A rash of dog deaths puts the federal Wildlife Services agency in the hot seat




CRAWFORD, Colo. - The Wright family's living room is cluttered with nostalgia. Old-fashioned gun signs, horseshoes and Hank Williams posters decorate the walls. A banjo and a guitar lean against a wall next to a soft, worn saddle.


Paul Wright's grandmother, Edna, 90, has owned a nearby ranch in this Western Slope cow town for 55 years. "Paul came out here every summer as a kid," says his wife, Lee-Ann. "This is where he wanted to come when he was all grown up." And he did. Paul and Lee-Ann are now caretakers of Edna's 71 acres, where they grow garlic and raise horses, donkeys and geese.


But an experience last spring changed the way the Wrights look at the Old West. On March 3, Paul, his three-year-old daughter, Meaghan, and their boxer/golden retriever mix, Bob, were surveying an irrigation ditch. It was calving season, and Paul knew that his neighbor, rancher Larry Jensen, had called in a trapper with the federal Wildlife Services agency (formerly Animal Damage Control) to set poison traps for coyotes. But Paul figured his daughter and dog were safe on their side of the fence.


Then Bob found something in the grass that caused a puff of white mist. He took off running and collapsed. Paul lifted Meaghan onto his back, picked up the dog and carried both to his van. He sped to the veterinarian's office, where Bob died on the table.


The Wrights later discovered that the government trapper, Gary Hanson, had planted two M-44 cyanide traps on their land. A state investigation found that Hanson had not only trespassed, but broken a suite of federal rules regulating M-44s. Hanson was reprimanded, and later apologized, offering to buy the Wrights a new dog.


The Wrights were not satisfied. They argue that the state botched the investigation and that the trapper escaped with a slap on the wrist. This month, they sued the federal government, asking for $150,000 and a court order forcing Wildlife Services to abide by regulations on M-44s. Wildlife advocates are watching the case closely, hoping that it may lead to reforms in the government's predator-control policies.


"I'm hoping to get these things abolished," says Lee-Ann Wright. "God forbid this happens to some poor old farmer - he hits one with his shovel. Is that when they're going to say, "Gosh, let's not do this anymore'? No. Let's (ban M-44s) before that happens."


The "safe alternative'

An M-44 is a hollow, 6-inch, spring-loaded aluminum cylinder the size of a tent stake, which contains a tablet of sodium cyanide. The cylinder is topped with a cotton-tufted trigger, which is swabbed with smelly goo to attract coyotes. A trapper plants the device in the ground and packs dirt around it. When a curious animal pulls on the trigger, sodium cyanide crystals shoot into its mouth, killing it.


Though critics call the devices dangerous, they're a lot better than the alternative, according to Guy Connolly, a retired Animal Damage Control research biologist in Denver. In the 1930s, government hunter Fred Marlman of Los Animas, Colo., patented "coyote getters," empty .38-Special cartridge cases packed with sodium cyanide and gun powder. When an animal bit down on the trigger, says Connolly, "it ejected just like firing a gun."


In the 1960s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided coyote getters were too hazardous to humans, particularly children. Connolly was part of a team charged with finding a safer alternative. By 1967, the agency had patented spring-loaded M-44s, and by 1970, coyote getters were phased out.


"They now take fewer nontarget animals and are safer," says Connolly. "That was the plan."


The new tools came with a list of 26 restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency. Trappers must have special training and eight months of field experience to become "certified applicators." In most states, government trappers are the only people licensed to use the devices (the exceptions are New Mexico, Texas, Montana, Wyoming and the Navajo Nation, where ranchers can plant their own M-44s). Trappers are also required to post signs warning of pesticide use in the area, and to notify local hospitals of potential accidents.


"There's no question that there are some non-target takes," says Craig Coolahan, Colorado state director for Wildlife Services. "But typically it's a trespassing dog. M-44s are a good tool."


Poisoning predator control

But wildlife groups say M-44s kill indiscriminately, and that, too often, the rules are disregarded. The Tucson, Ariz.-based Wildlife Damage Review says that M-44s injured 21 people between 1985 and 1993. In 1997 alone, according to the group, 1,998 animals were killed accidentally by M-44s, including a bear, bobcats, raccoons and 237 dogs.


The traps got some public attention in 1994, when Amanda Woods' dog was killed by an M-44 on her Harrison, Ore., ranch. Woods tried to resuscitate her dog and suffered secondary poisoning from the sodium cyanide.


Two M-44 accidents in recent months have brought the issue back into the public eye. In December, retired Phoenix physician Bill Bunting was quail hunting on state land in southeastern New Mexico when his two German shorthair dogs were poisoned. Then in early January, an M-44 killed a German shepherd in Estacada, Ore., a suburb of Portland. Wildlife Services had planted eight of the devices in a Christmas tree farm frequented by local children.


"This happens all the time. It's carnage," says Brooks Fahy, executive director of the Eugene-based Predator Defense Institute. His group, along with Boulder-based Sinapu and Wildlife Damage Review, is pushing for a nationwide ban on M-44s. They've attracted the attention of Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, D, who issued a statement following the incident in Estacada, calling Wildlife Services' lethal predator control campaign "inhumane, indiscriminate and dangerous."


DeFazio tagged an amendment to an appropriations bill last fall that would have slashed $7 million from Wildlife Services' predator control budget. The House rejected the amendment by a vote of 230-193. A similar amendment passed the House in 1998, only to be defeated in a revote.


Meanwhile, Fahy is trying to get victims of M-44s to speak out. "The trouble is, these things happen in rural communities. People are afraid the ranching community will come down on them, or their kids go to school with the kids of the trapper," he says. "They get a new dog and shut up."


Not the Wrights in Crawford, where calving season has almost arrived and trappers are already at work. The Wrights say they get funny looks in town, and even threatening letters, but they have vowed to fight.


"I know how the bureaucracy works within the government, and I know that it will take a long time to get rid of these things," says Paul Wright. "Until then, we would like to see them be controlled."


Keri Watson, a former HCN intern, lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Greg Hanscom is an HCN associate editor.




YOU CAN CONTACT ...
  • Wendy Keefover-Ring with Sinapu, P.O. Box 3243, Boulder, CO 80307 (303/447-8655);


  • Nancy Zierenberg with Wildlife Damage Review, P.O. Box 85218, Tucson, AZ 85754 (520/884-0883);


  • Brooks Fahy with the Predator Defense Institute, P.O. Box 5446, Eugene, OR 97405 (541/937-4261); www.envirolink.org/orgs/pdi/index.htm


  • Craig Coolahan with Wildlife Services, 12345 W. Alameda Parkway, Suite 210, Lakewood, CO 80228 (303/969-5775).

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Keri Watson