A groundbreaking settlement agreement reached last week between the non-profit WildEarth Guardians and the federal program Wildlife Services immediately halts U.S. government killing of wildlife on millions of acres of public land in Nevada, and also has implications for the fate of many animals nationwide.
The settlement comes over a year after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that WildEarth Guardians' interests -- to protect and restore wildlife of the American West -- are injured by the federal wildlife killing program's activities and, as a result, the organization could challenge Wildlife Services in court.
Sarah McMillan, senior attorney for WildEarth Guardians, explained that the "settlement ends killing on six million acres of our public lands in Nevada unless and until a modern environmental assessment occurs and ensures that Wildlife Services will update its analysis of the impacts of its killing activities across the country."
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Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for the organization, told Seeker that the assessment is needed to counter the "antiquated and disproven science" that Wildlife Services has used.
The document in question is a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, which dates to 1994, and, according to Cotton, includes data that even goes back to the 1930s. The document is often tied to Wildlife Services killings, which in 2015 alone totaled 1.6 million native animals. "Native" refers to the fact that these were not invasive species.
Causalities in that year, representing the latest numbers, include 284 cougars, 384 gray wolves, 480 black bears, 731 bobcats, 20,334 black-tailed prairie dogs, 1,511 gray foxes, 1,534 red foxes, 21,557 beavers, one critically endangered Mexican wolf, 69,905 coyotes and even 17 domestic dogs.
Cotton said that Wildlife Services conducts both "pre-emptive kills absent complaints" and kills following complaints, such as when a rancher reports that a wolf or other carnivore has attacked livestock.
She said that methods of killing can include traps placed on public property, aerial gunning and poisons.
Seeker reached out to Wildlife Services, but as of this writing, has not received a reply. Spokesperson Lyndsay Cole previously told The Washington Post that "Wildlife Services is dedicated to resolving human and wildlife conflicts with the most up-to-date information and best scientific analysis available." Cole also confirmed that the program has "begun the process of developing a new" assessment.
Cotton said that the 1994 document does not take into account the latest science, such as on wolves and coyotes. She explained that for wolves, research has shown that killing them "undermines their pack structure, creating the equivalent of unruly teenagers prone to more problematic behaviors."
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Studies have shown that when coyote populations are culled, the animals ramp up breeding, which can actually lead to higher coyote populations overall.
A growing trend has been for farmers, ranchers and others to co-exist with wildlife after initiating measures to prevent wildlife-related problems. These can include fladry, which refers to mounting suspended strips of fabric or colored flags on fencing, turbo fladry (an electronic version), solar-powered electric fencing, having dogs patrol their properties and other deterrents.
B Bar Ranch in Montana, for example, has as one of its stated goals: "preserving habitat and allowing free passage for the myriad of wildlife species that reside or travel through the ranch."
Bar C R Ranch in California has similar goals. Rancher Keli Hendricks admits that some loss to natural predators will happen, but she and her husband are advocates of non-lethal controls to address the mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes in their region. They participate in the organization Project Coyote that works to promote coexistence between people and wildlife.
Cotton hopes that Wildlife Services will take these kinds of less lethal approaches to controlling wild predators in the future.
Cotton practices what she preaches. This past Sunday she encountered a black bear in her Montana yard. She explained, "My neighbors were smoking meat outside the day before and that attracted the bear," which she left alone and the bear has since left the area.
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