to be driving this systemic change and hope to see these settlement terms adopted on a permanent basis, in Montana, as a step towards broader changes in wildlife management reform.”
Wildlife Services agreed to spend the next year updating its study. From there, if the agency finds that its actions haven’t significantly affected Montana’s wildlife, it can continue with business as usual. Otherwise, it would need to change its methods.
Such change could end up affecting Montana’s evolving grizzly bear plan. The governor’s grizzly bear advisory council has heard testimony from Wildlife Services agents who’ve dealt with bears that have fed on livestock and is basing its recommendations on current practices. So time will tell if that plan is affected.
In the meantime, Wildlife Services agreed to suspend several of the practices that may end up being eliminated, depending on the results of the analysis.
Most importantly, the agency won’t deploy M-44 cyanide bombs on any public land in Montana or on any land in 44 counties, including Missoula. M-44s spray sodium cyanide into the faces of animals that trigger the traps, which poisons them. But like all traps, M-44s are indiscriminate, killing whatever animal triggers them.
The M-44s received a lot of attention in 2017 when an Idaho boy and his dog triggered a trap. The dog died, the boy was injured and the family tried to sue Wildlife Services.
In August 2017, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity sued to ban M-44s. They were unsuccessful, but the effort triggered a review of the use of M-44s, that are now used on a more restricted basis.
As the result of another lawsuit, the Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing how sodium cyanide and compound 1080, two pesticides used in M-44s, affect wildlife, which is supposed to be complete in 2021.
As part of Thursday’s settlement, Wildlife Services will also not use neck snares for bears or Conibear traps, which squeeze animals, suffocating them. They’ll check traps daily except during winter when they can check every other day. They won’t kill cougars or black bears on federal land, and they won’t do any predator control in wilderness areas, wildlife management areas or Wild and Scenic River corridors.
Finally, before killing wolves, they will document whether landowners used any nonlethal methods of avoiding conflict, and try to avoid killing non-problem wolves near a depredation site.
Some consider Wildlife Services to be secretive because they don’t release information on the animals they kill. The only information that’s publically available was obtained through Freedom of Information requests. So, as part of the settlement, the agency has to start publishing that kind of data on its Montana website.
“A public reporting requirement will compel Wildlife Services to be held accountable to the general public for its actions,” said Sarah McMillan, WildEarth Guardians conservation director, in a release. “We hope that this motivates Wildlife Services to employ practices in line with the values of the public and embrace the use of scientifically verified non-lethal conflict prevention.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.