By Ann McCreary
A lawsuit seeking to prevent the federal Wildlife Services program from killing wolves in Washington was filed on behalf of five conservation organizations in federal court on Tuesday (March 3).
The lawsuit claims that Wildlife Services, a federal program involved in wildlife management and conflict resolution, violated federal law by not preparing an adequately detailed environmental analysis of the impacts of killing wolves that attack livestock in Washington.
The suit asks the court to prohibit Wildlife Services from conducting any wolf management in the state until a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is completed.
Wildlife Services is an agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with a stated mission of providing “Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.”
According to the lawsuit filed by the Western Environmental Law Center, Wildlife Services was involved as a consultant with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) during the lethal removal of seven wolves in the Wedge Pack as a result of attacks on cattle. That action was widely condemned by conservation groups.
In 2014 Wildlife Services was contracted with WDFW to remove members of the Huckleberry Pack, with instructions not to kill the alpha male or female (the breeding pair) of the pack. On Aug. 23, Wildlife Services staff shot and killed the alpha female “despite explicit instructions from WDFW not to shoot the alpha female,” the lawsuit said.
Dave Ware, wolf policy lead for WDFW, said Tuesday the department was not ready to comment on the lawsuit. “We’re still evaluating the suit,” he said.
The complaint filed in court states that an Environmental Assessment for Gray Wolf Damage Management in Washington completed by Wildlife Services last year does not adequately address consequences of lethal removal of wolves.
In particular, Wildlife Services did not consider new information presented in a scientific paper published in December 2014, which concluded that killing wolves actually leads to an increase in wolf-livestock conflicts, according to the lawsuit.
Effects of killing
The paper, by wildlife researcher Robert Wielgus of Washington State University, examined the effects of killing wolves in an effort to reduce attacks on livestock. It evaluated sheep and cattle depredations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming over a 25-year period from 1987-2012.
The study, titled “Effects of Wolf Mortality on Livestock Depredations,” examined the number of livestock depredated, livestock populations, wolf population estimates, number of breeding wolf pairs, and the number of wolves killed.
“We found that the number of livestock depredated the following year was positively, not negatively, associated with the number of wolves killed the previous year,” Wielgus wrote. The odds of livestock depredations increased 4-6 percent after higher numbers of wolves were killed.
“Lethal control of individual depredating wolves may sometimes be necessary to stop depredations in the near-term, but we recommend that non-lethal alternatives also be considered,” Wielgus said in the paper.
Plaintiffs provided wildlife Services a copy of the study before they filed suit, and asked Wildlife Services to prepare a supplemental environmental analysis to address the findings of the research. Wildlife Services has not done so, the lawsuit said.
“This study represents significant new information that requires defendants to supplement the … environmental assessment,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit claims the environmental analysis did not consider all reasonable alternatives, including prohibiting Wildlife Services from being involved in wolf management in Washington.
The environmental assessment does not address ecological effects of killing wolves in Washington, including impacts on wolf populations in neighboring states and Canada, and on other animals, the lawsuit said.
Because the agency’s actions in wolf management are likely to have “significant” impacts on the environment, an EIS should be prepared, the lawsuit said.
In a news release announcing the lawsuit, Cascadia Wildlands — one of the plaintiffs — said that Wildlife Services kills about 4 million animals per year “with almost no oversight or accountability.”
The release said the program’s “practices and effectiveness are the focus of an ongoing investigation by the USDA’s Inspector General.”
“This program has no place in Washington where the people have tasked the state’s agencies to facilitate wolf recovery and conservation,” said Nick Cady of Cascadia Wildlands.
Wildlife Services conducts investigations into livestock depredations in Washington and assists WDFW in conducting investigations, according to the lawsuit.
“Since 2012 the majority of depredation investigations conducted or assisted by Wildlife Service in Washington have concluded that wolves were responsible for the killing or injuring of livestock,” the complaint said.
Wolves in Washington are managed under a state Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. The most recent WDFW estimate put the state’s wolf population at 52 known wolves in 13 known packs.
Wolves are listed as an endangered species under Washington law throughout the state. In 2011, wolves in the eastern third of Washington were removed from federal protections under the Endangered Species Act. Wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington, including the Methow Valley, continue to be protected under the ESA and are classified a federally endangered species.
The Methow Valley’s Lookout Pack was confirmed in 2008 as the first wolf pack in the state in more than 30 years. The pack was once as large as 10 animals but by 2010 was nearly decimated by poaching. It has since grown and at the end of last year, biologists believed the pack had four adults and one pup.
Western Environmental Law Center is representing Cascadia Wildlands, WildEarth Guardians, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Predator Defense, and The Lands Council in the lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle