Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

Nearly 100 private citizens and environmental groups in Oregon and beyond are pushing back against the use of cyanide capsules as a means of predator control.

In a letter sent in September to the state and federal agencies that use M-44 devices, which fire a burst of sodium cyanide poison when triggered, the groups called for a ban in Oregon. Other states in the West have already done that. The groups criticized the practice as being ineffective, undermanaged and dangerous to humans, pets and other animals.

“This is a no-brainer, and I still find it hard to believe that this is still going on,” said Brooks Fahy, executive director of the Oregon conservation nonprofit Predator Defense, one of the groups leading the effort.

M-44 devices — sometimes derogatorily called “cyanide bombs” — are small, spring-loaded devices designed to control populations of coyotes, foxes and wild dogs, according to material from Wildlife Services, a federal program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

The devices contain a capsule filled with sodium cyanide that’s partially buried in the ground and coated with a substance that’s designed to attract canines. When an animal triggers the device, a lethal dose of sodium cyanide is ejected.

The traps are designed to handle wild canines that attack poultry or livestock, especially sheep and lambs. According to material from Wildlife Services, coyotes killed more than 118,000 sheep and lambs nationwide in 2015, and livestock owners lost $32.5 million from attacks on sheep and lambs by all predators that year. The federal agency considers M-44 devices a vital tool in fighting depredations.

“Without an effective predator management program that combines lethal and nonlethal methods, losses to predators would be significantly higher,” the material reads.

Still, Fahy said the devices kill animals indiscriminately. The petition notes that Wildlife Services reported 246,985 animals killed by M-44s from 2000 through 2016, ranging from grizzly bears to kangaroo rats to red-tailed hawks. The devices killed 4,621 animals in Oregon alone during that time, making local headlines in 2017 after a device killed OR-48, a collared gray wolf living in Northeast Oregon.

“Any animal that is attracted to scents is at risk,” Fahy said. “What’s reported is a small fraction of what’s been done.”

Fahy said pets and even children aren’t immune from the impacts. The letter notes the devices have killed pets and injured people across Oregon, from Estacada to Philomath. Fahy said an incident in spring 2017 in which an M-44 device killed a dog and hospitalized a teenager in Pocatello, Idaho, drew national attention and prompted Wildlife Services to stop using the devices in Idaho.

“It’s not if a child’s going to be killed, it’s when,” he said. “This is a ticking time bomb.”

Fahy said the devices have been around for decades, dating back to the “coyote getters” used in the West during the 1950s. However, he said the problem has been compounded by more and more people visiting and moving to rural parts of the Western United States, where the barriers between public and private land begin to blur.

“There is no place anymore that people don’t venture to,” Fahy said.

The EPA has a set of restrictions on where M-44 devices may not be used, including areas where species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act may be affected, and areas with national forests that are set aside for recreational use. Fahy said those restrictions are often not followed.

Fahy said he’d like to see Oregon follow in the footsteps of Idaho and Colorado, two Western states that have halted the use of M-44 devices. Ideally, he said, agencies could shift their focus onto keeping predators away from livestock through nonlethal measures.

“I’d like to think, in my lifetime, we’d be able to end this,” he said.

—Reporter: 541-617-7818,