Unusual lawsuit pits Audubon against animal rights groups


Mar 11, 2001
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Lawsuit tests conflicting animal rights

By Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News

In an unusual public battle between environmentalists and animal rights activists, the National Audubon Society will argue in federal court today that California's voter-approved ban on animal leg-hold traps should be weakened so that government trappers can kill foxes, feral cats and other predators that eat endangered and migrating birds.

The lawsuit to be heard in San Francisco sets Audubon against the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Doris Day Animal League and other groups that have fought for years to ban the traps as inhumane.

Already, the irony of green vs. green has not escaped a lower court judge.

``Most such litigation pits environmentalists against industry or government,'' wrote federal district Judge Charles Legge in 2000. ``Here we have an unusual alignment of birds versus mammals. That is, two competing groups of environmentalists are in court to protect their respective wildlife constituents against one another.''

Both sides say the stakes are high, with the lives of thousands of animals in the balance.

At issue is Proposition 4, a ballot measure that California voters approved in November 1998. The measure banned body-gripping traps such as steel-jaw and padded leg-hold traps, along with snares and two types of highly potent poisons used by trappers.

Supporters of the measure said the traps are cruel and led to unneeded suffering.

Immediately after Proposition 4 passed, however, Audubon and its Bay Area affiliates filed a lawsuit, claiming that the state has no authority to stop federal wildlife managers who trap coyotes, skunks, foxes, feral cats and other predators on federal lands, such as the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Audubon, which also sued the state of California to block the law from being applied, won the case at the district court level in 2000. Animal rights groups have now appealed, and oral arguments begin today before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Killing animals is never pretty, Audubon argues, but is sometimes necessary.

The group says that a single animal, especially a non-native one, such as the red fox, can wipe out entire colonies of endangered shorebirds, including snowy plovers, least terns and clapper rails.

Cage traps, shooting and other methods don't work as well at catching the predators before they do damage, said Dan Taylor, executive director of the California Audubon Society.

``These predators can literally lay waste to colonies of nesting birds very quickly,'' Taylor said. ``We are responding to the call that we heard from wildlife biologists.''

Taylor conceded that it is difficult for a wildlife group like Audubon to argue that any animals should be killed. But he framed the question as a simple choice between science and emotion in a race to stop extinctions.

``It's tough to argue the complexities of wildlife management in the face of TV commercials about a three-legged dog,'' Taylor said. ``We're not going to win that argument. But we felt we had to fix this.''

Regardless of who wins the case, private trappers killing animals with leg-hold traps to sell the pelts are currently banned in California. The question is what can game wardens do, and where.

Animal rights groups say Audubon should have settled the case with them in 1999.

By pursuing it aggressively, they contend, Audubon risks weakening trapping laws all across the state, even for other uses such as trapping by Wildlife Services, a controversial branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that kills mountain lions, bears, coyotes and other animals at the request of cattle ranchers operating on national forests and Bureau of Land Management rangelands.

Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, in Washington, D.C., said his group told Audubon it would agree to allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or its contractors to use the leg-hold traps to kill predators that are eating endangered birds.

``We basically agreed that state law does not trump the Endangered Species Act,'' Pacelle said.

He called Audubon's refusal to settle ``ill advised and ill conceived.''

``Why would they want to give Wildlife Services permission to use traps for other purposes, like killing predators to help ranchers?''

But Audubon's attorney, Larry Silver, of Mill Valley, said the proposed settlement did not do enough to protect birds that are not endangered. He said other federal laws, such as the Migratory Bird Act, support killing predators even when the birds, such as ducks, are not rare.

The National Trappers Association has joined Audubon in support of the suit.

Pacelle said a wider issue is in jeopardy.

``This is more than about Proposition 4,'' he said. ``Does the state have the authority to regulate federal conduct of wildlife? Can the state say this trap is so cruel we don't want it used for any purpose?''

A judge partly blocked Proposition 4 in 1998 after the Audubon suit, so leg-hold traps continue to be used on federal land.

At the 25,000-acre Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, each year about 200 to 300 red foxes, feral cats, skunks and raccoons are trapped and euthanized by government trappers who place traps on levees from Hayward to Alviso to Mountain View, said Joelle Buffa, a supervisory biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Newark.

``These aren't steel-jawed traps, they are padded leg-hold traps,'' Buffa said. ``I've put my hand in them. It didn't hurt. I don't agree it is cruel.''

Buffa said that in 1990, a single red fox wiped out a colony of endangered nesting least terns at the Oakland Airport.

``Is it any less cruel for the birds to be stalked and eaten by a red fox?'' she said. ``Whatever side you take, an animal is going to get hurt. It's a difficult issue.''

The appeals court is expected to rule by next year.

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