A rural county in the heart of wolf country chose not to renew a contract with the federal agency tasked with killing carnivores that are deemed problematic. The Grant County Commission voted 2-1 against renewing its contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife Services’ program during a June 23 meeting. The commissioner who voted against the motion supported tabling the item to discuss during a future July meeting when all five commissioners could be present. The decision comes after a history of disagreement between the county and Wildlife services. Grant County previously gave Wildlife Services some conditions for the contract.
After learning about a plan to place captive-born Mexican wolves in a den of wild wolves in Catron County, Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Republican from New Mexico, wrote a letter to State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard urging her to reconsider the move. “These activities are occurring less than two miles from the home of several of my constituents who have expressed to me their extreme alarm and fear for the safety of their family and livestock,” Herrell wrote in the letter dated May 7. “These constituents were only notified several days before the cross-fostering was to begin, giving them little time to voice their opposition.”
Garcia Richard granted permission in April for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cross-foster wolves at the den. The cross-fostering of wolves is done to increase genetic diversity among the population. In her letter, Herrell said the cross-fostering places lessees at greater risk for harm caused by the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf.
A federal agency kills thousands of wild animals annually through contracts aimed at protecting livestock and agriculture interests, but a conservation advocacy group hopes a new legal settlement will reduce the number of animals killed in New Mexico. The settlement comes after WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in October. Wildlife Services is a branch of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
In an April 13 press release announcing the settlement, WildEarth Guardians described it as a major win for New Mexico’s wildlife.
Related: Lawsuit asks Wildlife Services to update its research on ‘outdated’ wildlife management program
In a statement to NM Political Report, Tanya Espinosa, a public affairs specialist with USDA APHIS, said Wildlife Services New Mexico implemented interim measures following the stipulated settlement agreement that was reached in March.
Espinosa said these measures will remain in place pending an Environmental Assessment. If the EA results in significant findings, an Environmental Impact Statement will be completed.
“WS-New Mexico is currently developing a new EA for its Predator Damage Management Activities in New Mexico and will make a draft available for public comment,” Espinosa said. Wildlife services last completed an Environmental Assessment for predator damage management in New Mexico in 2006, and WildEarth Guardians argued that scientific knowledge regarding predators has changed in the past 15 years.
The conservation-focused WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency, challenging the science behind what the group calls an “outdated wildlife-killing program.” The group filed the lawsuit in a federal district court.
Wildlife Services is a secretive agency within the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that enters into contracts with counties and local governments to remove, euthanize and disperse wildlife that are considered threats to agriculture, livestock and ranching operations.
Wildlife Services killed over 1.2 million native animals across the U.S. in 2019, including thousands of animals here in New Mexico. The agency is most well-known for its predator control programs, in which federal agents use lethal and nonlethal techniques to remove coyotes, foxes, wolves— including endangered Mexican gray wolves—mountain lions, bears and other predators from areas where those animals threaten livestock.
RELATED: With mother’s death, the endangered Prieto wolf pack is gone
But the wildlife program extends beyond just predator control. Nationwide, Wildlife Services targets a wide range of wildlife species for removal, including an array of birds such as sandhill cranes, ravens, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons and owls; and mammals such as beavers, rabbits, hares and prairie dogs.
The impacts of those removals on the natural ecosystems are more or less unknown, according to Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, because the agency has never completed an environmental impact statement for its program in this state. “Wildlife are the engineers, along with plant species and then microbes and fungi and stuff, that actually make ecosystems function,” said Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Removing wildlife—and that integral role that they play in ecosystem function—breaks down the way those ecosystems do things like self-manage, clean water, clean air, resupply soils with nutrients, things like that.”
“Especially in an era when droughts and other impacts of the climate crisis are being felt across the west—but especially in dry ecosystems like those in New Mexico—removing those very engineers that make those ecosystems function is problematic,” Smith said.
Rangeland management of the 20th century was dominated by killing anything and everything that threatened livestock. Predators, and especially wolves, were characterized as both nuisance and threat to ranchers and hunters alike for most of the last century.
As the nature writer Aldo Leopold once wrote about the first quarter of the 20th century, “In those days we had never heard of passing up the chance to kill a wolf.”
That mindset, encapsulated by extermination campaigns waged by the U.S. government up until the 1960s, brought species like the Mexican gray wolf to the brink of extinction. Today, wolves, coyotes and other predators are still considered public enemy number one in many ranching communities. But a growing body of research indicates that killing predators doesn’t actually help prevent attacks, and may in fact lead to increased conflicts between humans and livestock.
“There’s this old saying, if you kill a coyote, two show up to its funeral,” said Michelle Lute, National Carnivore Conservation Manager at Project Coyote, adding that there is now an “increasing scientific understanding around why people say that.”
“We didn’t know that for a long time, because science only answers the questions that we ask of it,” Lute said. “We just made this assumption that we’re going to kill a bunch of coyotes and of course that’s going to help.”
Now, there are hints that the mindset among some ranchers around wolves and other predators is beginning to shift away from lethal management and towards something like coexistence, where preventative management practices are employed to keep livestock losses at a minimum, while keeping the rangeland ecosystem healthy.
Such techniques “prevent loss before they occur, which is better for everybody,” Lute said.
On Thursday, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler withdrew the agency’s interim decision to allow the continued use of sodium cyanide, a pesticide that’s used to make lethal M-44 devices used in predator control. The agency released its interim decision re-authorizing use of the sodium cyanide under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) in June, after a period of public comment. The EPA received some 20,000 comments by March 2019, the “overwhelming majority” of which “did not support the continued registration of sodium cyanide,” the agency said.
“This issue warrants further analysis and additional discussions by EPA with the registrants of this predacide,” Wheeler said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing this dialogue to ensure U.S. livestock remain well-protected from dangerous predators while simultaneously minimizing off-target impacts on both humans and non-predatory animals.”
RELATED: EPA issues interim decision on sodium cyanide bombs amid public outcry
M-44s, also called sodium cyanide bombs, are used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services to kill predators that threaten livestock. Sodium cyanide is a restricted-use pesticide, meaning that entities need to be registered to use M-44 devices.
Doña Ana County commissioners gave a federal agency the green light to use lethal sodium cyanide bombs to combat livestock predation. County commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to approve an amended contract with the federal Wildlife Services agency to continue use of the devices, despite an outpouring of opposition from local environmentalists. “It’s pretty shocking,” said Amanda Munro, communications director for the Southwest Environmental Center and a resident of Las Cruces. “I’m very disappointed in the commissioners who voted to instate this next amendment.”
Southwest Environmental Center and other groups have been fighting the use of sodium cyanide bombs, also called M-44s, in Doña Ana county. Environmentalists have argued that the devices are inhumane and that the use of lethal measures to combat predation are based on outdated science.
The EPA will allow a controversial federal agency to continue using lethal sodium cyanide bombs to kill predators that threaten livestock. The EPA issued an interim decision re-authorizing use of the sodium cyanide bombs under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) in June. UPDATE: EPA Administrator retracts sodium cyanide decision
This story continues as originally written below. Wildlife Services, a secretive agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), uses the devices for what it refers to as wildlife damage management services. Wildlife Services contracts with local government to provide services aimed at reducing livestock losses by killing local predators.