Despite strong opposition from environmentalists and others, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced this past week that it had reauthorized the use of spring-loaded poison devices known as “cyanide bombs” to kill coyotes, foxes and other animals that prey on livestock.
The devices, officially called M-44s, have been used continuously for more than four decades by Wildlife Services, a program within the United States Department of Agriculture. When a predator stumbles across one of these devices, a capsule containing sodium cyanide, a highly toxic pesticide, is ejected into its mouth.
In August 2017, the WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit that asked the E.P.A. to ban the use of sodium cyanide, generating a review of the program. On Tuesday, the agency announced it would continue using M-44s on an interim basis but would toughen restrictions based on its review.
Last year, the devices killed more than 6,500 animals across the country, according to the Department of Agriculture. More than 200 of the animals killed — including foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, swine and a black bear — were unintentional targets of the cyanide bombs, according to the department.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, issued a statement on Wednesday condemning the decision to reauthorize the devices, saying that they “inhumanely and indiscriminately” kill thousands of animals every year.
When the E.P.A. proposed the renewed use of M-44s at the end of 2018, the public was invited to submit comments through March 2019. More than 20,000 letters were submitted in opposition to the proposal, “an overwhelming majority,” according to the E.P.A.’s decision.
Many people argued that there were safer alternatives available, that the M-44s killed nontargeted wildlife and that too many pets and people were accidentally exposed to the devices in residential areas.
Though in the minority, some groups wrote in favor of the devices, according to the E.P.A.’s review. These included the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association and the Texas Wildlife Damage Management Association. According to the review, these concerns emphasized how much money was lost when livestock was killed by coyotes and foxes and argued that M-44s were an important protection.
The M-44 devices were introduced in 1975 and replaced a gunpowder-fired device called the “Human Coyote Getter” after the agency determined that the M-44 devices would be safer.
Several environmental organizations, however, contend that the M-44 devices are not safe enough.
Predator Defense, a wildlife advocacy group, has been tracking human and pet injuries and fatalities caused by M-44s. In the past 30 years, Predator Defense documented one death, more than 10 human injuries and nearly 50 dogs killed by these devices.
In February 2018, Dennis Slaugh of Utah died after being poisoned 15 years earlier by an M-44, the group said. In March 2017, a teenager in Idaho watched his dog die after accidentally triggering a device near his home. In the same month, two dogs were killed in Wyoming during a family walk, according to Predator Defense.
In its decision, the E.P.A. added a number of restrictions to reduce accidents. Among those: The devices cannot be installed within 100 feet of a public road, a distance increased from 50 feet. Also, warning signs must be placed within 15 feet of a device, decreased from 25 feet.
As part of its review, the E.P.A. also drafted a risk assessment in 2018 and determined that “based on the continued low frequency of sodium cyanide incidents” among humans, “there does not appear to be a concern at this time.”
Under the lawsuit filed in 2017, the E.P.A. must also determine how the poison in the devices could harm wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act. This analysis must be completed by 2021, and the agency’s decision to continue using M-44s might be changed based on the results.
“I remain hopeful that once the E.P.A. really looks at the science and the risks that these devices pose that they’ll do the right thing and ban them,” said Collette Adkins, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
In May, legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Peter DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, that would ban M-44s nationwide. The bill was later referred to a subcommittee, but has not progressed further.
Several states, however, have banned or limited the devices’ use, including Oregon, Idaho and Colorado.