Monterey County Sued for Killing Animals

     MONTEREY, Calif. (CN) — Six animal rights and environmental groups sued Monterey County, claiming it indiscriminately slaughters wildlife to protect its farm products, without any “state oversight or any environmental investigation or analysis.”
     Monterey County, “the Nation’s Salad Bowl,” grows more than 150 crops, including more than half the nation’s lettuce, and more than one-third of the broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and strawberries eaten in the United States.
     To keep it all safe from contamination, the county contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs a “lethal predator program … that targets and exterminates wildlife within Monterey County,” the Animal Legal Defense Fund et al. say in the June 1 complaint in Monterey County Court.
     They seek writ of mandate setting aside the county’s decision to continue the program, and an environmental review.
     Monterey County has had repeated problems with food safety, including recalls and E. coli found just about every 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 then that many agricultural fields in Monterey are close to and below hillside cattle-grazing pastures. 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.
     “(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 Tara Zuardo, wildlife attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute, said that sources of contamination have varied and have included human sewage, infected farmworkers, and farm animals.
     “In terms of the E. coli outbreak in 2006, that was traced to a strain isolated from domestic cattle and feral swine. Although there have been concerns about wild animal intrusion/defecation, in fact, Wildlife Services’ program does not distinctly control for this issue — as its methods and how it chooses which animals to target/kill are indiscriminate and not based on targeting the elimination of one specific bacterial outbreak,” Zuardo said.
     Lynn Cullens, associate director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, said his organization is aware of the food safety issues, but that the county and USDA should use “non-lethal tools that result in long-term exclusion rather than the temporary, ineffective and inhumane action of killing wild animals only to see them repopulate the area and continue to depredate, creating a vicious cycle that is potentially injurious to people, domestic animals and wild animals alike.”
     Zuardo said the USDA program is not even being carried out to keep animals out of crops, but to “indiscriminately eliminate predators (such as coyotes) due to bias against them.”
     More than 3,000 animals have been killed in Monterey County since 2010, according to the complaint, which says that number is not “even a fraction of the non-target animals they catch.”
     The complaint cites articles by Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson, who wrote that Wildlife Services has killed nearly a million coyotes, mostly in the West, and has accidentally killed black bears, river otters, ravens, bobcats, foxes, bald eagles and other species. In 2012 Knudson reported that poison placed near roads had killed more than 1,100 dogs. Eighteen people also were exposed to chemicals, including a hunter trying to get his dog out of a poisonous trap.
     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. A similar lawsuit was filed in Idaho Federal Court last week, challenging the massive slaughters of wolves.
     According to the Monterey County complaint: “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.”
     Monterey County Counsel Charles McKee said the wildlife control program is meant to strike a balance between protecting wildlife and the food supply. He said he is not sure how much power the county has in how it is run.
     “We have some negotiation with the contract, but obviously that is going to be limited,” McKee said, adding that he had not yet read the entire complaint and could not comment about specifics.
     Pam Boehland, public affairs specialist for the USDA, gave a nonresponsive answer to whether the county has any influence on the wildlife program.
     “It appears that USDA APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services] Wildlife Services is not named as a party in the lawsuit,” Boehland said. “I hope that helps.”
     According to the complaint, the county pays $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.
     The county claims it is exempt for “ministerial” reasons — that if a project carried out by a public agency was approved before Nov. 23, 1970, the project is exempt from CEQA.
     “We’ve always looked at it as a ministerial exemption,” McKee said.
     But the environmental groups say the county is subject to CEQA and that ministerial exemptions are limited to cases in which an environmental impact review would not make a difference, such as automobile registrations, dog licenses and marriage licenses.
     “Taxpayer dollars are used to fund these killing programs, and the programs are both ineffective and inhumane,” Cullens said. “A CEQA examination of county methods for resolving wildlife conflicts is beneficial in planning for long-term change.”
     Plaintiffs include 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.
     Their lead counsel is Katherine Henderson, with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in San Francisco, who did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

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