DENVER — Environmentalists say it's time to stop spending taxpayer money on killing predators to protect sheep and other livestock and are targeting the federal program that does it.

WildEarth Guardians, a Western-based coalition, announced a campaign this week to get Congress to eliminate a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that kills coyotes and other wildlife that prey on livestock.

The effort is being launched as Congress considers a bill to ban two poisons used to kill predators. Federal officials are also reviewing a petition from environmental groups to prohibit Wildlife Services in the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using the methods.

"Wildlife Services is premised on the notion that animals considered 'varmints' must be shot, poisoned or killed in their dens," said Wendy Keefover-Ring in the Boulder office of WildEarth Guardians.

The federal government should get out of the wildlife extermination business, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The criticisms from the environmental groups are the latest in ongoing harassment of ranchers, Peter Orwick, executive director of the Colorado-based American Sheep Industry Association, said Friday.

Orwick said much of the money spent on predator control comes from state and local governments, special districts and landowners.

"And we still lose a quarter million sheep and lambs in the United States every year," Orwick said. "That's a $20 million loss."

The groups stepped up their criticism of the program in the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service last year after a fatal crash of a plane that was shooting coyotes from the air.

There have also been complaints from people who say they or their dogs have been sprayed by cyanide gas on federal land when M-44 devices were tripped. The devices are spring-loaded traps baited to attract mostly coyotes.

A bill by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., would ban M-44 capsules and Compound 1080, sodium fluoroacetate, which kills an animal that bites down on livestock wearing collars containing the poison. DeFazio has said the poisons threaten people, wildlife and domesticated animals and could be used by terrorists.

Wildlife Services killed about 1.6 animals in 2006. More than 1 million of those were invasive species, including European starlings, agency spokesman Carol Bannerman said.

Bannerman said nearly $42 million of the $108 million budget in 2006 went to protecting agriculture, including livestock. The agency also uses nonlethal means to keep predators away, she said.

Roughly half of the money came from state and local funds.