Babbitt backs plans to kill predators


In a series of deft administrative maneuvers, the Bureau of Land Management side-stepped protests by environmental groups that had restricted federal predator-control activities on millions of acres of public land in the West.

With approval from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the BLM is now issuing predator control plans with a provision that puts them immediately into effect.

Western politicians who lobbied for quick action praised the BLM and its parent Interior Department for sensitivity to sheep ranchers at the beginning of lambing season, when livestock are most vulnerable to predators.

But environmental groups were angry.

"Whenever we gain some ground, they dream up some way of going along about their business as they please," said Tom Skeele of the Predator Project, a Bozeman, Mont., group trying to end the indiscriminate killing of coyotes and other predators on public land.

Federally funded predator control, carried out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Damage Control (ADC) branch, has been in limbo on public lands across the West since last spring. After the Humane Society of the United States appealed outdated predator control plans in about a dozen Western BLM districts, the BLM voluntarily halted routine predator control in every district without a current plan and environmental analysis.

The BLM allowed only "emergency'" predator control in response to verified livestock losses. In the meantime, local BLM managers worked feverishly to develop current predator control plans that would get them out from under the emergency-only provisions.

In Montana, the agency issued new plans for each of its three districts in the state. While the plans were updated, they allowed largely the same type of predator control activities as in past years.

Both Skeele's Predator Project and the Native Ecosystems Council in Laramie, Wyo., appealed the new BLM plans for Montana and requested that the plans not go into effect until the appeal was resolved. They got even more than they bargained for. In a Feb. 9 ruling, the Interior Board of Land Appeals put the new plans on hold - pending the appeals - and prohibited almost all controls on public land.

"That pretty much shut down the whole program, including emergency control'" that targets coyotes, said John Moorhouse, the BLM's chief of biological resources in Montana.

The BLM responded swiftly. On March 3, the agency withdrew its plans, rendering the appeals by the two environmental groups moot. ADC was then able to resume emergency control to kill coyotes again.

Now the BLM plans to issue new versions of its Montana predator control plans in April. This time, however, the agency will ask Secretary Babbitt to put the program into "full force and effect" from the start. That means the plans will go into effect immediately - allowing normal predator control to resume.

Environmental groups can still request a stay, the BLM's Moorhouse notes, but it must be approved by the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals.

Babbitt has already used "full force and effect" provisions to put new predator control plans into immediate effect in three BLM districts in Wyoming, despite appeals. Normally, the plans for the Worland, Rock and Rawlins districts would have remained on hold until appeals by the Native Ecosystems Council were decided. That process could take years.

But Babbitt told the Board of Land Appeals that it would be "in the public interest'" for the plans to go into immediate effect, permitting regular predator control to resume.

Babbitt's moves on the Wyoming districts were announced in press releases from the office of Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, who said he was "extremely pleased with Interior's action, coming as we enter the lambing season in Wyoming."

For further information, contact the Predator Project, P.O. Box 6733, Bozeman, MT 59771 (406/587-3389), or the Montana office of the Bureau of Land Management, P.O. Box 36800, Billings, MT 59107 (406/255-2913).

Michael Milstein works in Cody, Wyo., for the Casper Star-Tribune.

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