MONTEREY — A lawsuit challenging a federally run wildlife control program that protects Monterey’s County’s farm produce will move forward after a judge denied the county’s motion to dismiss Monday.
Monterey County, “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.”
According to the complaint, filed by six animal rights and environmental groups on June 1 in Monterey County Superior Court, the county pays the USDA $100,000 annually to run the program and the decision to renew the contract is made without any environmental review, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
In its motion to dismiss, Monterey County argued that because the USDA administers the program, there is no need to comply with CEQA. It also argued that the USDA should be part of the suit and that the statute of limitations to challenge the program has expired.
Judge Lydia Villarreal did not give an explanation in her denial of the motion. Tara Zuardo, attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute, said the county ‘s arguments were flawed and that it was not a federal program.
“Our goal is to get the county to comply with CDEQA and consider non-lethal alternatives. It’s about just getting them to comply with the basics,” Zuardo said.
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.
But the lawsuit 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,” it states.
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 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.
“Our goal is to get them to comply with CEQA and consider non-lethal alternatives. It’s about at least having a chance for counties to consider these non-lethal alternatives,” Zuardo said.