The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reauthorized the use of sodium cyanide in the M-44 predator control device. The M-44 is a mechanism that is pounded into the ground and baited with a smelly lure. When an animal tugs on the bait, the spring-loaded device delivers a lethal dose of sodium cyanide into the animal’s mouth; the animal dies within 1 to 5 minutes. The trap is typically deployed to kill animals that prey on livestock or endangered species.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services is the only agency licensed by the EPA to use sodium cyanide in the M-44. Primary targets of the M-44 include coyotes, feral (wild) dogs, and red and gray foxes. 2018 marks a significant decrease in the number of coyotes killed with the M-44. In 2017, of the 4,662 coyotes Wildlife Services killed in Nevada, M-44s killed 262 of them. In 2018, the M-44 kill number was 106.

Data from Wildlife Services – graph – Nevada Capital News

The device is controversial. In Idaho, an M-44 temporarily blinded a child and killed three family dogs in two incidents in 2017.  That same year, an M-44 set in Oregon accidentally killed a wolf. In response, Idaho maintains a moratorium on M-44 use on public lands, and earlier this month, Oregon passed legislation banning them in the state.

As part of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the agency reviews each registered pesticide every 15 years to determine whether it continues to meet the FIFRA standard for registration. The recent decision to continue the use of the M-44 is not final but subject to further review from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2011, the EPA requested that the US Fish and Wildlife Service determine the potential effects of pesticides containing sodium cyanide on species listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, to include their habitats. The Fish and Wildlife Service has said it will complete the consultation by December 31, 2021.

According to the recent decision, the EPA will complete the listed species consultation for sodium cyanide prior to completing the final sodium cyanide registration review. The EPA will also complete endocrine screening for sodium cyanide in accordance with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) before completing the final registration review of sodium cyanide.

In June of this year, the Western Environmental Law Center conducted an analysis of the public comment regarding the use of sodium cyanide in the M-44. Colette Adkins is carnivore conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity and said the EPA’s decision flaunts the will of citizens.

“This (decision) follows a public comment period where more than 22,000 people asked the EPA to ban these devices,” Adkins said in a phone interview. “In fact, 99.9 percent of the commenters asked for a ban, and only 10 comments were submitted in support of renewing the registration of poison.”

Adkins said the EPA did make a few new rules in response to public comment and the dogged insistence of the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and other groups. But for Adkins, the decision is flawed.

“The EPA is really just doing what the livestock industry has asked it to do. The comments that were submitted in support of renewing registration of this pesticide largely came from livestock industry groups like wool growers or agricultural interest, trade interest organizations. Nearly all the comments that were submitted have asked for an outright ban, but we just got a handful of restrictions.”

In August 2017, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity formally petitioned the EPA to deny the use of sodium cyanide in the M-44 ejection device. The request was comprehensive in its scope and specificity:

The groups requested that the EPA cancel all active and pending registrations for sodium cyanide and suspend all sodium cyanide registrations pending completion of cancellation proceedings. They asked that the EPA invoke a stop order prohibiting all current and future use of sodium cyanide effective immediately. The petition also asked the EPA to initiate special review proceedings for all sodium cyanide registrations.

The EPA denied the petition with the following explanation:

The petition did not contain substantial new information demonstrating a need for review outside of the registration review process. The petition was subsequently denied, and a copy of the response letter was added to the public docket for sodium cyanide on November 20, 2018.

Despite the denial, in its recent decision the EPA did implement a few changes to M-44 policy. Here are a few highlights:

“Applicators intending to place an M-44 device within a 0.5 mile radius of a residence that is located on or off the property where M-44s are authorized for use must notify the occupants prior to placement. Notification must be in a manner that ensures that the message was delivered, either in person or using door tags for each residence.”

Rules currently prohibit applicators from placing M-44 devices “within 200 feet of any lake, stream, or other body of water…” The EPA is requiring the following language to be added in order to reduce the likelihood of M-44 devices entering water bodies. “M-44 devices may be set within 200 feet of frozen bodies of water only if they are (i) removed before the water body is no longer completely frozen, and (ii) are set at such elevation to prevent inundation in the event of an untimely thaw.”

Current regulations require Wildlife Services officers to place M-44 devices “at least at a 50-foot distance or at such a greater distance from any public road or pathway as may be necessary to remove it from sight of persons and domestic animals using any such public road or pathway.” The EPA is requiring that the 50-foot distance be increased to 100-feet in an effort to “further decrease the likelihood of accidental exposure to M-44 devices.” The EPA writes that “the agency believes that it is not uncommon for pedestrians and domestic pets to venture 50-feet beyond roads and paths.”

Regulations currently require that “each M-44 device shall be inspected at least once a week…” and the agency is requiring that this language be clarified by adding the phrase “by an applicator” as it exists already on some labels.

The agency is requiring the addition of the clause “including when in transit” to the current language that requires M-44 devices to be stored under lock and key, in effort to increase accountability and safety of stored sodium cyanide devices.

Collette Adkins said the changes to the rules make M-44 use “a little better,” but for Adkins, nothing short of banning the use of sodium cyanide and the M-44 is acceptable.

“The problem is that as long as the devices are out there on the landscape, people and wildlife are going to be killed, and that’s unacceptable.”

Adkins said there are numerous other management techniques that could replace the M-44.

“There are so many different methods that can be used to address conflicts with coyotes, many of which are non-lethal and proven to be effective. Things as simple as good animal husbandry, having people present like range riders that are tending to heard. Pulling animals when they’re giving birth, disposing of any dead animals that could attract predators, using sound or light devices that startle predators. And even beyond all the non-lethal tactics, there are lots of tools that Wildlife Services does use that are much more targeted, like shooting animals instead of just laying out these devices that pose the risk of killing somebody.”

What’s next?

Based on the recent decision, Wildlife Service is authorized to continue using sodium cyanide and the M-44, but the final decision will be made after the US Fish and Wildlife Service completes its assessment of the impacts of the sodium cyanide and the M-44 on endangered species by the last day of 2021.

“So we’re really hoping that the Fish and Wildlife Service will do a great job explaining to EPA all the risks that these devices pose to endangered wildlife, and that finally that will get through to EPA and they’ll suspend the registration. If they don’t, we will consider litigation at that time. But in the meantime, we’ll keep pushing for a legislative fix. There’s been federal legislation introduced to ban M-44s. We’ll keep working towards state level solutions as well.”


Brian Bahouth

Brian Bahouth is the editor of Nevada Capital News. His reporting focuses on the environment, energy, and money in politics. He also produces The Wild Hare podcast. Contact Brian. Support Brian’s work. Twitter.