SALINAS, Calif. (CN) — Attorneys for a consortium of animal rights groups made their pitch to a Monterey County judge on Friday to stop a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to kill wild animals that roam into agricultural fields until more environmental review is done.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Welfare Institute, Mountain Lion Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Project Coyote/Earth Island Institute, and the Center for Biological Diversity joined Monterey County resident Marlene Attel in a lawsuit filed in June 2016 seeking to stop the program.
According to the complaint, the county pays about $100,000 to the USDA each year, and the decision to renew the contract is made without any environmental review as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. Instead, the county claims it is exempt for “ministerial” reasons – if a project being carried out by a public agency was approved prior to Nov. 23, 1970, the project is exempt from CEQA.
Monterey County, also known as “the Nation’s Salad Bowl” is a significant source of the U.S. food supply. It grows more than 150 types of crops, more than half of the lettuce, and over a third of the broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and strawberries eaten in the United States. But it 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 others.
According to an investigation of the incident by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many agricultural fields in Monterey are close to cattle-grazing pastures, situated on hillsides above the fields in the flatter valley floor. Fecal samples from cattle and wild pigs matched the strain found in patients and it was theorized that pigs wandering down to the fields from the pastures carried the contamination with them.
Every five years, Monterey County contracts with the USDA to trap and kill wild boars, coyotes and other animals in order to protect the food grown on the region’s farms. Local growers say the program is essential.
“It keeps wildlife out of the fields, keeps the populations of wild boars and coyotes that cause the nuisances and the dangers in check,” said Norm Groot, president of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.
But according to the complaint, the program is a “lethal predator program” that exterminates wildlife at alarming rates. More than 3,000 animals have been killed in Monterey County since 2010, according to documentation cited in the complaint, but it also charges that those numbers are not “even a fraction of the non-target animals they catch.” The lawsuit also questions the methods used, including snare traps, leghold traps and poison that may wind up just maiming an animal and making it suffer.
The arguments before Judge Lydia Villarreal in Monterey Superior Court on Friday focused mainly on when an environmental review would take place and whether the county was bound to the program after it signed a contract with the USDA. Monterey County Counsel Mike Whilden even conceded an environmental impact report should be done. However, the time to have asked for one was in 2013, when the county renewed its five-year contract with the USDA or when the contract expires in 2018, he said.
“We are going to do a full EIR on whether to continue the program, but it’s a question of timing,” Whilden said.
Christopher Mays and Mary Procaccio-Flowers of the firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto represent the plaintiffs. Mays told the judge that the county’s Board of Supervisors approves the expenditure each year and have the discretion to get out of the contract.
“In March 2016, the Board of Supervisors acted to reauthorize this program for $160,000. If the USDA was going to charge $1 million, would they have agreed? Of course not – this makes this a discretionary program and not a mandatory one,” he said. “Because they choose not to negotiate, doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to negotiate.”
Villarreal appeared skeptical of the plaintiffs’ claims. The complaint seeks a writ of mandate requiring a full environmental review before the program can continue. An additional request for declaratory relief was dismissed. Whilden also argued the USDA should be a party to the suit and complained vehemently.
“It’s not their right to leave out the USDA. We are handicapped without the USDA being a real party in this. They should have been named and now they are taking advantage of that,” Whilden told the judge.
When Mays asked to respond, Villarreal told him “No.”
Villareal closed discussion soon after this and said she would give her decision within 90 days.