A plan by USDA to expand predator control activities in Idaho has been overturned by a federal judge who found it should undergo a more extensive environmental analysis.
The agency’s Wildlife Services division completed an “environmental assessment” in 2016 that would increase killing and removal of predators to benefit other wildlife in Idaho.
Chief U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill has now vacated that plan at the request of four environmental groups — Western Watersheds Project, Wildearth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity and Predator Defense — because it violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
However, the judge did not grant the plaintiffs’ request to limit Wildlife Service’s ability to kill coyotes and other predators and to prohibit the agency from using M-44 cyanide capsules, neck snares and body-gripping traps.
Instead, predator control in northern and central Idaho will be governed by an environmental assessment from 1996 and in southern Idaho by an environmental assessment from 2002, which the judge called “obviously outdated” and which the environmental groups will be allowed to challenge as part of a separate lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Wildlife Services must decide whether to complete a more extensive “environmental impact statement” for its 2016 proposal or to come up with another course of action, Winmill said.
Although the court will allow predator control in Idaho to be governed by the two older environmental assessments, the judge said “the agency must recognize that the age of these two EAs makes them weak support for any action."
Most requests for “direct control” assistance from Wildlife Services pertain to coyotes in Idaho, the judge said. “Coyotes kill more cattle and sheep in Idaho than any other predator, causing a substantial economic loss to ranchers.”
Windmill found that Wildlife Service violated NEPA in an earlier ruling because the agency didn’t take the required “hard look” at the ecological consequences of expanding lethal predator control.
Before the proposal was finalized in 2016, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game criticized the environmental assessment for not being objective in its analysis.
Representatives of the three agencies accused Wildlife Services of cherry-picking certain scientific reports while ignoring other studies that cast doubts on the efficacy of using lethal control to boost prey populations.
For example, the Forest Service and BLM both faulted the agency for not making site-specific findings about the effect on local coyote populations, since removals could occur in the same area for multiple years, the judge said.
“Their comments, the lack of reliable data, and the unconvincing responses from Wildlife Services, trigger three intensity factors that combine to require Wildlife Services to prepare an EIS,” Winmill said. “The factors of controversy, uncertainty, and unique lands, all weigh in favor of an EIS in this case.”