Agreement with USDA’s Wildlife Services curbs killing on federal public lands in New Mexico

We issued this press release today.

WildEarth Guardians scores big protections for wildlife in New Mexico

Agreement with USDA’s Wildlife Services curbs killing of cougars, bears, and other native species

SANTA FE, NM—In a major win for New Mexico’s wildlife, WildEarth Guardians settled its lawsuit against USDA’s Wildlife Services after the federal program agreed to stop its reckless slaughter of native carnivores such as black bears, cougars, and foxes on all federal public lands; cease killing all carnivores on specific protected federal lands; and end the use of cruel traps, snares, and poisons on public lands.

The settlement additionally requires public reporting of Wildlife Services’ activities in the state, including documenting non-lethal preventative measures employed by the program. These protections will remain in place pending the program’s completion of a detailed and public environmental review of its work.

The settlement agreement comes after WildEarth Guardians sued Wildlife Services in October 2020 over the program’s reliance on severely outdated environmental reviews of its work. The agreement, filed with the federal district court of New Mexico, ensures that Wildlife Services will no longer conduct any wildlife killing in New Mexico’s specially protected areas such as designated Wilderness, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and Wild & Scenic River corridors. The program will cease using sodium cyanide bombs (M44s) and other poisons on all public lands within the state. Additionally, the program will no longer kill beavers, which are increasingly seen as critical to mitigating the effects of widespread drought.

Notably, the agreement also mandates that a program district supervisor reviews all wolf depredation investigation reports before a livestock depredation determination is made in an effort to ensure appropriate safeguards for the endangered Mexican gray wolves that inhabit southwestern New Mexico.

“It’s past time for Wildlife Services to start grappling with 21st century science showing killing wildlife in hopes of preventing livestock losses doesn’t work, is often counterproductive, horribly inhumane, and robs native ecosystems of critically important apex carnivores,” said Jennifer Schwartz, staff attorney at WildEarth Guardians. “We’re glad our settlement kickstarts this process, while affording New Mexico’s wildlife some reprieve from the government’s archaic and cruel killing practices.”

The settlement agreement, finalized on March 11, 2021, includes multiple temporary provisions that will soon become permanent parts of New Mexico law as the result of the enactment of the Wildlife Conservation and Public Safety Act (“Roxy’s Law”) earlier this month. Roxy’s Law—championed by WildEarth Guardians and its allies in the TrapFree New Mexico coalition—bans the use of traps, snares, and poisons, on all public lands in the state of New Mexico. While Roxy’s Law is set to go into effect on April 1, 2022, the settlement agreement ensures that Wildlife Services refrains from using these devices on public lands immediately.

“The past several weeks have seen incredible wins for New Mexico’s native wildlife,” said Chris Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “With the climate crisis, drought, and human expansion all taking a toll on our state’s biodiversity, it’s time we stop seeing wildlife as something that needs to be killed and culled and instead see it as something that deserves protection and respect.”

Wildlife Services is culpable of killing thousands of animals in New Mexico each year including coyotes, cougars, prairie dogs, several varieties of fox, and even endangered Mexican gray wolves. Per federal law, Wildlife Services must use up-to-date studies and the best available science to analyze the environmental impact of their animal damage control program on New Mexico’s wildlife and native ecosystems. Under the agreement, Wildlife Services must provide an environmental analysis of the effects and risks of its wildlife-killing program in New Mexico by December 31, 2021.

The settlement agreement also requires Wildlife Services to significantly increase its overall transparency with the public by documenting and releasing—via its state website—detailed yearly reports of its wildlife “damage control” practices. This includes the number and type of animals captured and by which method, the number of requests for assistance and the reason given (livestock protection, health and safety, nuisance, etc.), and types of non-lethal preventative measures employed by Wildlife Services or the party requesting lethal control. This type of detailed information has previously only been available through formal Freedom of Information Act requests, which typically take many months, if not years, for USDA to fulfill.

“A public reporting requirement will compel Wildlife Services to be held accountable to the general public for its actions,” said Schwartz. “We hope that this motivates Wildlife Services to employ practices in line with the values of the public and embrace the use of scientifically verified non-lethal conflict prevention.”

Wildlife Services is a multimillion-dollar federal program that uses painful leghold traps, strangulation snares, poisons and aerial gunning to kill wolves, coyotes, cougars, birds, and other wild animals. Most of the killing responds to requests from the agriculture industry.

The program reported killing more than 433,000 native animals nationwide in 2020. Nontarget animals, including pets and protected wildlife like wolves, grizzlies and eagles, are also at risk from the program’s indiscriminate methods.

Over the last five years, litigation by WildEarth Guardians and partners against Wildlife Services has resulted in settlement agreements and legal victories in Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico, all curbing the program’s slaughter of native wildlife and making the program accountable for its activities.

7 thoughts on “Agreement with USDA’s Wildlife Services curbs killing on federal public lands in New Mexico”

  1. That’s an enormous accomplishment, Matthew. Congratulations.

    Just curious—going forward, are there any plans in place to monitor private/state killing on public lands? I.e., making sure that what Wildlife Services was doing isn’t just picked up piecemeal by other actors.

  2. Question: I’ve noticed many folks have started using the term “public lands”… in our area that could be federal (DOD FWS FS BLM NPS), state (parks or other kinds of lands) or county. I’m assuming that this lawsuit is about federal?

    Not that wildlife killings would necessarily go on on state land.. but it might. I’m thinking prairie dog management for example. But they are not carnivores, and this seems to be mostly about carnivores. If we don’t want “wildlife killings” wouldn’t herbivores and omnivores be eligible?
    “Nontarget animals, including pets and protected wildlife like wolves, grizzlies and eagles, are also at risk from the program’s indiscriminate methods.”

    And indiscriminate killings of say, eagles, is apparently done by other interests than agriculture, according to this group

  3. Each State and the US Fish and Wildlife have specialists who know their environmental situation and needs best. Overpopulations of certain animals is a common occurrence, resulting in damage to their habitat. One example are the feral horses in certain western States. Deer and elk, in some cases, have over browsed their range. Over browsing by elk in Yellowstone National Park was affecting streamside vegetation until wolves were re-established. Hunting, providing a form of recreation, is a more desirable method of controlling population than simply hiring people to shoot the excess animals, although that has been necessary in some past cases. WildEarth Guardians is known as a group oriented heavily towards preservation of resources vs. active management of resources, which is OK, however they shouldn’t take precedent over Game and Fish Agencies

    It’s easy to bring lawsuits against Agencies, and win them sometimes if you have enough money, even when the group bringing suit is obviously wrong. For example, when I was stationed on the Chattahoochee National Forest, the Sierra Club stopped all timber sales on the Forest for five years. The judge who ruled in their favor, when asked to explain why, stated “that a tree being felled might kill a neotropical bird”. That is not the only case of an ignorant official overruling knowledgeable local technicians, resulting in damage to the resource. In the Chattahoochee case, all wildlife on the Forest suffered from the resulting lack of diversity in their habitat, created by a timber harvesting program.

    Returning National Parks (a great number of people don’t know the difference between National Parks and National Forests) to the Indians is ridiculous. Indians have use of Parks just like everyone else in the country. Do you think the general public in this country would approve of a small minority of people controlling use of lands previously available to everyone?

  4. I assume this is the court case you are referring to (Sierra Club v. Martin):,27

    “Neotropical migratory song birds designated for protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act nest in the seven timber sale areas. The presence of migratory birds in the timber stands to be logged has been witnessed and confirmed… The fact that the tree cutting during the nesting season in these seven timber sale areas will result in significant migratory bird death has been confirmed in writing by the Defendant Forest Service’s own ecologist for these National Forests… The Court finds that a taking or killing does not occur simply because of habitat destruction or modification… In this case, however, a killing of young migratory birds occurs because Defendants are allowing tree cutting and logging during nesting season. In the instant case, the evidence affirmatively shows that thousands of migratory birds will be killed directly by cutting down the trees with nests and juvenile birds in them. Thus, Defendants’ actions clearly violate the MBTA.”

    A judge is not “ignorant” unless the parties fail to inform them of the facts, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. It sounds more like ignorance of the law by the Forest Service. A second phase of the case further enjoined these projects due to violations of NEPA and NFMA, which may have led to a longer delay than just what was needed to avoid logging during bird nesting season.

    To your first point about “specialists who know their environmental situation and needs best,” that reminds me of the days foresters used to think that only they were qualified to decide management of the national forests. Like national forests, wildlife is publicly owned, and that public has every right to choose management that they like, regardless of recommendations from scientists or professional managers.

    • The Sierra Club v. Martin (Forest Supervisor) was five year litigation in 1996-2001 concerning timber sales on the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. There was no survey showing a particular number of neotropical birds killed. The lady judge handling the case simply made a statement that a felled tree could kill a neotropical bird. Of course it is possible with a million to one odds, but in inspecting in the neighborhood of a thousand or more Forest Service timber sales in a 40 year career, I never saw one bird that appeared to have been killed by a felled tree, or had anyone tell me that they had seen such an occurrence. It was an ignorant statement with no science or facts to back it. I was a Regional Biologist working out of the Regional Office at the time.

      • There were two appeals to the 11th Circuit (the last decided in 1999), but they were not about whether nesting migratory birds would be killed. The facts I quoted above about that were never disputed. The first appeal actually resulted in a reversal of the MBTA holding because the law did not apply to federal actions (even if they did kill birds). That should have freed up the forests to log these sales, except for the other issues under litigation (which also included species viability under NFMA).


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