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for people who care about the West

Some lessons about coyotes stick in your mind


A friend from Nevada, an environmentalist, wrote me recently to say she's been reading the minutes of the Nevada Wildlife Commission, which is using M-4s to kill coyotes in cases of "livestock predation."

The commission is now talking about whether to allow the cyanide guns in "cases of game predation," otherwise known as doing what comes naturally, and Texas authorities are considering similar measures to kill coyotes. She asked what I thought of the idea.

Thirty years ago, when I first heard about M-44s, I asked a neighbor, a longtime South Dakota rancher, what the devices were and what he thought of them. The conversation stuck in my mind.

"It's really a cyanide-explosive gun," he said, "and the government used to set them to kill coyotes and cats. Called them coyote-getters. Matter of fact, I read the other day they're starting to use them again in Wyoming; sheepmen claim they can't get along without them." He snorted. "Sheepmen always need some kind of help from the government.

"Anyway, it's a kind of cylinder"-- his stubby thumb and forefinger formed a circle -- "with a firing pin underneath that shoots cyanide into their mouth. They put the whole thing inside a piece of meat and when the coyote pulls up on the cylinder, see, it fires and the cyanide paralyzes the muscles of their throats so they can't breathe." He demonstrated by clutching his throat so hard he choked.

"They all said it was a great way to kill coyotes, because they don't suffer much. Like if you catch a foot in a trap, you can just chew it off and go on your way with three feet, meaner than hell and awful smart about traps. But they said the cyanide gun would kill them fast and without much pain.

"Guess they never bit on one themselves, though I read about some guy jerked one apart in Wyoming -- he was hunting and didn't know what it was -- and put up quite an interesting struggle before he finally died.

"Well, they found out that it'll kill coyotes all right, because a coyote is like a dog -- he puts his mouth straight over the cylinder and pulls straight back. That fires it right down his throat.

"No good for bobcats and mountain lions, because cats don't bite like that, as you know if you've watched one eat for even a minute. They bite sideways. So they'd set these things out and the cats -- bobcats and lions -- would come up and sort of chew around on the meat. Of course, a cat's pretty smart, and some of them went around jerking the cylinders out sideways. Pretty nervy cat. Cat's got more guts than a dog, any day."

He chuckled and spoke more softly. "The last time I ever used a coyote-getter -- and it will be the last one I ever let on my place -- was about five years ago. I had an old dog I wanted to get rid of, but since it was her pet"-- he gestured toward the kitchen where his wife was cleaning up after supper -- "I didn't want to just go out and shoot it. So there was a dead porcupine down by the creek that I knew he'd been visiting at night." He looked down. "I was so damn smart."

He shook his head. "I took a coyote-getter down there and set it. I thought he'd fire the thing and go off in the hills and die quick, like a decent mutt." The kitchen was quiet, and he lowered his voice almost to a whisper.

"But the darn dog came back here in the middle of the night and came in that hole in the screen door I haven't fixed yet and laid down right here on the porch. And he choked and groaned and howled and carried on. I don't know how he ever walked this far if he was that bad off. He rolled around and coughed and knocked stuff over. Finally I had to get up and come out and hit him over the head to finish him off. He sure punished me plenty for that. She wouldn't speak to me for a week, and I had to drag him over the hill and bury him anyway."

So this is what I think about coyote-getters: They don't belong on the range. Every dog owner and hunter ought to protest the use of these explosive devices, whether in Nevada or any other Western state.

Linda Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a writer and rancher who commutes between Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Hermosa, South Dakota.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].