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Calif. County Suspends Wildlife Trapping Plan

UKIAH, Calif. (CN) — Under intense pressure from a coalition of environmental groups over a controversial program that traps and kills wildlife, Mendocino County agreed to suspend the federal program and conduct environmental testing.

Wednesday's settlement comes in response to a lawsuit challenging the county's decision to renew a $144,000 annual contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's trapping program without conducting an impact study or assessing nonlethal predator control methods.

A coalition of environmental groups says Wildlife Services, a unit of the Agriculture Department, kills as many as 3 million native animals every year using traps and poisons, including more than 47,000 in California annually, according to reports.

While the program targets stray dogs and predators that can threaten livestock, endangered animals such as eagles and condors and even household pets are sometimes taken as collateral damage.

The coalition, led by the Animal Welfare Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity, said the settlement is a landmark victory for opponents of animal cruelty.

"We are hopeful that this step is the beginning of officials considering more effective approaches that don't involve routine slaughter of vast numbers of wildlife," said Tara Zuardo, wildlife attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute.

According to federal data, Wildlife Services exterminated 796 bobcats, 580 black bears and nearly 62,000 coyotes in the fiscal year 2014.

Mendocino County first agreed to do an environmental study and reassess the program in 2014 in order to settle a previous lawsuit with the environmental coalition. However, the county claimed it was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and renewed the federal program without holding up its end of the original settlement.

The environmental groups countered with another lawsuit, accusing the county of falsely claiming a CEQA exemption and not considering nonlethal methods of animal control, such as guard dogs and fences to protect livestock from predators like mountain lions and coyotes.

The county has used the Wildlife Services program for over three decades and says trapping is vital to protecting ranching throughout the county's 700,000 acres of pasture land.

Nearby Marin and Sonoma Counties have already replaced the program due to pressure from wildlife groups. Marin County nixed the program in 2000 and began offering ranchers grants up to $2000 to help build and improve fences to protect livestock.

California voters overwhelmingly passed stringent trapping restrictions through Proposition 4 in 1998. The initiative banned the use of sodium cyanide in trapping operations and steel-jawed traps.

The Center for Biological Diversity said officials in other counties should take note of the Mendocino lawsuit.

"We believe all counties must follow the law as Mendocino County has agreed to do in this case," Cynthia Elkins, spokeswoman for the center, said. "Any county can and should expect the same challenge we brought here if it employs Wildlife Services without examining and mitigating the impacts of such a heavy death toll."

Under the settlement terms, the county makes no admissions of wrongdoing but agrees to repay the coalition more than $25,000 in attorneys' fees.

Mendocino County will also meet with the coalition during the environmental review process, issue monthly updates and discuss nonlethal methods with coalition specialists.

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