Activists Score Victory in Effort to Stop the Government Killing of Millions
A court ruling revives a case against a federal program that eradicates wildlife
deemed a threat to farmers and ranchers.
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John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for
Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.
Environmentalists fighting a federal program that routinely and, some say,
indiscriminately slaughters millions of animals every year will get their day in
The United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program
ostensibly protects farmers by eliminating predators and other wildlife that
could hurt crops or livestock. Some see it as an essential service; many
conservationists, however, accuse the government of
killing indiscriminately, using bad science, and not keeping adequate
The program reported killing
more than 4 million animals in 2013, including 75,000 coyotes, 12,000
prairie dogs, nearly a thousand hawks, 866 bobcats, 528 river otters, and more
than 400 bears.
Conservation groups are already suing the USDA in multiple states to compel more
accountability for the agency's actions. Now an old case that had been thrown
out in Nevada is moving forward again after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
Ninth Circuit ruled that it does have merit.
A federal judge dismissed the original case after the USDA argued that the state
of Nevada would step in to manage predator control if the federal program did
not and thus the environmentalists' claims were moot. The appeals court last
ruled that this is not a valid argument—and not just because Nevada has
little history of wildlife removal and has stated in a letter to the court that
it has no budget to replace Wildlife Services' activities. "The ruling makes it
clear that just because you were being injured potentially by more than one
actor doesn't mean you can't seek redress for injuries by one actor," said
Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for
WildEarth Guardians, which
filed the original suit and sought the appeal.
The court cited several previous Supreme Court opinions, including Massachusetts
v. EPA, which stated the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon pollution in
Massachusetts even though many states and nations besides the U.S. also
contribute to global warming.
"This is a big deal," said Cotton, who noted that the ruling could affect
similar cases filed in other states in the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction.
Cotton says the lawsuit's goal is to get Wildlife Services to adhere to the same
types of environmental reviews that every other government agency is required to
follow. The program relies on a 1994 environmental impact statement that is
based on science from the 1980s and earlier.
"They're supposed to do an analysis, publish a draft in the Federal Register,
and have a public comment period," Cotton said. "That's an opportunity for us to
say, ‘Have you seen the latest science?' "
This is important because, Cotton said, "the science has changed
significantly. Forty years ago people thought that if coyotes were causing