Versions of this blog first appeared as op-eds in the Helena Independent Record, Billings Gazette, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Missoulian.
M-44 cyanide ejectors mistakenly killed a wolf in Oregon, injured a young boy and killed his yellow lab in Idaho, and poisoned two more dogs in front of their families in Wyoming in recent weeks. In response, Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced H.R. 1817, the Chemical Poisons Reduction Act of 2017, a bill that would ban the chemicals used in M-44s (and the poison Compound 1080) from being used for any type of “predator control.”
We applaud Rep. DeFazio and support his bill. The incidents above account for just a few of the hundreds of “non-target” deaths caused by M-44s throughout the country each year. These horrific accidents, and the use of M-44s to poison our wildlife, must come to an end.
M-44s are essentially stakes in the ground fitted with a smelly bait that, when pulled by an animal, shoot sodium cyanide powder into its mouth. In 2016 alone, M-44s were used in a handful of states, including Montana, to kill more than 12,500 coyotes and nearly 700 red and gray foxes, primarily in an effort to protect livestock.
Most M-44s are set by the federal agency Wildlife Services. Others are set by private businesses and individuals. In Montana, for example, Department of Agriculture rules allow anyone who wants to set M-44s to do so, as long as they have undergone a training course and passed a written exam.
But there are many problems with these devices. First, they can be indiscriminate. They can kill any coyote or fox that comes along and tugs on the bait, whether that animal has ever bothered livestock or not. And every year, M-44s kill hundreds of non-target animals. Those have included black bears, fishers, swift and kit foxes, eagles, and pets.
Second, they are deadly. When any animal—target or non-target—triggers an M-44, there is no second chance. They are so dangerous that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued 26 use restrictions limiting the ways, reasons, and places that M-44s may be employed, and requiring anyone setting them to carry a cyanide antidote kit and to alert local medical professionals in case an accident occurs.
Third, killing predators is rarely a long-term solution. Soon after a coyote, or family of coyotes, are killed, others from a nearby territory will simply take their place, and the cycle of killing will continue. Instead of poisoning thousands of coyotes and foxes year after year, we should increase our investments in durable measures such as electric fencing, livestock guardian dogs, and herders and riders on horseback that can reduce livestock-predator conflicts over the long term while keeping both livestock and wildlife alive.
I’m excited, for example, to have recently begun working with Wildlife Services and ranchers to install specialized electric fencing called “turbo fladry” around pastures in Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota to protect cattle and sheep from wolves and coyotes. These projects have so far proven effective, instructive, and a welcome opportunity for collaboration in an era of political divisiveness and rancor.
And opportunities for additional projects and partnerships abound. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, as of 2014 less than half of sheep operations in Montana were night penning, only about a third were using deterrent fencing, and only eight percent were using herders. I would welcome the opportunity to work with any interested livestock producer to help initiate, continue, or expand measures like these—in Montana and beyond.
I recognize that non-lethal efforts like these are not a panacea for preventing conflict. On occasion, predators may become habituated, or depredate repeatedly, or pose a risk to human health or safety, and may need to be killed. But removals should be done in a targeted, humane manner that selects not only for the intended species, but for the intended individual as well. Setting M-44s in places where non-target, non-offending animals could be killed is antithetical to that goal.
With so many other tools available to protect livestock, there is little reason to continue to rely on something as risky as an M-44. The time has come for us to move past the days of poisoning our wildlife. Accidentally killing family pets, or any other animal, is not just a mistake—it’s a tragedy that none of us want to see happen. There are more proactive, humane, and collaborative ways for us to protect livestock that ensure a place for our native carnivores and the safety of our (human and animal) families. It’s time to retire the M-44.