Three conservation groups are asking a federal court to stop Wildlife Services from killing coyotes in Idaho until the agency analyzes the environmental impacts of that activity on local areas, especially in the south-central part of the state.
Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, carries out lethal-control activities against animals deemed a threat to agriculture, including livestock. In 2018, the last year for which numbers from the agency are publicly available, it killed 2,903 coyotes in Idaho.
In November 2016, Wildlife Services released a new environmental assessment of its predator-control activities in Idaho, which included a proposal to expand those activities to include requests from agencies to kill predators that eat game animals and legally protected species. The assessment did not address Wildlife Services’ killing of wolves, which is done under a separate environmental analysis.
Four conservation groups, inclu-
ding Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, responded by filing a lawsuit in federal court arguing that Wildlife Services should have prepared an environmental impact statement, of EIS, which is a more comprehensive study.
In an opinion handed down in June 2018, the judge in the case agreed, but declined to enter conditions restricting Wildlife Services’ activities or impose a deadline for completion of an EIS. In their recent complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Idaho on May 7, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, based in Santa Fe, N.M., and Predator Defense, based in Eugene, Ore., pointed out that Wildlife Services has not committed to a deadline for completing an EIS and has indicated that it will take about five years.
“Given Wildlife Services’ history of delay, even in a best-case scenario, this means the EIS will likely not be completed until 2024,” the complaint states.
In the meantime, the groups argue, the agency’s lethal-control actions of predators in Idaho should be suspended. Their complaint urges the court declare Wildlife Services’ predatory killing activities in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and states that the plaintiffs will subsequently request a restraining order to suspend those activities.
“This lawsuit is intended to ensure federal agencies comply with their legal duty to analyze and disclose to the public all effects of their actions before they take those actions,” Laurie Rule of Advocates for the West, an environmental law firm representing the three plaintiffs, said in a press release. “Wildlife Services and the land management agencies have failed to fulfill that duty, leaving the public uninformed about the true impacts of Wildlife Service’s predator killing in Idaho.”
The complaint notes that a significant portion of Wildlife Services’ coyote killing occurs in southern Idaho and, in particular, on the BLM’s Twin Falls District, which encompasses the Shoshone, Burley and Jarbidge field offices. The Shoshone District encompas-ses southern Blaine County.
The plaintiffs state that using Wildlife Services’ method of estimating coyote populations in Idaho, the Twin Falls District is home to about 3,657 coyotes.
“If Wildlife Services’ assumptions about Idaho’s coyote population are accurate, Wildlife Services and private hunters and trappers combined likely eradicated almost 60 percent of the coyote population on the Twin Falls District in 2017, 2016, and 2014, and almost 50 percent in 2013,” the complaint states. “Killing such a large proportion of the coyote population on a yearly basis for numerous years in a row is certainly affecting the population, the social structure of individual packs, as well as the ecological environment on the Twin Falls District.
“Wildlife Services has never discussed the impacts of removing 50 percent or more of a coyote population for multiple years in a row, because it has never assessed the site-specific direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of its operations targeting coyotes on the Twin Falls District or elsewhere in Idaho.”
The environmental groups also claim that indiscriminate killing of coyotes doesn’t work to reduce livestock losses. They state in their complaint that territorial breeding adults are responsible for most livestock depredations, and removals of nondepredating coyotes can exacerbate problems by creating vacancies to be filled by new “breeders” that might kill livestock or by younger, more desperate “floater” coyotes.
“Wildlife Services cannot simply proceed with these futile actions without first addressing this contrary science,” Western Watersheds Project attorney Talasi Brooks said in the press release.
The complaint also names the U.S. Forest Service and BLM as defendants. It claims that the federal agencies, in particular the BLM’s Twin Falls District Office, are violating the National Environmental Policy Act by authorizing predator killing on land they manage without conducting any site-specific NEPA analysis or assessing whether the activities comply with federal land-use plans and other federal laws.
The lawsuit challenges Wildlife Services’ operation of its Pocatello Supply Depot, which manufactures M-44 spring-loaded cyanide devices and other poisons for killing wildlife. The complaint states that the agency does so without having undertaken a detailed analysis of the poisons’ public health risks or environmental consequences nationwide. The plaintiffs note that an M-44 manufactured by the Pocatello Supply Depot and set on public lands to kill coyotes near Pocatello injured a child and killed his dog in 2017. Shortly after, Wildlife Services announced a moratorium on use of the devices in Idaho.
Wildlife Services’ 2018 Idaho report states that its agents killed 375 coyotes with guns, 1,804 from planes, 303 from helicopters, 175 in neck snares and 246 in foothold traps.
Asked if the agency would like to respond to the lawsuit’s claims, a spokeswoman for Wildlife Services said it does not comment on pending litigation.
Idaho Wool Growers Association President John Noh said a suspension of predator control activities would have a significant effect on sheep ranchers.
“It’s pretty black and white in my instance that predator control works and works well,” Noh said.
Noh said he turns out 2,900 lambs onto BLM land southwest of Twin Falls every spring, the same time coyotes are denning and seeking food for pups. He said that in most years, with predator control, he loses 30-50 lambs to coyotes, but in years with little or no control he has lost 200-300.
He said the lethal-control activities have been “pretty site-specific to my area.”
Noh said he employs nonlethal methods as well, including guard dogs and wire fences.
“We try to find a balance so that everybody and everything can survive,” he said.