EPA revises the interim decision to use the M-44 cyanide ejection device

by Brian Bahouth

"Coyote" by Monkeystyle3000 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The M-44 is a trap typically deployed to kill animals that prey on livestock or endangered species. It 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 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.

On August 6 of this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reauthorized the use of sodium cyanide on an interim basis in the M-44 predator control device. Within days the agency withdrew the decision because the EPA determined more time was needed for discussions with USDA on the most appropriate and enforceable label language for several of the M-44 label restrictions.

On December 5, the EPA announced revisions to the interim decision. The move is part of the re-registration review process required by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). A review is conducted every 15 years.

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.

In Nevada, 2018 marked a significant decrease in the number of coyotes killed with the M-44. By contrast, in 2017, Wildlife Services in Nevada killed 4,662 coyotes. M-44s killed 262 of them. In 2018, the M-44 kill number was 106.

The EPA said in a press release that it worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in making the decision to revise M-44 placements.

EPA’s two new restrictions include:
• A 600-foot buffer around residences where M-44s cannot be applied (except for that of a cooperating landowner who has given written permission for placement of the devices on their property).
• Increasing from 100 feet to 300 feet the distance from designated public paths and roads where M-44s cannot be used.

In addition, to further protect public health, the interim decision also expands upon Use Restriction 23, which requires two elevated warning signs that face the two most likely directions of approach within 15 feet of M-44 devices. Currently, only one sign is required, at a distance of 25 feet from the device.

Data from Wildlife Services – graph – Nevada Capital News

The livestock industry supported the December 5 decision to modify M-44 placement offsets and not prohibit its use.

“We sincerely appreciate USDA and EPA working together to ensure livestock producers have access to effective predator control, while also increasing public awareness and transparency,” said American Sheep Industry Association President Benny Cox. “Livestock producers face heavy losses from predators, amounting to more than $232 million in death losses annually. We are particularly vulnerable during lambing and calving, where we see the worst predation.”

Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said the M-44 was an important tool for his members.

“NCBA, and many of our affiliates such as the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, appreciate EPA’s decision to retain the use of this important tool. Livestock producers have to contend with predation of livestock on a daily basis and having access to every tool in the toolbox allows our ranchers to continue to protect the herd,” Lane said.

Colette Adkins, carnivore conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity said that the devices are unnecessary, recklessly indiscriminate, and too hazardous to be deployed.

“Think about someone hiking the public lands with their dogs. Anytime you stray from the path, you’re at risk of getting harmed by these devices. This is really too risky to be used at all,” Adkins said in a phone interview.

According to Adkins, there are numerous 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?

The recent decision to continue the use of the M-44 is not final and subject to further review from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Wildlife Service has until December 31, 2021 to complete an assessment of the impacts of the sodium cyanide and the M-44 on endangered species. 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. A Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit prompted the inquiry.

“We’re going to keep the pressure on the agency,” Adkins said. “What we’ve already seen is state level bans. Just earlier this year in Oregon, the state legislature, they passed a ban. There’s federal legislation to ban the devices. We’re going to keep bringing lawsuits against Wildlife Services, the main program that use the devices.

“We’ve had success. Just earlier this year, Wildlife Services in Wyoming agreed to stop using the devices on more than 10 million acres of public land until they more fully analyze the risks of using the devices. So we’re hopeful that with these efforts, the use of these devices will continue to decline over time. But we really are not holding out for the EPA to do the right thing. They showed us today that they’re really just willing to appease the interest of the livestock industry.”

Other reports on the M-44:
August 9, 2019: The Environmental Protection Agency reauthorizes the use of sodium cyanide in the M-44 predator control device
May 23, 2019: Predatory pest control in Nevada and the M-44 cyanide ejector device


Brian Bahouth is environment and science writer for Nevada Capital News. He has been a public media producer since 1994. Brian and his family have lived in Reno since 1999.