Trump administration reauthorizes lethal cyanide device for predator control

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Christopher Bruno/Wikimedia Commons

Canyon Mansfield and his dog, Casey, set out from their home in suburban Pocatello, Idaho, one day in 2017. They walked up the hill behind their home where they often went together so Canyon, a teenager, could work on homework and pray. At the top of the hill, Canyon saw something resembling a small pipe sticking out of the ground. As he inspected it, the device popped and blasted a misty orange substance all over him and his dog. He had just enough time to shield his mouth, nose and one of his eyes from what was meant to be a lethal dose (for coyotes) of sodium cyanide. 

But the boy’s dog, Casey, caught the blast in its face, and immediately went into a seizure, foamed from the mouth, suffered and died. Canyon watched in horror before fleeing for help. He would suffer both the physiological effects of cyanide poisoning as well as the trauma of being in a place sacred to him and unexpectedly having his dog horrifically killed before his eyes.

The device, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services to kill native carnivores like coyotes, is known as an M-44 sodium cyanide ejector. But critics who advocate for the ban of this predator control device via federal legislation refer to it as a cyanide bomb.

M-44s are small pipe-like devices resembling sprinkler heads or pistol barrels that are buried in the ground and baited with a scented attractant that, when touched, blast a dose of sodium cyanide powder, which is designed to enter the mouth and nose of an animal, where it is absorbed and reacts with the moisture in the animal’s eyes, mouth, nose and stomach to form hydrogen cyanide gas, which is then meant to chemically asphyxiate the animal. During World War II, the Nazis used hydrogen cyanide gas, under the name of Zyklon B, in their infamous gas chambers. A single dose of sodium cyanide in an M-44 contains enough deadly poison to kill approximately eight adults.

In 1996, Colorado voters passed Amendment 14, which banned the use of M-44s and other poisons on public (but not private) lands, along with leghold traps, instant kill body-gripping design traps, and snares, for taking wildlife. However, exemptions were written into this law including those that allowed for many of these banned methods to be used in efforts to kill wildlife for the sake of protecting domestic livestock, as well as to kill native carnivores and omnivores to supposedly increase mule deer populations.

M-44s are authorized for use by USDA’s Wildlife Services, as well as by state agencies in Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming and Colorado. 

Canyon Mansfield survived the M-44 blast, but experienced symptoms of cyanide poisoning following the incident. He and his family have subsequently become advocates for the ban of M-44s via two pieces of legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate known as Canyon’s Law (HR 2471/SB 1301.) The legislation would ban the use of sodium cyanide as well as sodium flouroacetate (Compound 1080). 

Following the incident, the Mansfield family successfully sued the federal government and was awarded $150,000.

But on Dec. 5 — even with the push to pass Canyon’s Law in Congress and the known risks that come with the use of M-44s — the Trump administration sided with the livestock industry when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reauthorized the continued use of M-44s with cyanide for use in killing native carnivores, specifically coyotes, in an attempt to reduce attacks on domestic livestock. This despite the opposition of environmental groups.  

The press release announcing the reauthorization made no mention of Canyon Mansfield. 

Mark Mansfield Canyon Mansfield and his new dog

As part of the reauthorization, EPA created a 600-foot setback between where M-44s can be set and residences with an exception for when landowners request or agree to a closer location. The reauthorization also increased the distance between M-44 locations and designated public paths and roads from 100 feet to 300 feet. 

The reauthorization of the M-44 also now requires that “two elevated warning signs that face the two most likely directions of approach [be placed] within 15 feet of M-44 devices,” according to the EPA. 

“The EPA restrictions are actually weaker than those that were already in place in Idaho when Canyon Mansfield and his dog were poisoned in 2017,” says Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “It is absolutely appalling that the livestock industry, which is supposed to be regulated by the EPA, is instead dictating the agency’s policy to extend the use of deadly M-44 cyanide bombs and their lethal effects on native wildlife, families and their pets.”

Since its first implementation, the sodium cyanide blaster has injured and killed more than coyotes, including people. Between 2014-2018, Wildlife Services killed 59,595 animals across the country with M-44s, intentionally and unintentionally. And with regard to people, “Despite chronic malfunctions, the biggest problem with CGs was their hazard to humans,” according to a USDA report on M-44s. 

These known hazards were reported as early as 1958, when an article in The Denver Post titled “Little-Boy Getters?” examined the use of M-44s, then known as “coyote-getters.” 

When the Post charged that “even well-marked coyote-getters would still be tripped by children and dogs,” then-Executive Secretary of the Wool Growers Association, Robert Field, responded, “I have no defense for the fact that children and dogs cannot read, but parents and dog owners have a responsibility (to protect them).” 

And in response to the ranching industry’s charge that sportsmen afield must be wary of coyote-getters on public lands, the Post responded, “This makes our blood boil. What is obvious about a short piece of small pipe protruding from the ground? And why do sportsmen ‘have to learn?’ Men learned to avoid such things as booby traps and land mines in the late great conflict [World War II], but that was global war abroad, not recreation on public lands at home.” 

Presciently, the Post concluded, “If coyote control is necessary, the agencies who want the control had better find a more sensible way to do it. We’re convinced that if they don’t, they may find themselves very hard to live with some day — some day when a coyote-getter becomes a man-getter, or what we fear even more — a little boy-getter. And then it will be too late.” 

Canyon Mansfield wasn’t the first teenage boy to be injured by a “little boy-getter” — in 1959, only a year after the Post’s article, a 15-year-old boy on a North Dakota farm suffered the loss of an eye due to a [coyote-getter] discharge. 

In 1966, an oil industry surveyor in Coyanosa Draw, Texas, named Raymond Medford unknowingly tripped a loaded coyote-getter in a field. The capsule of sodium cyanide blasted deep into his hand. Although he received medical treatment soon after, the doctor was unaware that Medford was suffering from cyanide poisoning and sent him to his hotel room to rest. Three hours later, Medford was dead.

Between roughly 1984 and 2019, 44 people were exposed to sodium cyanide from M-44s, according to the USDA. Of these incidents, 26 involved Wildlife Services personnel while 18 involved members of the general public. Of these 26, according to a USDA report, the majority of incidents “occurred while employees were setting, inspecting, or pulling M-44s.” Regarding the 18 public exposures, the report claims, “10 were from tampering… five were accidental (stepping on), and four involved dogs that had been exposed and subsequently the people were exposed by touching the dog or giving the dog CPR… One of the human exposures was not from a [Wildlife Services] set M-44 after investigation, but an illegally set M-44.” 

Between 1999 and 2007, Wildlife Services looked at pet dogs killed by M-44s, and found 31 incidents with 34 pet dogs, of which only two survived. Some of these cases involved a dog owner not having their dog leashed while on or near areas with signs warning not to enter because of the presence of M-44s. One exposure occurred because a Wildlife Services trapper failed to remove all M-44s from a property, leaving two behind. Another incident involved a Wildlife Services trapper mistakenly placing M-44s on the wrong property. 

According to a USDA report, between 2011 and 2015, 30 dogs were killed by M-44s on average each year — some were identified as pets while others were considered feral.   

So although the M-44 has changed slightly over the years in the method of its delivery of cyanide — from a projectile cartridge to a blast of mist — the poisoning itself has remained similar over time, along with its threats to non-target species, including people and their pets.

The Trump administration’s recent decision to reauthorize M-44s drew strong opposition from several environmental and wildlife groups, who issued a press release in response to the decision in which they continued to advocate for a national ban on M-44s via support for the aforementioned legislation, known as Canyon’s Law. 

In response to the interim decision regarding M-44 use issued by the EPA in early December, “More than 99.9 percent of people commenting on the proposal asked the EPA to ban M-44s,” according to an analysis by one of the groups. 

“If the EPA was really serious about public safety and the likelihood of killing non-target animals, they would ban the use of M-44 cyanide bombs nationwide,” Molvar says. “This device is completely indiscriminate, killing whatever bumps into it, and as such, cyanide bombs are an enormous risk and liability that should not be deployed anywhere, on public lands or private.”

However, some within the livestock industry hailed the Trump administration’s decision, and were even quoted in the EPA’s press release: “We sincerely appreciate USDA and EPA working together to ensure livestock producers have access to effective predator control, while also increasing public awareness and transparency,” said American Sheep Industry Association President Benny Cox.

“In 2018, the average sheep producer lost $6.20 per ewe,” an American Sheep Industry Association spokesperson tells Boulder Weekly, “that loss is largely as a result of higher wages for help and losses to predators; every lamb lost to a predator reflects a full year’s loss of production for that ewe. Like everyone, farmers and ranchers are facing increasing input costs, but they have a limited influence on the price for the raw commodities they sell, so controlling predator losses is critical to our ability to provide lamb and wool.”

The spokesperson added, “Sodium cyanide is the most effective, most targeted and safest predator control method available to livestock producers, approved by three successive administrations.” 

Similar support came from Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a press release where he said, “having access to every tool in the toolbox allows our ranchers to continue to protect the herd.”

But not everyone believes that the ranching industry really needs M-44s to protect livestock.

Native predators account for a relatively small percentage of cattle losses, according to the USDA. In the most recent available report covering cattle and calf losses from 2010, a total of 3.99 million cattle and calves were estimated to have been lost. Of these, 3.77 million, or 94.5%, were estimated as non-predator losses from causes such as disease, while 220,000, or 5.5%, were estimated as having been lost from predators. In terms of financial losses, non-predator losses were estimated at $750.65 million, whereas predator losses were estimated as being just $2.43 million.  

Non-predator losses also outweigh predator losses for goats and sheep, according to a 2010 USDA report, by a margin of roughly 2-to-1. 

Critics assert predator control is an ineffective way of reducing native carnivore attacks on domestic livestock and may even increase the prevalence of such attacks. 

“Predator killing in general does nothing to reduce livestock losses, and indeed can increase those losses,” Molvar says. “When coyote or wolf packs break into smaller numbers of animals, they can lose their ability to take native prey animals, which can cause them to switch to docile sheep and cattle that often are allowed to graze deep into backcountry areas.”

On Dec. 18, soon after the EPA announced its decision, a coalition of environmental groups joined the First Gentleman of Colorado, Marlon Reis, in calling for a nationwide ban on the use of M-44s. A press release by the coalition and Reis offers support for Canyon’s Law.

“In Colorado we value the humane treatment of animals, whether they are in our homes or on our public lands,” Reis stated in the press release.

Under pressure from environmental and wildlife groups, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a state bill banning M-44 use in Oregon in May. Following the incident where Canyon Mansfield was injured, M-44s were banned in Idaho. 

A reported total of 5,608 coyotes were killed in the U.S. using M-44s in 2018. But M-44s are often triggered by animals without any animal — alive or dead — being found afterward, leaving nothing to record when an animal has likely been killed. “It is believed that 50% of the [sodium cyanide] capsules fired without an animal found… possibly involved take or the animal being taken away by people or a scavenger,” according to the USDA. 

During 2018, Wildlife Services reported killing approximately 2.6 million animals in the U.S. and close to 38,000 in Colorado. But as large as this number seems, it may represent fewer animals than Wildlife Services actually killed, according to the USDA report and Molvar, who says, “Many of the animals that are killed go unreported, based on statements of former Wildlife Services employees themselves.”

The EPA’s recent decision to continue the use of M-44s marks a discouraging new low in the long effort by environmental and wildlife groups to ban the use of these deadly devises. It is an effort that began in earnest in 2007 and has spanned multiple administrations and EPA directors.

The last major push by environmentalists came in 2017 when The Center for Biological Diversity submitted yet another petition asking for the discontinued use of M-44s. The EPA denied that petition’s request in late 2018  and in August 2019 promised to reevaluate the use of the devises. It appears the Dec. 5 Trump administration reauthorization is the answer to that reevaluation process, which brings us up to the present day. 

So, although there is major controversy over whether the killing of native carnivores like coyotes, especially with M-44s, actually decreases the incidence of attacks by those animals on domestic livestock, while M-44s exist on the landscape, it appears they will continue to be a lethal threat, not only to domestic pets and wildlife, but also to people.