Attorneys argue federal involvement should prompt

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

Several environmental groups claim they should be allowed to sue the USDA for assisting with cougar hunts in Oregon.

Last year, a federal judge in Portland ruled that several environmental groups lacked standing to file suit against the USDA, since Oregon's cougar management plan was launched by the state -- not the federal government.

Plaintiffs claim the USDA's Wildlife Services unit didn't sufficiently review the environmental impacts of helping the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reduce the state's cougar population.

The cougar management plan would allow the state to reduce the cougar population from about 5,700 to 3,000 to decrease the danger to humans and livestock.

In the complaint, plaintiffs characterized the strategy as "controversial, largely undocumented and fundamentally experimental in nature."

U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty dismissed the lawsuit in April 2009, ruling that cougars would be killed with or without USDA's help.

The plaintiffs appealed this decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the USDA's involvement causes more cougars to be killed more efficiently.

The high level of federal aid must be subject to environmental laws, just as federal financial assistance imposes restrictions on state highway construction, said Marianne Dugan, attorney for the plaintiffs.

"That has always been deemed a federalization of the project," Dugan said during oral arguments on May 3.

Ellen Durkee, an attorney representing the USDA, said that comparison doesn't work because the state can fund the cougar-reduction efforts without the federal government.

"The money the state gives would be used to hire different people," she said.

Plaintiffs in the case include Goat Ranchers of Oregon, an environmentally inclined livestock group, as well as the Center for Biological Diversity, the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Umpqua Watersheds, the Cascadia Wildlands Project and the Mountain Lion Foundation.

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