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A judge ripped this federal agency’s justification for killing thousands of wild animals

Officials with the federal Wildlife Services and the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game watch over a tranquilized black bear in Hanover, N.H., in April. The bear was tranquilized so she could be fitted with a radio collar and an ear tag. (Jennifer Hauck/Valley News/AP)
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A federal agency’s justification for killing thousands of animals in Idaho was faulted by a U.S. District Court on Monday as “not convincing and objective” because it failed to take “the required ‘hard look’ at concerns” raised by others, including sister government agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, regarding the potential harm to the environment.

The decision by Chief District Judge B. Lynn Winmill could have a broader impact on the federal Wildlife Services, a division of the Agriculture Department that removes and kills millions of animals each year. Coyotes, wolves, grizzly bears, beavers, blackbirds, mountain lions, foxes and a wide range of others identified as nuisance animals are slain on behalf of ranchers, farmers, homeowners and airport operators — actions that are routinely challenged by environmentalists.

Winmill agreed with a suit brought by the Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Predator Defense, which argued that Wildlife Services gave itself broad authority to destroy native predators in Idaho without conducting a scientific review of how such kills would affect the ecosystem. The court said officials dismissed concerns even when other agencies charged with environmental conservation — the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Idaho Department of Fish and Game — said the rationale given “was not an objective analysis of the environmental impacts.”

“The criticisms … make this a unique case,” Winmill said. “It is rare for the court to encounter such unanimity of critical comments from other agencies.”

Under federal law, “an agency may use a convincing and objective analysis to reject criticisms and refuse to prepare a full environmental impact statement,” he said. “But that was not done here.”

As a result, Winmill found “Wildlife Services acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.” Instead of issuing a final judgment, he ordered the division to work with the plaintiffs to establish a method for determining the impact of its animal control. The court will oversee that future negotiation.

“Wildlife Services will now have to fairly evaluate how killing thousands of coyotes in southern Idaho each year affects the environment,” Talasi Brooks, a staff attorney for Advocates for the West, which represented the groups, said in a statement Monday. “The opinion is a win for wildlife and a win for management based on modern science.”

Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, said in the statement: “Indiscriminately killing native carnivores does not achieve any of Wildlife Services’ stated goals. The next logical step is for Wildlife Services to pull its proverbial head out of the sand, accept the best available science and adopt a nonlethal coexistence mandate.”

Since the Hoover administration in the 1930s, Wildlife Services has entered into agreements with ranchers, farmers, private industry and states, which pay the majority of the agency’s costs of removing animals viewed as a threat. The agency has responded to past criticism by saying it works to strategically resolve human and wildlife conflicts and its activities have increased because those conflicts have.

In 2016, the agency pointed to a USDA inspector-general audit to defend its methods. Investigators said an audit “did not reveal problems with wildlife damage management activities, or with WS’ system for tracking controlled materials. WS’ actions in these areas complied with all applicable Federal and State laws and regulations.”

But at least two members of Congress have complained about the agency’s failure to provide information about its justifications and methods for killing animals.

Some conservation groups readily acknowledge that Wildlife Services has a role in wildlife management. Yet when asked for data, the amount of poison used and where, the agency has declined to divulge information. Watchdog groups that wanted to evaluate how the agency conducted aerial hunts of animals such as wolves were stonewalled.

Conservationists have pressed Wildlife Services to better study how eliminating predators harms the environment. Without apex predators to take down big game such as moose, deer and elk, herds grow and linger in small areas, trampling and chewing flora that a wide variety of other animals need to live.

“The court pointed out that Wildlife Services ignored key science on the impacts of wildlife-killing, as well as nearly unanimous critical comments from sister agencies,” Kristin Ruether, senior attorney for the Western Watersheds Project, said in the statement Monday. “We’re going to keep fighting to stop Wildlife Services from killing our native wildlife in Idaho and across the West.”

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