County Violated California Environmental Quality Act
MENDOCINO, CA—Animal protection and conservation organizations filed suit today challenging Mendocino County’s contract renewal with Wildlife Services, a notorious federal wildlife-killing program that killed close to 3 million animals in the US in 2014.
“Mendocino County is using taxpayer money to kill its native wildlife, which is highly valued by many Mendocino residents,” said Elly Pepper, Natural Resources Defense Councilwildlife advocate. “Instead, it should put that money towards nonlethal practices, which preserve our native wildlife while effectively deterring predators from livestock.”
According to the complaint, the county’s renewal of the contract violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and a previously signed settlement agreement, in which the county agreed to comply with CEQA before renewing its contract with Wildlife Services. The coalition consists of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Project Coyote, and a Mendocino Country resident.
“By claiming exemptions from CEQA, Mendocino County is attempting to avoid performing any environmental studies on Wildlife Services’ environmental impacts,” stated Tara Zuardo, wildlife attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute. “Through this lawsuit, we hope to ensure Mendocino County officials follow through on the obligations they agreed to in our settlement agreement.”
Mendocino County’s previous $144,000 contract authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program to kill hundreds of coyotes, as well as bears, bobcats, foxes and other animals in the county every year, without fully assessing the ecological damage or considering alternatives.
Although hundreds of county residents sent postcards and letters to the Board of Supervisors and showed up to make public comment at two meetings, the Board renewed the contract without taking the time to fully investigate the program, learn about the public’s concerns, and consider alternatives, as required by CEQA.
”Unfortunately, despite the county’s promise to consider nonlethal alternatives that are better for wildlife and taxpayers, county supervisors decided to do an end run around the law,” said Amy Atwood of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They have misled and disappointed hundreds of their constituents.”
Wildlife Services’ indiscriminate killing of millions of animals annually has many damaging impacts on the environment. Peer-reviewed research shows that such reckless slaughter of animals—particularly predators—results in broad ecological destruction and loss of biodiversity. The program’s controversial and indiscriminate killing methods are employed largely at the behest of ranchers to protect livestock and have come under increased scrutiny from scientists, the public, and government officials. In addition, the agency has been responsible for the countless deaths of threatened and endangered species, as well as family pets.
“We are encouraging Mendocino County to explore and adopt alternative, nonlethal models (like the Marin County Livestock & Wildlife Protection Program) that are more ecologically, ethically and economically defensible—and more effective at protecting livestock,” said Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Marin-based Project Coyote.
“ALDF and its allies will continue to push for CEQA compliance and wildlife protection in Mendocino County,” said Stephen Wells, executive director of ALDF. “California deserves more than shady dealings from their elected officials.”
Phil Gravier and Lawrence Tells, who live near property Brennan oversees, sought restraining orders and wrote letters or filed complaints with the sheriff’s department, Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies after Brennan allegedly killed their pet dogs.
Another neighbor, David O’Leary, also said Brennan has a penchant for killing dogs.
“Mr. Brennan may be an effective county trapper, but he is also quite well known for being inordinately fond of and proficient at shooting dogs,” O’Leary wrote in a legal brief after Brennan sued him over roaming cows.
Brennan calls his spread, which is 20 miles north of Laytonville, “Dead Dog Ranch,” according to Wildlife Services documents obtained by Project Coyote. Brennan admitted during a 2009 hearing in Mendocino County Superior Court on Gravier’s request for a restraining order that he killed “close to 400” dogs over the previous 10 years.
Despite the complaints from neighbors and wildlife advocates, Brennan has never been charged with a crime or been found guilty of wrongdoing.
But Fox said it isn’t Brennan’s skills — or even his apparent relish at doing the dirty work — that are at issue as much as the fact that he is typical of many federal trappers who rarely, if ever, consider nonlethal means.
“I wish I could say that he was the only one,” said Fox, who cited the cases of a federal wildlife specialist in Wyoming, who posted photographs of his dogs mauling a trapped coyote, and an Arizona trapper, who snared his neighbor’s dog in a steel trap, forcing it to try to chew its own leg off. “These guys out there whacking wildlife are not getting any training in nonlethal methods and techniques. This culture of cruelty that pervades the agency is deeply ingrained and resistant to change.”
The reason for this is an entrenched system of killing that is supported by cattle and sheep ranchers, hunters and farmers — the primary beneficiaries of the contracts counties sign with the Agriculture Department for the right to use federal trappers, said Bob Crabtree, a wildlife ecologist and research professor at the University of Montana.
In 2014, Mendocino County signed a $142,356 contract with Wildlife Services. The money, a portion of which is paid by the federal government, covers salaries, vehicles, equipment and supplies, and the services of a wildlife specialist. The government trappers are deployed by county Agriculture Department officials at the request of citizens.
“The force behind all this is the ag industry” which “fights nonlethal control,” said Crabtree, who is on the science advisory board for Project Coyote. “It’s a Faustian business model. Taxpayer dollars are being mixed with private dollars, creating a lot of money for this killing machine. It can’t be justified economically, ethically or ecologically.”
The culture exists, according to conservationists, despite the fact that there is a nonlethal model in Marin County that has proved to work. In 2000, the county adopted the Marin Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program, which essentially used the money once paid to federal trappers to help ranchers build fences, night corrals and lambing sheds, and to purchase guardian dogs.
The movement was inspired by a furor in 1996 over the proposed use of livestock protection collars — containing poison — on sheep in western Marin. At that time, coyotes were killing hundreds of lambs and ewes every year. The poison killed the coyotes when they attacked.
Switch to guard dogs
The county got serious about the issue in 1998 when California banned the use of steel-jawed traps and poisonous collars. Most sheep ranchers in Marin — some two dozen of them— purchased guardian dogs, which naturally bond with sheep and goats, and aggressively protect them. Ranchers credit the dogs with reducing predation at a time when the coyote population has been growing.
“If I didn’t have the guard dogs I probably wouldn’t be in business,” said Francis Cornett, who has 17 dogs protecting 2,300 sheep in the Tomales area of Marin.
Cornett gets $3,000 a year from the county for dog food and fencing. He believes lethal control is sometimes necessary — he lost 35 sheep this past year to coyotes — but only after other deterrents are employed. “There are guys who don’t have dogs,” he said, “and they lose much more.”
The program also helped pay for fences, electrification, noisemakers, lights and motion sensors— all at one-third the cost of predator control under the Wildlife Services program, according to county agricultural officials.
“What they think is, ‘these people are trying to tell us that we can never kill a coyote.’ Nobody is saying that,” said Keli Hendricks, the predator-friendly ranching coordinator for Project Coyote. “What we are saying is that to spend taxpayer dollars on a government trapper to go out and indiscriminately kill wildlife is inefficient, ineffective and counterproductive.”
For the sake of wildlife, Crabtree said, it is imperative that Mendocino County change it’s ways.
“Here is a chance to do what was done in Marin County,” Crabtree said. “It can happen if they just give it a chance. But instead of doing that they say what works in Marin won’t work in Mendocino. That’s not right. It would work just fine.”