SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. Department of Agriculture will stop using aerial gunning, poisons, and other lethal methods to kill wild animals in Northern California as it reviews its culling program under the terms of a new settlement.
To resolve a lawsuit brought by environmental groups earlier this year, the federal agency agreed to ban those killing methods in 16 Northern California counties while it completes an environmental impact review by Dec. 31, 2023.
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.
In June, six environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity sued the USDA, claiming its program unintentionally kills thousands of non-targeted protected animals, including gray wolves, bobcats, and grizzly bears.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup approved the settlement agreement on Wednesday.
“This is a big victory for California wildlife targeted by this federal program’s horrifically destructive war on animals,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Collette Adkins said in a statement Wednesday. “We’ve saved hundreds of animals that would have suffered and died in traps set by Wildlife Services over the next several years.”
While it reviews the impact of its program, the USDA agreed to ban the use of leghold traps, strangulation snares, poisons, lead ammunition and aerial gunning to kill wolves, coyotes, cougars, birds and other wild animals.
The agency has also agreed to abide by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommendations from 2014 to protect California’s endangered gray wolves from being accidentally killed in traps set for other carnivores.
“Wolves are just starting to return to their native habitats in Northern California, and this settlement provides needed interim protections to protect wolves while a detailed environmental study examines whether lethal wildlife ‘management’ options should even be on the table,” said Kristin Ruether of co-plaintiff Western Watersheds Project.
According to USDA data cited in the environmental groups’ lawsuit, Wildlife Services killed 2.7 million animals across the United States in fiscal year 2016. That includes 415 gray wolves; 76,963 adult coyotes and an unknown number of coyote pups in 430 destroyed dens; 407 black bears; 334 mountain lions; 997 bobcats; 535 river otters; 3,791 foxes, plus an unknown number of fox pups in 128 dens; 21,184 beavers; 14,654 prairie dogs and an unknown number killed in more than 68,000 destroyed or fumigated burrows.
Plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit in June include the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Project Coyote/Earth Island Institute, Animal Welfare Institute, and Wildearth Guardians.
USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said the settlement won’t impact the agency’s ability to protect from wild animals.
“While the settlement conditions may affect the use of certain tools in some areas of the state, [Wildlife Services-California] believes the changes do not restrict our ability to protect agriculture, property, natural resources, or public health and safety in California,” Espinosa said in an email Thursday.