MONTEREY, Calif. (CN) — A lawsuit challenging a federally run wildlife control program that protects Monterey's County farm produce will move forward after a state judge denied the county's motion to dismiss Monday.
Monterey County, "the Nation's Salad Bowl," is a significant source of the U.S. food supply. It grows more than 150 crops, including more than half of the lettuce and more than a third of the broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and strawberries eaten in the United States.
To keep that food safe from contamination, the county contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs what animal rights and environmental groups call a "lethal predator program ... that targets and exterminates wildlife within Monterey County."
The six plaintiff groups claim in their June 1 complaint in Monterey County Court that the county pays the USDA $100,000 a year to run the program, and that the contract is renewed without environmental review, which is required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
In its motion to dismiss, Monterey County said that because the USDA administers the program, there is no need to comply with CEQA. It also said the USDA should be named as a defendant and that the statute of limitations to challenge the program has expired.
Superior Court Judge Lydia Villarreal did not explain why she denied the motion to dismiss.
Animal Welfare Institute attorney Tara Zuardo said the county's arguments were flawed and that it is not a federal program.
"Our goal is to get the county to comply with CDEQA and consider nonlethal alternatives. It's about just getting them to comply with the basics," Zuardo said.
Monterey County has had some notable issues with food safety, with recalls and E. coli being found just about each year in farm products. The worst was in 2006, when an outbreak of E. coli poisoning linked to spinach killed three people and hospitalized more than 100.
The Centers for Disease Control found that many Monterey crop fields are on valley floors beneath hillside cattle grazing pastures. Fecal samples from cattle and wild pigs matched the strain found in patients. The CDC concludes that pigs wandering down to fields from the pastures carried the bacteria with them.
"(The program) keeps wildlife out of the fields, keeps the populations of wild boars and coyotes that cause the nuisances and the dangers in check. This is absolutely about food safety," said Norm Groot, president of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.
But the lawsuit questions the methods used — including snare traps, leghold traps and poison that may maim but not kill animals and make them suffer.
"These methods are recognized in several countries throughout the world, including several jurisdictions in the United States, as being inherently cruel. For example, leghold traps are considered particularly inhuman because trapped animals frantically struggle to free themselves, both by attempting to pull the trapped limb out of the device and by chewing at the trap itself or even their own limbs," the groups said in the complaint.
More than 3,000 animals have been killed in Monterey County since 2010, according to documentation cited in the complaint, which adds that those numbers are not "even a fraction of the non-target animals they catch."
The complaint cites stories by Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson, who wrote that U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services has killed nearly 1 million coyotes, mostly in the West, accidentally killing black bears, river otters, ravens, bobcats, foxes, bald eagles and other species along the way. In 2012, Knudson reported that poison placed near roads had killed more than 1,100 dogs. Eighteen people were exposed to chemicals, including a hunter trying to get his dog out of a poisonous trap.
The plaintiffs are the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Mountain Lion Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Project Coyote/Earth Island Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Monterey County resident Marlene Attell.
They seek writ of mandate to set aside the county's decision to continue the program, and requiring an environmental review.
"Our goal is to get them to comply with CEQA and consider nonlethal alternatives. It's about at least having a chance for counties to consider these nonlethal alternatives," Zuardo said.
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