Wyoming can have cyanide bombs — but Idaho can’t

One state moves to protect livestock while another wants to use them on predators.


This story originally appeared at WyoFile.com.

Note From Angus Thuermer Jr. to Jim and Cat Urbigkit,

April 15 — I am sorry for the mistake in the original version of this story that mischaracterized your position on the use of M-44 cyanide devices. I took action as soon as I was aware of this mistake to correct it. Although I was unaware when I wrote the story, I understand now that as sheep ranchers you value the use of guardian dogs as a method of predator deterrence and control and have historically opposed the use of M-44s at your operation and in other places. Thus I realize this mistake has the potential to harm your reputation. My mistake was unintentional, this apology is sincere and heartfelt, and this incident will remind me to remain eternally vigilant regarding others’ positions and views.

Editor’s note: Jim and Cat Urbigkit did not specifically say use of M-44 cyanide bombs help keep their operation running, as originally reported by WyoFile; the Urbigkits do not make use of the devices on their property. The Urbigkits, who operate the Paradise Sheep Company near Pinedale, wrote Wildlife Services saying they “would like to go on record in support of Alternative 1” in the federal environmental assessment Predator Damage and Conflict Management in Wyoming. Alternative 1 calls for continuing “the current WS-Wyoming Predator Damage Management (PDM) program using the full range of legally available methods,” including “M-44s for control of coyotes and red foxes.” Also, the story mischaracterized an alternative in the EA as calling for “immediate” cyanide use. WyoFile has corrected the errors and appended the EA comments by the Urbigkits and Sublette County Predator Management District to the story.

Federal administrators who direct killing of predators to protect livestock decided Monday to temporarily ban cyanide bombs in Idaho but plan to continue using the M-44 devices in Wyoming.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the Idaho ban to the activist group Western Watersheds Project in a letter the group made public Monday. The letter responded to a petition Western Watersheds submitted March 28.

The widely criticized devices were recently targeted by a lawsuit, the petition, and legislation after the poison traps killed three family pets and a wolf. The Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services arm plans to continue predator control with the controversial devices in Wyoming, action supported by an environmental review. The plan has drawn 116 comments, most opposing traditional wildlife-killing schemes and the use of cyanide bombs.

The plan is nearing approval as Wyoming residents become more aware of the dangers posed by the devices following the death of two dogs near Casper last month. Just after that incident, another pet in Idaho died from an M-44 cyanide bomb, the release of which also sent a boy to the hospital.

An M-44 cyanide device in Pocatello, Idaho, which is spring-activated and shoots poison meant to kill predators. Environmental groups have petitioned the U.S. Agriculture Department to ban its use of the devices aimed at killing coyotes after one went off near a boy and his dog earlier this month, killing the dog.
Bannock County Sheriff's Office via AP

The 268-page environmental assessment titled Predator Damage and Conflict Management in Wyoming outlines continued use of the poison trap as a preferred alternative. “The methods which may be used by WS-Wyoming would include a variety of frightening devices, ground shooting, aerial shooting, denning, various trap devices, snares, trained decoy and tracking dogs, M-44s for control of coyotes and red foxes, and DRC-1339 for control of ravens and black-billed magpies,” the document says.

Federal Wildlife Services trappers in Wyoming killed 236 coyotes and 65 red foxes with M-44 cyanide bombs last year, according to statistics posted on a federal website. The program is strongly supported by stockmen and the agriculture industry to protect livestock. Wildlife Services killed 24,157 animals in Wyoming last year, including 111 wolves. The agency classified 8,973 of those animals as invasive species, such as European starlings.

Sheep ranchers Jim and Cat Urbigkit, of the Pinedale-based Paradise Sheep Company, are exemplary of such support. They said in comments the program helps keep their operation running. [See editor’s note above.]

“Although we live in a predator-rich environment, we are able to keep our livestock losses low, in large part due to our partnership with Wildlife Services,” the two wrote. “We have found that skilled WS animal damage specialists are able to identify and track individual problem predators and eliminate those animals that are causing our problems — something we are not trained or equipped to do. This targeted removal is an important part of keeping our losses to a minimum.”

Another program supporter, Sublette County Predator Management District, said alternatives to today’s programs and M-44 use would be ineffective. The district rejected an alternative to cyanide use — a program requiring nonlethal efforts to dissuade predators before resorting to killing.

“While Alternative 5 (nonlethal required before lethal control) may sound desirable to some reviewers, it is important to note that many, if not most, livestock producers practice numerous methods of nonlethal control before calling for assistance from Wildlife Services,” district officials said. “This alternative is not viable because it would cause further delay in needed action, and the loss of additional animals, while creating burdensome paperwork with no actual benefit.”

Groundswell against cyanide bombs growing

But most of the comments on Wildlife Services’ plan to continue using poisons supported wildlife over historic killing programs, including use of M-44s. The overwhelming anti-killing sentiment comes despite federal guidelines and rules that seek to minimize unintentional killings. Those guidelines and rules include restrictions to M-44 use in areas where endangered species are present and that hunting dogs and pets are known to frequent. Last year there were three unintentional killings by M-44 cyanide bombs in Wyoming, all of them red foxes, federal statistics show.

Comment on the plan closed Dec. 16 but a decision has not been finalized. An agency spokesman in Washington, D.C. said he would not speculate on when it might be adopted.

While the Department of Agriculture mulls renewal of the program, other forces nationwide have focused on restricting use of or eliminating M-44 cyanide bombs from the agency’s arsenal.

Last week four groups sued to restrict, then review, the use of M-44s and another poison, compound 1080. The cyanide bombs are planted on the ground and release poison when a dog-like predator pulls on bait. Compound 1080 is put in special livestock collars and designed for release when bitten by a predator.

The Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, The Humane Society of the United States and The Fund for Animals filed the lawsuit. It asks that a review of the poisons’ effects on protected species be completed and that the use of them be restricted until then. The groups cited the Idaho incident and the killing of a wolf in Oregon as two reasons for the action. The groups said 321 non-targets were killed by M-44s last year nationwide.

“Cyanide bombs are indiscriminate killers,” Biological Diversity attorney and biologist Collette Adkins said in a statement. “These dangerous pesticides need to be banned, but until then, they shouldn’t be used where they can hurt people or kill family pets and endangered wildlife.”

In Congress, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, introduced a bill March 30 to prohibit sodium cyanide and sodium fluoroacetate, the ingredients in M-44s and Compound 1080 collars, from being used for predator control. The Chemical Poison Reduction Act of 2017 is necessary to reduce the risk to public safety, national security, the environment, and “persons and other animals” that might contact the poisons, the bill says. It would allow a fine and a sentence of up to two years for anyone who violated the proposed law.

The successful Western Watersheds petition argued that the chemicals’ continued use is dangerous and inappropriate. Nineteen public-land, conservation, environmental, and wildlife advocacy organizations signed on to the effort.

“Clearly, it is unsafe and immoral for Wildlife Services to use these poisonous land mines to target native wildlife for killing on lands of any ownership,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, the group spearheading the drive. “Our petition calls upon Wildlife Services to take action to eliminate these brutal and indiscriminate chemical weapons before more kids and pets get hurt.”

Other Wildlife Services services

All told, Wildlife Services killed 7,933 coyotes in Wyoming in 2016, most of them by shooting from an airplane. In addition to M-44 cyanide bombs, Wildlife Services also uses a poison known as DRC-1339 to kill birds in Wyoming. The poison intentionally killed 7,795 starlings plus an additional 5,178 native birds, including crows, ravens and magpies.

Wildlife Services used gas cartridges to remove or destroy 171 coyote burrows or dens and 55 red fox burrows or dens.

Wildlife Services released a statement addressing the dog death in Idaho. “As a program made up of individual employees many of whom are pet owners, Wildlife Services understands the close bonds between people and their pets and sincerely regrets such losses,” R. Andre Bell wrote. “We are grateful that the individual who [was] with his dog when it activated the M-44 device was unharmed, however, we take this possible exposure to sodium cyanide seriously and are conducting a thorough review of this incident.

“Wildlife Services policies and procedures are designed to minimize unintentional actions with domestic pets. It posts signs and issues other warnings to alert pet owners when wildlife traps or other devices are being used in an area for wildlife damage management,” Bell wrote. Victims of the two M-44 incidents, however, said no signs were present where the devices went off.

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