Ninth Circuit Considers Government Oversight of Hunting Competitions

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – In an Idaho forest, the Girls Scouts need a permit to hold a camping event. But the government says no permit – or the accompanying oversight – is needed for a weekend-long “predator derby” in which hundreds compete to kill wolves, coyotes and weasels. On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit heard arguments about whether to change that.

An anti-wolf group that calls itself Idaho for Wildlife held two two-day events it publicized as “predator derbies” outside of Salmon, Idaho, in December 2013 and January 2015.

Hunters didn’t kill any wolves on either weekend, but they still competed for prizes based on who killed the most coyotes, skunks, weasels, jackrabbits, raccoons and starlings.

Before holding the second hunting competition, Idaho for Wildlife applied for a five-year permit to hold its event for up to 250 participants on private land and federal or state land, including land managed by the Forest Service.

Charles Mark, forest supervisor for Salmon-Challis National Forest, told the group it didn’t need a permit, since the event was not held solely on Forest Service land and because Idaho for Wildlife did not charge a fee for hunters to participate, nor did it offer equipment or services to the hunters.

Wildearth Guardians sued in November 2015, claiming the Forest Service should regulate the derby under its rules requiring permits for events of 75 or more people.

Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush tossed the lawsuit in March 2017. He found that Wildearth Guardians had standing to pursue its claims, but the Forest Service was within its rights to interpret its own regulation. Mark’s decision “had a reasonable basis as its underpinning,” according to Bush.

“The court may not overturn a decision simply because it disagrees with the decision or with the agency’s conclusions about environmental impacts,” Bush added.

Wildearth appealed, and on Wednesday a panel for the Ninth Circuit consisting of U.S. Circuit Judges Kim McLane Wardlaw and John B. Owens and Senior U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow heard arguments.

Appearing on behalf of Wildearth Guardians, Andrea Santarsiere with the Center for Biological Diversity told the panel that requiring a permit would minimize public danger by directing the hunt away from other planned events, like family reunions or dog shows. The Forest Service could also require the group to post signs for the derby.

Currently, Santarsiere said, the Forest Service requires public notice for Girl Scouts camping events, but not for the Predator Derby.

“Under the Forest Service’s interpretation of its regulations,” Santarsiere said, “there would be public notice and a permit for a Girl Scouts camp or a religious gathering that has 75 or more people, but no public notice for this derby, that could potentially have more impacts to other recreational users and public safety than I would argue a Girl Scouts camp might.”

Christine England, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho, told the panel that the government considers the issue moot, since the two events are in the past.

“We’ve gone through three seasons with no other derby like this event proposed by any group,” England said, “and no organization has suggested to the Forest Service that they would hold another one.”

Idaho for Wildlife’s executive director said in a letter to the district court that the group considers the derby an annual event, but “has not yet determined whether it will hold another derby.”

But the issue is larger than any event held by Idaho for Wildlife, Santarsiere said, since other groups could hold their own unpermitted derbies if the court does not act.

Santarsiere also pointed to a news article in which the executive director for Idaho for Wildlife said he was considering holding several future derbies around Idaho based on the federal court’s ruling in the Forest Service’s favor.

Santarsiere suggested the Forest Service might have decided not to require a permit for the derby so it wouldn’t have to issue an environmental assessment, since regulations under the Council on Environmental Quality state that actions approved by a permit “generally do constitute major federal action requiring compliance with NEPA.”

Under the Forest Service’s own regulations, Santarsiere said the agency is required to comply with NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) when issuing a special use permit – which would force the agency to assess the event’s environmental impact.

Should the appeals court find for the government in this case, group hunting competitions like the predator derby could proliferate, Santarsiere noted.

“If this court finds that no permit is required, then in the future derby contestants and organizers will not apply for a permit from the Forest Service because they will be under the impression that they don’t need one,” Santarsiere said. “So the public will have absolutely no notice of these derbies.”

The panel did not indicate when it would issue a ruling.

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