By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Conservation groups sued a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday, accusing its agents of violating a federal environmental law when they killed a protected female breeding wolf in Washington state.
Groups represented by the Western Law Environmental Center say the USDA's Wildlife Services agency indiscriminately shot, trapped and poisoned animals to benefit the agricultural industry, and failed to conduct in-depth analyses of its actions as required by U.S. law.
Conservationists are asking a federal judge to stop Wildlife Services from conducting further missions like the one last year in Washington state in which its agents erroneously shot and killed the female leader of a wolf pack after mistaking it for another wolf marked for death for attacking livestock.
The wolf that was killed in eastern Washington was one of just three breeding females in the state, where there are 13 confirmed packs, according to U.S. wildlife managers.
Wolves have rebounded in Washington state after government-sponsored eradication efforts pushed them to near extinction early last century.
Wolves in the western two-thirds of the state are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but the population in eastern Washington was stripped in 2011 of federal, but not state, protections, along with wolves in Idaho and Montana.
The lawsuit comes just weeks after conservationists asked a federal judge in Idaho to find Wildlife Services violated federal law while killing wolves, foxes and other predators in that state.
The legal actions are part of a broader campaign by conservationists to shed light on a little-known agency that culls millions of animals each year at taxpayer expense to aid farmers and ranchers.
Wildlife Services said it has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. On its website, the agency says it provides “federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.”
In the legal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, conservationists pointed to a photograph they said was taken by a Wildlife Services agent in 2012 and posted on his Facebook page that shows his dogs savaging a coyote unable to defend itself while caught in a leg-hold trap.
John Mellgren, attorney with Western Law Environmental Center, said the picture was included to demonstrate to the court what it described as egregious behavior of some agents while on the job and as evidence of “a broader institutional problem.”
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)