Somewhere in America, a wild animal is about to die.
Last year, 3.2 million animals were killed. Over the past 10 years, the toll surpasses 35 million. But a recent settlement reached at a federal court in Nevada might one day dramatically lower these numbers. A small animal rights group, WildEarth Guardians, argued in a lawsuit that the science in an analysis that Wildlife Services uses to justify its kills in state wilderness and wilderness study areas is out of date, and the agency settled by agreeing to an update that will probably take two years.
Until the new analysis is drafted, debated in public forms and finalized, Wildlife Services will not operate in 6 million acres of Nevada wilderness — remote areas where no roads exist. “They will send instruction to everyone who works for them that they can no longer use that assessment,” said Bethany Cotton, the wildlife program director for WildEarth. “They will post that commitment on their website. That’s why this has much broader implications than just Nevada.”
“I think it’s a significant shift in how the program operates, and my hope is that officials will embrace the science and the modern ethics around the treatment of wildlife,” Cotton said.
WildEarth Guardians, based in New Mexico, told the court that some of the the science in the analysis used by Wildlife Services, which often kills animals such as coyotes and weasels at the request of farmers and ranchers, is 80 years old and does not reflect how foresters and biologists view wilderness today. The court declined to grant the government’s motion to dismiss the case, saying instead that WildEarth demonstrated that its interests were being harmed, Cotton said.
The settlement was certified the first week of October and announced by WildEarth this week. Wildlife Services would not discuss the court case when representatives were contacted, but a spokeswoman, Lyndsay Cole, released a statement acknowledging that the agency has “begun the process of developing a new” assessment known as the National Environmental Policy Act for managing statewide predator damage in Nevada.
“Wildlife Services is dedicated to resolving human and wildlife conflicts with the most up-to-date information and best scientific analysis available,” Cole wrote.
Like other conservationists, Cotton said Wildlife Service’s efforts to remove harmful invasive and nuisance species from the wild is vital. Birds at airports smash into planes. Hoards of blackbirds are known to menace cattle and steal their feed. Vultures often pour into suburban communities for warmth in winter. Feral cats roam the streets, killing nearly a billion birds each year.
“But we object to their killings of native animals,” she said. “They admitted killing 17 domestic dogs because they use traps, and they’re indiscriminate.”
The analysis, conservationists have long argued, fails to take into account the benefits of predators the agency kills, such as wolves, Cotton said. When wolves that had all but disappeared from the West were reintroduced into the wild a few years ago, they triggered a cascade effect that improved the health of the landscape.
Herds of elk and deer, on which wolves prey, are forced to move rather than shelter in a single place, where they denude areas of leafy vegetation that smaller animals need to survive. Deer and sheep munching everything in sight in a single location throws a habitat out of balance, because mice disappear for lack of shelter, leaving less food for birds of prey, foxes and other predators.
When wolves bring down a deer or elk carcass, hungry bears benefit by stealing it. Killing wolves based on outdated science ignored other key biological realities, Cotton said. Removing key members of a pack often leaves it shorthanded and unable to take down big prey.
And taking out coyotes in an attempt to reduce a pack only results in making it bigger. When male and female pack leaders are removed, every female in the pack is available to mate when they go into heat, resulting in a bumper crop of the canids.
It’s not just outdated science that has raised concerns about Wildlife Services. Some members of Congress have said its operations should be more transparent. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) called the agency opaque last year, saying: “We’re really not sure what they’re doing. I’ve asked the agency to give me breakdowns on what lethal methods they’re using. They can’t or won’t do that.”
Wildlife Services has existed under various names for more than 100 years. Its original mandate was to remove dangerous animals, particularly those that threatened western expansion. Its operations clears nuisance animals at more than 800 airports.
But conservationists say the agency is guilty of mission creep. “They’re now killing predators to boost populations of elk and big sheep for hunters, and that’s outside their normal operations historically,” said Andrew Wetzler, a deputy chief at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
There are larger concerns. Two years ago, the agency was criticized when one agent, Jamie Olson, posted pictures on Facebook showing his dogs attacking and mauling a coyote caught in a trap — blatant animal cruelty, one rights group charged.
Shortly after, a Wildlife Services trapper, Russell Files, was apprehended in Arizona for intentionally snaring a neighbor’s dog in a steel trap. The pet lost 17 teeth trying to chew off its leg before it was rescued.
Wetzler is among those who said he believes “that not everything this agency does is bad.” But it has no business operating in wilderness areas, and the settlement forced by WildEarth Guardians will be valuable if Wildlife Services abides by it.
“Hopefully the settlement will prompt them to stop,” he said. “Time will tell what the ripple effects will be, but it’s really good for the state of Nevada.”