MONTEREY (CN) – Animal rights groups have filed suit against Monterey County, questioning its methods of keeping wildlife from contaminating its farm products.
The county, also known as “the Nation’s Salad Bowl” is a significant source of the U.S. food supply. It grows more than 150 types of crops and more than half of the lettuce, and more than a third of the broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and strawberries eaten in the United States.
To keep that food safe from contamination, the county contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs, what the lawsuit describes as, a “lethal predator program … that targets and exterminates wildlife within Monterey County.” The complaint, filed June 1 in Monterey County Superior Court, charges that the county does this without any “state oversight or any environmental investigation or analysis.”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Welfare Institute, Mountain Lion Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Project Coyote/Earth Island Institute, and the Center for Biological Diversity are all plaintiffs in the suit. They joined Monterey resident Marlene Attell in filing a writ of mandate seeking to set aside the county’s decision to continue the program and require an environmental review.
Monterey County has had some notable issues with food safety, with recalls and E. coli being found just about each year in farm products. The worst was in 2006, when an outbreak of E. coli poisoning linked to spinach killed three people and hospitalized more than 100 others.
According to an investigation of the incident by the Centers for Disease Control, many agricultural fields in Monterey are close to cattle grazing pastures, situated on hillsides above the fields in the flatter valley floor areas. Fecal samples from cattle and wild pigs matched the strain found in patients and it was theorized that pigs wandering down to the fields from the pastures carried the contamination with them.
“(The program) keeps wildlife out of the fields, keeps the populations of wild boars and coyotes that cause the nuisances and the dangers in check. This is absolutely about food safety,” said Norm Groot, president of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.
Amey Owen, public relations coordinator for the Animal Welfare Institute, counters that the sources of contamination have varied and have included human sewage, infected farmworkers, and farm animals.
“In terms of the E. coli outbreak in 2006, that was traced to a strain isolated from domestic cattle and feral swine. Although there have been concerns about wild animal intrusion/defecation, in fact, Wildlife Services’ program does not distinctly control for this issue — as its methods and how it chooses which animals to target/kill are indiscriminate and not based on targeting the elimination of one specific bacterial outbreak,” she said.
Lynn Cullens, associate director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, said his organization is aware of the food safety issues, but that the county and USDA should use “non-lethal tools that result in long-term exclusion rather than the temporary, ineffective and inhumane action of killing wild animals only to see them repopulate the area and continue to depredate, creating a vicious cycle that is potentially injurious to people, domestic animals and wild animals alike.”
Owen said the USDA program isn’t even being carried out to keep animals out of crops, but rather to “indiscriminately eliminate predators (such as coyotes) due to bias against them.”
More than 3,000 animals have been killed in Monterey County since 2010, according to documentation cited in the complaint, but it also charges that those numbers are not “even a fraction of the non-target animals they catch.” The complaint also refers to stories written by the Sacramento Bee’s Tom Knudson, who reported that Wildlife Services had killed nearly a million coyotes, mostly in the West, and had also accidentally killed black bears, river otters, ravens, bobcats, foxes, bald eagles and other species. In 2012, Knudson reported that poison placed near roads had killed more than 1,100 dogs. Eighteen people had also been exposed to chemicals, including a hunter trying to get his dog out of a poisonous trap.
The lawsuit also questions the methods used, things like snare traps, leghold traps and poison that may wind up just maiming an animal and making it suffer. “These methods are recognized in several countries throughout the world, including several jurisdictions in the United States, as being inherently cruel. For example, leghold traps are considered particularly inhuman because trapped animals frantically struggle to free themselves, both by attempting to pull the trapped limb out of the device and by chewing at the trap itself or even their own limbs.”
Monterey County Counsel Charles McKee said the wildlife control program is meant to strike a balance between protecting the wildlife and the food supply, and he is not even sure how much power the county has in how it is run.
“We have some negotiation with the contract, but obviously that is going to be limited,” McKee said, adding that he had not yet read the entire complaint and could not comment about specifics.
Pam Boehland, public affairs specialist for the USDA, gave a nonresponsive answer to whether or not the county had any influence over how the agency’s wildlife program was run.
“It appears that USDA APHIS Wildlife Services is not named as a party in the lawsuit,” she replied. “I hope that helps.”
According to the complaint, the county pays $100,000 to the USDA each year and the decision to renew the contract is made without any environmental review, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. Instead, the county claims it is exempt for “ministerial” reasons — if a project being carried out by a public agency was approved prior to Nov. 23, 1970, the project is exempt from CEQA.
“We’ve always looked at it as a ministerial exemption,” McKee said.
The complaint claims it is subject to CEQA and that ministerial exemptions are limited to cases where an EIR wouldn’t make a difference, such as for things like automobile registrations, dog licenses and marriage licenses.
“Tax-payer dollars are used to fund these killing programs, and the programs are both ineffective and inhumane,” Cullens said. “A CEQA examination of county methods for resolving wildlife conflicts is beneficial in planning for long-term change.”
Katherine Henderson, Christopher Hayes and Mary Procaccio-Flowers of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in San Francisco and Palo Alto are representing the plaintiffs. They did not respond to emails seeking comment.