SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture will stop using pesticides on mammals and limit the use of lead bullets, aerial gunning and body-gripping traps to kill wild animals in 10 California counties under the terms of a settlement approved Monday.
“This victory will save hundreds of animals that would have needlessly suffered and died in traps set by Wildlife Services over the next several years,” said Collette Adkins, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity representing three wildlife groups that sued the USDA last year.
The deal builds on a prior settlement reached in 2017 in which the USDA agreed to similar restrictions for its wildlife culling program in 16 other California counties.
The USDA’s multimillion-dollar Wildlife Services program uses several techniques including targeted animal killings to protect agriculture, livestock, natural resources, and properties like airports from wild animals.
Three wildlife groups sued the USDA in August 2019 claiming its reliance on an outdated environmental assessment from 1997 for its predator killing program in 10 counties violates the National Environmental Policy Act.
Wildlife Services killed 26,441 native animals in California in 2018, including 3,826 coyotes, 859 beavers, 170 foxes, 83 mountain lions, 105 black bears and 5,675 birds, according to USDA data cited in the lawsuit.
Reached by phone, Adkins said this and other lawsuits aim to push the government to prioritize using nonlethal means to prevent conflicts with wildlife before resorting to deadly force.
“We know these killing methods, they don’t work,” Adkins said. “They’re expensive and they’re indiscriminate, putting in danger wildlife, pets and other non-targets at risk.”
Like the settlement reached in 2017, the USDA agreed to abide by a host of restrictions for its wildlife killing program until it completes a statewide environmental impact review by Dec. 31, 2023.
While that review is underway, the USDA will ban the use of pesticides to target mammals and stop using lead bullets unless it can retrieve carcasses to prevent lead from entering the environment. The USDA will also halt the use of aerial gunning and body-gripping traps in wildlife refuges and other important wilderness areas.
“Wilderness refuges are known as places where people can experience solitude,” Adkins said. “Having a helicopter thundering by and shooting coyotes is really antithetical to the wilderness values of solitude.”
For body-gripping traps used anywhere in the 10 California counties, the USDA also agreed to check traps daily so captured or dead animals don’t attract other predators, Adkins added.
The deal further requires the USDA to start using “best efforts” to document its use of nonlethal methods to deter predators, such as fox lights, guard dogs and flag-lined ropes or wires. Adkins said this will allow wildlife groups to determine if the USDA is prioritizing nonlethal deterrents as it has pledged to do in public statements.
Additionally the agreement bans the use of the bird-killing toxin DRC-1339 in areas occupied by tricolored blackbirds, which are considered a threatened species under California law.
“I’m particularly proud of the provision that limits the use of that avian poison in areas where the tricolored black bird lives,” Adkins said. “That endangered bird flocks with other black birds that are targeted by Wildlife Services.”
The settlement also includes protections for beavers and beaver dams that can benefit endangered fish. Studies have shown beavers can help endangered salmon and steelhead by building ponds with natural cover and food for the fish. Endangered frogs and birds, including Oregon spotted frogs and southwestern willow flycatchers, also rely on wetland habitats formed by beaver dams.
“We’re hoping to get Wildlife Services to recognize the ecological importance of beavers by requiring that they don’t kill beavers in areas where endangered wildlife depend on the habitat that beavers create,” Adkins said.
In response to a notice of intent to sue, the USDA pledged in July 2019 to stop shooting and trapping California beavers on more than 11,000 miles of river and 4 million acres of land where it could harm endangered wildlife.
The newly approved settlement makes the USDA’s prior pledge enforceable in court, Adkins said.
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Project Coyote, a project of the nonprofit Earth Island Institute.
The settlement applies to 10 California counties in USDA Wildlife Services’ Sacramento District. The district includes Colusa, El Dorado, Lake, Marin, Napa, Placer, Sacramento, Solano, Sonoma and Yolo counties.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler approved the proposed settlement hours after it was filed on Monday.
USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said the agency is “currently working on preparing a statewide environmental impact statement. In the meantime, the agency looks forward to continuing to provide requested wildlife damage management assistance in accordance with the settlement agreement.”