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Ultra-lethal 'Cyanide Bombs' Used To Kill Public Wildlife Banned For Now In Wyoming

Despite coming under increasing pressure, EPA remains noncommittal to abolishing deadly M-44s used to kill predators that eat livestock on public land

While appearing innocuous and designed to indulge the curiosity of an animal, M-44 "cyanide bombs" have been used by the federal government's Wildlife Services to pre-emptively kill predators on public land that may pose a threat to private domestic livestock.  Photo courtesy Predator Defense
While appearing innocuous and designed to indulge the curiosity of an animal, M-44 "cyanide bombs" have been used by the federal government's Wildlife Services to pre-emptively kill predators on public land that may pose a threat to private domestic livestock. Photo courtesy Predator Defense
Most Americans are probably unfamiliar with the federal government’s taxpayer-subsidized killing campaign carried out every year against public wildlife on public lands, most of them located in the West.  


Most are probably unaware that their hard-earned money, paid in taxes to Uncle Sam, helps to operate a federal agency known as Wildlife Services, a branch of the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 

One of Wildlife Service’s primary missions is functioning essentially as a protective hit squad for privately-owned cattle and sheep producers allowed to graze their animals on public land grass at rates that haven’t risen much in over half a century.

While most citizens are outraged when they learn what Wildlife Services does, they are incredulous even more when they discover that one of the weapons Wildlife Services and its state affiliates have used to wipe landscapes free of predators is ultra-lethal sodium cyanide “bombs” known as “M-44s." They possess enough poison that can kill a human or pet if they accidentally come in contact with them.

In fact, a teenage boy from Pocatello, Idaho nearly died a few winters ago after he and his pet dog wandered into an M-44 placed by a Wildlife Services trapper near their suburban home. The dog bumbled into the M-44, a dose of cyanide exploded in his face and then died, foaming at the mouth, in the boys’ arms, leaving 14-year-old Canyon Mansfield understandably traumatized. (Read this piece that appeared in National Geographic.)
A teenage boy from Pocatello, Idaho nearly died a few winters ago after he and his pet dog wandered into an M-44 placed by a Wildlife Services trapper near their suburban home. The dog bumbled into the M-44, got a dose of cyanide sprayed in its face and then died, foaming at the mouth, in the boys’ arms.
The same year two pet dogs were killed by M-44s outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, the state capital. That prompted Brooks Fahy, founder of Predator Defense, along with several other wildlife conservation and animal rights groups representing millions of members, to again seek a nationwide ban on using M-44s. Fahy has led the charge in trying to get M-44s and other ultra-lethal biocides banned.

The Mansfields are suing Wildlife Services and they've become national advocates calling for the abolition of M-44s. Here is a link to Jamie Drysdale's film, Lethal Control, which he made as his masters project in environmental journalism at the University of Montana. He interviewed the Mansfields and others who have had close encounters with M-44s.

Some 6,500 animals were documented as killed by M-44s last year, though in interviews I've done with Wildlife Services field agents over the years they say the death toll is always under-reported.

In an interview with National Geographic, Sander Orent, a toxicologist in Boulder, Colorado, explained how  M-44s (also called “coyote getters") as well as collars put around the necks of sheep, loaded with deadly  sodium fluoroacetate, work. 

Of death by sodium cyanide via M-44s, he said, “You could compare it to the recent sarin gas attack in Syria because the concept of how cyanide kills is similar. It basically suffocates any living being it comes in contact with. It ties up the ability of the blood to carry oxygen. When that [animal] is gasping for air, it experiences an extremely uncomfortable feeling of panic and desperation, then it convulses and dies. For an animal experiencing it and a person watching it happen, it would be horrifying.”
Canyon Mansfield of Pocatello, Idaho was 14 years old when he watched his Labrador, Kasey, stumble upon a "cyanide bomb" known as an  M-44 near his home and then die right in front of his eyes.  Casey, too, was put in grave danger. His family has become national advocates for reforming Wildlife Services and getting a ban on biocides in place. Photo courtesy Mansfield family
Canyon Mansfield of Pocatello, Idaho was 14 years old when he watched his Labrador, Kasey, stumble upon a "cyanide bomb" known as an M-44 near his home and then die right in front of his eyes. Casey, too, was put in grave danger. His family has become national advocates for reforming Wildlife Services and getting a ban on biocides in place. Photo courtesy Mansfield family
In 2017, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a Democrat, drafted a bill that would ban M-44s, but initially it got nowhere when Republicans held a majority in the House of Representatives. Today, Democrats are in charge. In the meantime a number of states have outlawed the use of biocides which they say are dangerous, not needed and inconsistent with modern professional wildlife management.  

DeFazio returned in 2019 to introduce the Chemical Poisons Reduction Act, nicknamed "Canyon's Law," along with the bill's co-sponsor, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican. “The unnecessary use of these deadly toxins by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Wildlife Services has led to countless deaths of family pets and innocent animals, as well as injuries to humans,”  DeFazio said at a press event with the Mansfields in front of the US Capitol building. “It is only a matter of time before they kill someone. The federal government should not be using these extreme measures in the name of so-called ‘predator control’.”

Wildlife Services has been under intense public scrutiny for decades, taken to task for the death tolls of animals it proudly notches, the accidental killing of “non-target species” including imperiled wildlife, the deaths of pets and several close calls involving outdoor recreationists and dogs who happened upon M-44s as well as traps and snares.  

If one thinks the criticism is merely a concoction of greenies, one will be disabused of the notion by history. In 1964, A. Starker Leopold (son of famed ecologist Aldo Leopold) chaired a blue-ribbon panel of scientists that delivered a report to Congress titled "Predator and Rodent Control in the United States."  Seven years later, in 1971, another special review panel chaired by noted ecologist Stanley Cain corroborated the alarm raised about biocides by Leopold and concluded: "There has been direct and circumstantial evidence that the large-scale use of poisons for the control of predators...has resulted in frequent losses of non-target animals and that such methods are likely to be inhumane."  

A year later, based upon the recommendation of William Ruckelshaus, first-ever administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, President Nixon signed Executive Order 11643 banning biocides based on the argument that predator control objectives, done to protect livestock, could still be achieved without poisons.
William D. Ruckelshaus being sworn in as the first-ever administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 with President Richard M. Nixon who appointed him standing at his side. Two years later, Ruckelshaus, acting on a growing mound of scientific evidence recommended that Nixon ban biocides used to protect livestock.  Nixon issued an executive order overturned by Ronald Reagan though the problems raised about the dangers of biocides have only grown. Photo courtesy US EPA
William D. Ruckelshaus being sworn in as the first-ever administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 with President Richard M. Nixon who appointed him standing at his side. Two years later, Ruckelshaus, acting on a growing mound of scientific evidence recommended that Nixon ban biocides used to protect livestock. Nixon issued an executive order overturned by Ronald Reagan though the problems raised about the dangers of biocides have only grown. Photo courtesy US EPA
But the National Wool Growers Association claimed that emergency use of controversial Compound 1080 collars (using deadly sodium monofluoracetate) was necessary to safeguard domestic sheep and it ultimately prevailed in 1983. EPA reversed course following a request from President Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary James G. Watt of Wyoming.

Ranchers have argued that unless they are able to be profitable by using public land and keeping their losses to a minimum they might be forced to sell off their private land which could be transformed into human development that destroys wildlife habitat and open space. They also say that as food growers their needs ought to be accommodated.

Wildlife Services, citing a study 21 years old and using a method of extrapolation, says that for every federal dollar spent on predator management  $10.88 worth of livestock is saved. It claims that, with coyotes, every dollar of predator control can deliver up to $27 in benefits.  Wyoming's College of Agriculture says that for every dollar in predator control there is a benefit to ranchers of between $1.60 and $2.30.

The problem is that those figures have never been subjected to intense examination and oversight, nor has the efficacy of predator control ever been intensely studied, nor have the promotors of predator control, and the federal land management agencies allowing it to happen on public lands, ever had to account for the biological impacts and ecological effects.

In the coming months, the Democratically-controlled House plans to hold hearings on Wildlife Services and will invite wildlife scientists to testify.

Beyond Wildlife Service's use of biocides, few Americans also fail to realize that its agents still use fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to fly over vast swaths of the West gunning down coyotes on pubic lands so that ranchers don’t have to contend with them at calving and lambing time. 

Meanwhile, on the ground, agents lay down a lethal gauntlet of traps and snares,  “fumigants” dumped into animal dens and sometimes they even use gasoline which is pouredinto the burrows of unwanted predators and then set alight, burning alive not only adult animals but also their pups. 

(View Predator Defense's award-winning documentary Exposed: USDA's Secret War on Wildlife" below. Further down also watch a video produced by the US Ag Network on predator control.

Wildlife Services performs several functions that most people would agree are necessary—helping to thwart bird strikes on aircraft landing and taking off from airports; removing animals that represent a disease risk such as rabies or safety threat to humans and private property especially in urban and suburban settings; control of feral swine,  removing predators that might eat endangered sea turtles or imperiled birds, and preventing animals from destroying crops on private land.  Hunters insist that killing coyotes (and sterilizing coyotes) results in more deer and pronghorn and they say that killing skunks and raccoons and having fur trapping seasons on animals that might eat nesting waterfowl results in more ducks and geese to bag.

Wildlife Services often has used those arguments as cover to justify its controversial other activities. In recent years, the agency has, because of lawsuits and public pressure, put more of an emphasis on using non-lethal deterrents to keep predators at bay but there is still resistance from inside the agriculture community that generally has low tolerance.

For a long while, Wildlife Services dodged public accountability and transparency with its predator-control program, refusing to divulge public records about its activities, knowing that it always had lawmakers from the West who would defend it.  A 2015 audit conducted by the US Inspector General did not find significant problems plaguing Wildlife Services though reformers say it was biased in reflecting the perspectives of ag producers and wildlife scientists and advocates.

In Wyoming in 2018, Wildlife Services claimed official responsibility for killing 6,231 coyotes, 51 wolves, 148 red foxes and other animals, though many believe that’s a grossly low estimate. It doesn't include the number of animals killed by civilians. It also doesn’t include the fact that wolves, given their controversial “predator status" in Wyoming can be killed in roughly four-fifths of the state 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by any means—even techniques that animal welfare experts would claim to be torturous—no questions asked. Notably, coyotes are treated with even less regard, akin to rats. 

Much of it relates to a cultural mindset that begins and ends with Wildlife Services and its allies which dates to a time when large carnivores were targeted with total eradication to create a safe environment for livestock to live. Wildlife Services researchers claim that Wyoming has between 23,000 and 50,000 coyotes in the state and that without much natural or human-caused mortality the population would reach as high as 86,000.

Many millions of coyotes have been killed by Wildlife Services across the West in recent decades. According to statistics gleaned by Predator Defense, 68,186 coyotes along with an unknown number of pups in 361 dens were killed nationwide in 2018, plus 1002 bobcats, 375 mountain lions, 338 bears and 357 wolves. 
Coyotes are the most persecuted larger wild mammal in the US. In Wyoming it is even legal to run them down and kill them for fun with a snowmobile. You can do it to wolves in most of the state, too, if you had a big-enough snowmobile. Millions of coyotes have been killed in recent decades, most of the time to pre-emptively protect private domestic livestock on public land and taxpayers foot part of the bill. Sometimes the cost of killing predators far exceeds the value of the livestock that have been killed and predators are killed even if they do not pose an imminent threat to cattle or sheep.  Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Coyotes are the most persecuted larger wild mammal in the US. In Wyoming it is even legal to run them down and kill them for fun with a snowmobile. You can do it to wolves in most of the state, too, if you had a big-enough snowmobile. Millions of coyotes have been killed in recent decades, most of the time to pre-emptively protect private domestic livestock on public land and taxpayers foot part of the bill. Sometimes the cost of killing predators far exceeds the value of the livestock that have been killed and predators are killed even if they do not pose an imminent threat to cattle or sheep. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which claims to be guided by best management practices in professionally stewarding wildlife, turns mostly a blind eye when it comes to the deeds of Wildlife Services.

Why? Out of fear it will alienate state lawmakers who fund Game and Fish and want to appease ranchers, wildlife conservationists say.

Wyoming Game and Fish and members of its governor-appointed wildlife commission even seem to condone the documented practice of running down coyotes with snowmobiles for fun, which has been widely condemned by leading hunters’ organization as barbaric and unethical. Still, Game and Fish and its commissioners are afraid to speak out, even on principle.

Any action to outlaw the legal practice of running down predators with snowmobiles would need approval of the Wyoming Animal Damage Management Board established to protect ranchers. The board is not bound to heed any hard scientific or ethical guidelines that would contradict its positions, is known for being political and was instrumental in advancing predator management guidelines adopted by the state—including allowing wolves to be killed by any means any time of day in most of Wyoming.
Wyoming Game and Fish and members of its governor-appointed wildlife commission even seem to condone the practice of running down coyotes with snowmobiles, which has been widely condemned by leading hunters’ organizations as barbaric and unethical. Still, Game and Fish and its commissioners are afraid to speak out, even on principle.
What the state can't control is the opinion of federal courts. This August in Wyoming, a state where a wide range of horrors involving Wildlife Services have been documented since the 1960s {thanks to the late Wildlife Services field agent Dick Randall), a court settlement has struck a blow against Wildlife Service’s use of M-44s in Wyoming. 

The legal action in Wyoming, which focussed on a wide range of Wildlife Services activities, was brought by Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project. Under the agreement, Wildlife Services, in addition to temporarily prohibiting M-44s, must provide, by Jan. 8, 2021, an environmental analysis of the effects and risks of its wildlife-killing program in the state. Never before has it been required to justify its actions.

Wildlife Services was contacted for a response to the Wyoming court settlement but it did not reply.

Others contributing to the full-court press of public scrutiny of Wildlife Services have been the Humane Society of the US, Defenders of Wildlife, Jackson Hole-based Wyoming Untrapped, Project Coyote and grassroots groups in every Western state.

In the wake of the court settlement, which brought a wide array of challenges against Wildlife Services' tactics in Wyoming, field personnel working for the agency can no longer set neck snares and traps in places where grizzlies are known to live. In 2017, Wyoming Untrapped called attention to a grizzly in the Bridger-Teton National Forest that had a coniber trap clenched to its front paw. While rare, grizzlies getting caught in sets made by fur trappers have occurred in other states
This photo, shared by Wyoming Untrapped, shows a grizzly bear on Togwotee Pass in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest with a coniber fur trap clenching its front paw. No one knows what happened to the bear but traps are painful and can cause animals to lose their paws.  In August 2019, following a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, Wildlife Services is temporarily forbidden from using snares and traps to target predators such as wolves and coyotes in grizzly bear range in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Photo courtesy Wyoming Untrapped
This photo, shared by Wyoming Untrapped, shows a grizzly bear on Togwotee Pass in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest with a coniber fur trap clenching its front paw. No one knows what happened to the bear but traps are painful and can cause animals to lose their paws. In August 2019, following a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, Wildlife Services is temporarily forbidden from using snares and traps to target predators such as wolves and coyotes in grizzly bear range in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Photo courtesy Wyoming Untrapped
Also hugely controversial but not directly involving Wildlife Services is Wyoming's allowance of black bears to be baited with artificial foods which create feeding stations allowing hunters to literally shoot bruins over a barrel—a practice deemed unethical and not in compliance with fair chase standards in other states or by the Boone & Crockett Club. In addition, biologists have warned that bear baiting results in food-conditioned bears, represents a major contradiction to rules requiring that tourists and outfitters keep a clean camp with trash and human edibles, and it could result in problems for grizzlies, including grizzlies accidentally killed by black bear hunters in spring and autumn.

And then there is the phenomenon of coyote-killing contests and derbies, which some states have banned because they have no scientific basis for controlling predator populations and are considered antithetical to rules of fair chase and hunting ethics spelled out in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. 

With regard to M-44 use in Wyoming, many observers see a parallel between the court settlement and what's happening nationally involving a growing wave of public scrutiny. All biocides, after all, must have approval from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

On Aug. 16, acknowledging public pressure, EPA made an announcement that conservationists said was both wishy-washy and duplicitous where biocides are concerned. While several national newspapers reported that EPA was imposing a ban on sodium cyanide use, citing misleading information in an EPA press release, its leader merely said that it would be further studied. 

EPA Administrator Andrew R. Wheeler said in a statement: “This issue warrants further analysis and additional discussions by E.P.A. with the registrants of this predacide. I look forward to continuing this dialogue to ensure U.S. livestock remain well protected from dangerous predators while simultaneously minimizing off-target impacts on both humans and nonpredatory animals.”

In fact, EPA backed away from implementing tighter restrictions on sodium cyanide use, says Kelly Nokes, a wildlife attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center.

Responding to Wheeler's action, Brooks Fahy said: "It's obvious from EPA Administrator Wheeler's statement that he's not talking ban. This is just more bullshit restrictions. Wildlife Service's noncompliance has a long documented history. Tweaking the use restrictions won't change anything. Restrictions are not the solution, a nationwide ban is!'

M-44s remain in use for predator control in Nevada, Utah, Colorado (only on private land), Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, and West Virginia.  The devices were banned around 20 years ago in Washington and California.  Idaho placed a temporary moratorium on M-44 use in 2017 and Oregon imposed a permanent ban in spring 2019.

As one critic said, sodium cyanide should be condemned as an agent of terrorism. "Obviously somebody at EPA is paying attention to the public’s concerns about cyanide bombs," Fahy said. "It would appear they’re responding to public outrage over the interim decision from last week. Our phone has been ringing off the hook from concerned citizens regarding their greenlight to continue using these horrific devices. We’ll have to see how this plays out.”

Fahy remembers well the ban on biocides put into place by one Republican president—Nixon, lead by his EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus) but overturned by another—Reagan at the behest of Interior Secretary Watt of Wyoming.  Worth noting is that today a natural resource policy institute is named after Ruckelshaus at the University of Wyoming. 

Carter Niemeyer, who worked for decades as a government field agent and who killed a lot of predators on behalf of ranchers before having a change of heart, is a promotor of non-lethal methods as the first line of defense of protecting livestock. He says biocides are not only unnecessary but even Wildlife Services' personnel don't like using them. Niemeyer is author of Wolfer, a critically-acclaimed books n his time as a predator-control specialist.

If private livestock is grazed on public land, Niemeyer says, ranchers ought to accept the presence of public wildlife that might eat those animals a cost of doing business.

Many observers credit the vigilance of citizens, conservation organizations and independent scientists in the West with forcing Wheeler’s backpedaling at EPA and believe that Western politicians can no longer justify the publicly-subsidized killing campaign using biocides to benefit cattle and sheep producers on public lands.

“It’s past time for the government to stop killing predators for the sake of the livestock industry,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “While the settlement is a temporary reprieve for native wildlife, we hope that taking a hard look at the program will reveal the ineffective and dangerous aspects of these activities, resulting in permanent protections.”
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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