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New legal battle over predator killing in Nevada wilderness

A coyote makes its way through the snow on a hillside north of Reno, Nev.
Scott Sonner
A coyote makes its way through the snow on a hillside north of Reno, Nev.

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists are suing three federal agencies over the adequacy of an environmental review the government has said satisfies requirements to resume killing 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 settled a similar lawsuit by suspending the operations intended to protect livestock from predators.

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

It allows USDA to "eradicate, suppress or bring under control" a whole host of 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, poisoning and trapping of the animals on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands in Nevada.

The conservationists say the agency routinely ignores the science about the efficacy of what they call a "large-scale slaughter" program, killing 1.3 million native species across the U.S. annually — the vast majority of those, 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 at WildEarth Guardians.

After WildEarth Guardians sued over the program in 2012, Wildlife Services agreed in 2016 to cease predator control activities in wilderness areas and wilderness study areas in Nevada with few exceptions for public health or safety. The settlement dictated the operations — which typically stem from ranchers' requests for action — couldn't resume until the agency fully complied with federal law.

One of the updates in the agency's July 2020 assessment is the conclusion that imperiled sage grouse would benefit from killing of predators that feed on chicks, including coyotes and ravens.

The lawsuit says that's an illegal use of the Animal Damage Control Act, which only allows the agency to do what's necessary to control "injurious animal species."

The assessment "fails to establish that ravens and coyotes are depressing or otherwise injuring populations of sage grouse," according to the lawsuit that also names the bureau and the Forest Service as defendants.

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 lethal predator controls are necessary for a valid "wilderness purpose" or preventing serious losses of domestic livestock, the lawsuit said.

Bureau spokesman Chris Rose said in an email to The Associated Press that the agency had no comment. Neither Wildlife Services nor the Forest Service immediately responded to requests for comment.

The lawsuit says Wildlife Services doesn't review circumstances surrounding ranchers' requests 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 new plan, 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 doesn't consider include temporarily curtailing livestock grazing activities in areas where the bureau has determined conflicts between livestock and wildlife often recur at the same time of year when newly born lambs and calves graze on U.S. times and native carnivores are rearing their offspring, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit says the government also fails 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 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.

Most of the coyote killings are concentrated in only four of Nevada's 17 counties. But the government's assessment evaluates the impacts at a statewide scale across 109,826 square miles (284,448 square kilometers) "thus diluting the degree of localized effects to native ecosystems," the lawsuit said.

Between 2015-20, nearly 15,000 coyotes were killed on Bureau of Land Management lands alone in Nevada — about three-fourths in White Pine, Eureka, Elko and Humboldt counties.

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The Associated Press
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