The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it will reauthorize the use of sodium cyanide in wildlife-killing devices known as M-44s, or “cyanide bombs.”
The devices are designed to kill certain animals for predator control purposes. They use a smelly bait to lure in wildlife before releasing deadly sodium cyanide into the mouth of any animal that takes a bite.
But critics say that the traps “inhumanely and indiscriminately” kill thousands of animals every year, posing a danger to endangered species, domestic pets and even humans.
In a statement published on Thursday, the EPA announced a “revised interim decision on sodium cyanide that includes new requirements to ensure continued safe use of the device.” But campaigners have described these restrictions as “minor” and limited.
“This appalling decision leaves cyanide traps lurking in the wild to threaten people, pets and imperiled animals,” Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The EPA imposed a few minor restrictions, but these deadly devices have just wreaked too much havoc to remain in use. To truly protect humans and wildlife from these poisonous contraptions, we need a nationwide ban.”
The M-44s are used by Wildlife Services—a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency that kills millions of animals every year using a variety of methods, ostensibly to protect livestock, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).
The spring-loaded traps are also authorized for use by state agencies in South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Texas.
The USDA’s own data suggests that these spring-loaded traps killed 6,579 animals in 2018—the majority of which were coyotes and foxes. At least 200 of these deaths were non-target animals—such as bears, skunks and opossums—although the real figure is likely higher, the CBD says, accusing the agency of poor data collection. According to Adkins, M-44s are dangerous to wildlife and harmful to ecosystems.
“Numerous endangered species have been killed by the devices, as anything that tugs on [them] will be shot with the poison,” Adkins said in a statement provided to Newsweek. “The animals targeted by cyanide bombs—canids like wolves, coyotes and foxes—play important ecosystem roles as top carnivores, controlling prey populations. For example, coyotes control rodents that spread disease and damage crops.”
Furthermore, the traps pose a risk to humans and their pets, with several recorded instances of people being harmed, Adkins said.
“In 2017, an Idaho teenager, Canyon Mansfield, hiking with his dog on the hill behind his home was temporarily blinded and watched his dog die after he grabbed an unmarked device,” Adkins said.
In August, the EPA announced that it would reauthorize the use of the traps on an interim basis—albeit with certain restrictions that were put in place in response to pressure from environmental groups. But just a week later, the EPA withdrew this decision to hold further discussions with Wildlife Services on the most appropriate language for the M-44 labels. Thursday’s decision now reauthorizes the use of the devices on an interim basis again.
As part of the reauthorization, the EPA has added some new restrictions. For example, the traps cannot be placed within 600 feet of a residence—unless the property owner has given written permission—or 300 feet from designated public paths and roads. The latter restriction is an increase from 100 feet.
Furthermore, the new interim decision requires that the traps must be accompanied by two elevated warning signs within 15 feet, which face in the two most likely directions of approach. Currently, only one sign is required at a distance of 25 feet from the device.
However, critics say that these kinds of restrictions will do little to mitigate the risks posed by these devices and fails to meaningfully address the problem.
“None of the restrictions will prevent non-target wildlife deaths,” Adkins said. “We know from past experience that buffers and signs don’t work: 1) these restrictions are often not followed—as in the Mansfield case where the device was illegally placed and without a sign; and 2) these restrictions don’t eliminate the harm—people and dogs stray from the path when hiking and a couple of signs won’t be visible from all directions or can blow over, et cetera.”
Meanwhile, Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement: “The EPA’s minor revisions do little to reduce the risks sodium cyanide bombs pose to people, fail entirely to address risks to wildlife, including endangered species, and make clear the agency is prioritizing livestock interests over human safety and the environment. The simple solution to preventing further tragedies caused by these inherently dangerous devices is a nationwide ban.”
Campaigners say that such a ban would have the overwhelming support of the public. An analysis conducted by the CBD and Western Environmental Law Center found that more than 99.9 percent of the roughly 22,400 people who submitted comments regarding the previous proposal to reauthorize cyanide bombs asked the EPA to ban them.
Following the Mansfield incident, the state of Idaho imposed a moratorium on the use of M-44s on public lands. Meanwhile, the state of Oregon passed legislation this year banning them in the state. Furthermore, a federal court also recently approved a ban on the use of M-44s by Wildlife Services across more than 10 million acres of public land in Wyoming—the result of an agreement that followed a lawsuit brought by the CBD and other advocacy groups.
Supporters of the use of M-44s, such as the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA,) say that the traps play an important role in protecting livestock.
“NASDA appreciates the EPA’s continued steps to prioritize public safety and support American ranchers, as M-44 is an essential tool for guarding our nation’s livestock,” NASDA CEO Barbara Glenn said in a statement accompanying yesterday’s EPA announcement. “NASDA members hold highly the responsibility of ensuring the viability of American ranches, therefore, improved guidelines for safety measures are always welcomed.”
But according to Adkins, there are safer alternatives that will also be more effective in achieving this aim.
“Killing of wildlife for conflicts with wildlife rarely works because other animals move into the vacant territories and begin breeding,” she said. “Instead, prevention is key, using methods like guard dogs, fencing, flashing lights etc. to deter predators. If the predator must be killed, it is better to use a more targeted method like shooting, rather than indiscriminately killing with a poison.”
“We’re not giving up our fight. We’ll continue to push for state and federal legislation to ban cyanide bombs,” she said.
The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.