Groups say devices kill non-target wildlife, including pets

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One coyote caught the scent of the photographer and the other is about to while they hunt a meadow.

Federal wildlife workers kill coyotes in Montana with an arsenal of lethal approaches.

They shoot them from helicopters. They shoot them from airplanes. They employ leghold traps. They set snares.

And they use M-44 devices that, once triggered, spray sodium cyanide into the carnivores’ mouths, where it mixes with moisture to form deadly cyanide gas.

The devices are “occasionally used in eastern Montana,” said John Steuber, the Billings-based state director and a supervisory wildlife biologist for Wildlife Services, a program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

They are not used in western Montana, he said, because of the presence of grizzly bears, a threatened species, and gray wolves.

The M-44 ejector devices have stirred controversy because of incidents where they have accidentally killed non-target wildlife and other non-target animals, such as pet dogs, and injured people.

In March 2017, a 14-year-old boy, Canyon Mansfield of Pocatello, Idaho, and his dog were sprayed by an M-44 device after Mansfield saw what appeared to be a pipe in the ground and bent to investigate. Mansfield was injured and the dog died.

The Center for Biological Diversity is among the wildlife advocacy groups that oppose use of the M-44 devices.

“Cyanide traps are indiscriminate killers that just can’t be used safely,” said Collette Adkins, an attorney and biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Wildlife Services says it targets certain species “to resolve wildlife damage that threatens the nation’s agricultural and natural resources, human health and safety, and property.”

Wildlife Services contends the M-44 ejector device “is an effective and environmentally sound wildlife damage management tool.”

The device uses a cyanide capsule registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a restricted-use pesticide.

The M-44 device, which opponents refer to as a “cyanide bomb,” has four parts: a capsule holder; a capsule containing sodium cyanide; a spring-activated ejector and a 5-inch to 7-inch stake inserted in the ground, typically level with its surface.

A specially formulated smelly bait or other attractant is designed to elicit in the target animal a “bite and pull” response. Wildlife Services says it targets coyotes, foxes and feral dogs that are causing damage to domesticated animals.

Death typically occurs within one to five minutes after the cyanide is sprayed into the animal’s mouth, Wildlife Services said.

Steuber emphasized the cyanide devices are not “bombs.” They are spring-loaded, he said.

Adkins acknowledged the Center for Biological Diversity has debated whether to use the term “bombs.”

“Another term we use is ‘cyanide trap,’” she said. “He is right that they use a spring and not explosive material. But the cyanide definitely explodes out of the trap, just as in a bomb.”

Meanwhile, Wildlife Services recently reported that coyotes in Montana remain the state’s top killer of domesticated animals.

Steuber confirmed that coyotes caused more than $550,000 in damages this year, killing nearly 1,500 lambs, 92 sheep, nearly 300 calves, three cattle and four goats. He said attacks by grizzly bears on livestock were up this year, increasing from 98 complaints of depradations or injuries in 2017 to 138 complaints this year.

In 2017, Wildlife Services in Montana dispatched thousands of coyotes with varied methods. They included: 865 shot from the ground; 549 shot from fixed-wing aircraft; 3,893 shot from helicopters; 529 coyotes killed with neck snares; 234 killed with M-44 cyanide traps; 95 killed with foothold traps; and one killed with a foot/leg snare.

Separately, Wildlife Services’ national “Program Data Report” for work in 2017 reveals that numerous animals were killed by mistake with M-44 cyanide devices. Among them were: a gray wolf, skunks, ravens, raccoons, feral swine, opossums, foxes and one pet dog.

Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and other wildlife conservation groups petitioned the EPA to ban M-44s. The agency rejected the petition, noting that the EPA was already conducting a review of the uses of sodium cyanide.

Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, said the government is giving priority to the “minority anti-wildlife ranching industry over making public lands safe for people, imperiled wildlife and companion animals.”

Cotton added, “These dangerous, indiscriminate devices have absolutely no place on public lands, especially given no evidence exists that they actually reduce conflict.”

Steuber said ranchers and farmers suffering losses to coyotes and other predators often reach out to Wildlife Services for help. He said the agency does not use M-44s on any private property without the permission of the landowner or manager.

“In Montana, M-44s are primarily used on private lands with the owner’s permission, but their use is authorized on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land in eastern Montana with seasonal limitations,” Steuber said.

He noted that Wildlife Services is not focused solely on lethal means to control predators like coyotes.

In 2016, the agency began a collaborative predator conflict prevention project with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both parties contributed to buy “turbo fladry” — electric fencing draped with nylon flags — to install around calving pastures to protect cattle and calves from predation, Steuber said.

In February, Wildlife Services hired a full-time conflict prevention specialist responsible for installing turbo fladry and electric fencing to protect livestock. Funding sources for the employee included Wildlife Services, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Steuber said.

In addition, he said, Wildlife Services and these two partners, along with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Vital Ground Foundation, funded a “range rider” position this summer whose presence on horseback helped deter predators from killing cattle on public lands.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at or 758-4407.

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