Last year, it appeared that the Trump administration was moving toward prioritizing public safety while also protecting our nation’s wildlife instead of bankrolling an ineffective predator control program for the livestock industry. In August, following sustained public outcry, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was reconsidering the reauthorization of controversial M-44s — sodium cyanide bombs that indiscriminately kill thousands of animals each year.
The EPA reversed course last month, however, declaring that the agency would continue to allow M-44s to be set on designated public and private lands across the country, albeit with some minor caveats, such as placing two elevated warning signs 15 feet from each device.
M-44s are benign-looking cylindrical canisters that release deadly powder when triggered — say by a dog pulling the cylinder with his teeth, or a curious child tampering with what resembles a sprinkler head.
USDA’s Wildlife Services deploys M-44s as part of its arsenal of deadly tools. The federal program, which essentially functions as the government’s extermination service, spends millions of taxpayer dollars each year killing in excess of a million animals, purportedly to fulfill its stated mission of “allow[ing] people and wildlife to coexist.” Wildlife Services shoots native wildlife from the air and on land, and sets cruel body-gripping traps that crush foxes, opossums, raccoons, beavers, otters, and countless other species (target and nontarget alike).
Since the 1970s, Wildlife Services has admitted to killing more than 10,000 nontarget animals with M-44 devices, including grizzly bears, bald eagles and wolves.
In one of the most high-profile cases pointing to the dangers of M-44s, 14-year-old Canyon Mansfield was walking with his dog behind their home in Idaho in 2017 when they accidentally triggered an M-44 device. The teenager witnessed his pet yellow lab endure an agonizing death. That same year, two dogs in Wyoming met similarly brutal, unnecessary deaths while hiking with their human families. Thankfully, Mansfield did not receive a direct hit of sodium cyanide, but the exposure he did receive caused him to suffer debilitating health effects. He and his family have since become powerful advocates against M-44s.
In response to this horrific incident, Wildlife Services instituted an ongoing moratorium on M-44 use on public lands in Idaho, and Congressmen Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced federal legislation to ban the use of sodium cyanide and another lethal poison, sodium fluoroacetate (more commonly known as Compound 1080), in the name of wildlife control.
The threats to human and public safety shouldn’t be underestimated, given that both sodium cyanide and Compound 1080 are classified by the EPA as Category 1 toxins — the deadliest type of poisons. In fact, Compound 1080 was a component of Saddam Hussein’s chemical stockpile. One teaspoon of this odorless, colorless and tasteless poison is enough to kill 100 people. And yet, despite this alarming evidence, the Chemical Poisons Reduction Act (also known as “Canyon’s law,” H.R. 2471), remains stalled in committee.
Fiscal conservatives, in particular, have ample reason to rally behind this bipartisan effort to reform Wildlife Services. The program received $129 million in the fiscal year 2020 spending package, with the vast majority of funds allocated for “wildlife damage management” (i.e., lethal control efforts).
For years, the right-leaning Taxpayers for Common Sense has urged Wildlife Services to dramatically curb its lethal control program, rightfully calling it a “taxpayer handout” and “expensive subsidy” for the livestock industry. Ranchers rely on the government to dispatch unwanted predators — all on the taxpayer’s dime — rather than improve their own techniques to keep livestock safe by employing proven coexistence tools, including guard dogs, range riders, lights, flags, and other deterrents.
The widespread use of sodium cyanide to kill wildlife wasn’t always legal. In 1972, President Nixon signed an executive order banning the use of highly toxic chemicals to target predatory animals and birds on public lands. Citing the “increasing concern to the American public,” Nixon explained that “we must use more selective methods of control that will preserve ecological values while continuing to protect livestock.”
Subsequent actions chipped away at Nixon’s order, and it was fully revoked in 1982. Two decades later, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General raised concerns about Wildlife Services’ ability to fully account for and securely stockpile poisons like sodium cyanide, noting that these chemicals remain vulnerable to theft and unauthorized use and “may pose a risk to human and animal safety.”
Hearkening back to the Nixon administration’s more prudent approach to the use of highly toxic and indiscriminate poisons on public lands, the Chemical Poisons Reduction Act strikes the right balance in protecting animals, the environment and the American public.
We can’t wait for the next child, pet or adult to discover these land mines set by the government. The public must demand that Congress, the president or the agencies themselves finally take decisive action to end the use of M-44s.
Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior advisor for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, a nonprofit group working to reduce animal suffering caused by people. She also serves on the advisory board of Predator Defense, an Oregon-headquartered national nonprofit that protects native carnivores and sheds light on government-sponsored lethal control programs.