As Critics Push To Ban ‘Cyanide Bombs,’ Ranchers Share What’s At Stake

Jul 1, 2019

About a dozen states – including Montana and Wyoming – are allowed to use a controversial device called the M-44. Advocates say it’s an important tool to protect sheep from coyotes. Critics call it a ‘cyanide bomb’ and say it’s too risky for humans and pets. Now, several environmental groups are pushing to ban them at the state and federal level.

“You want to watch which way the wind’s blowing. Here the wind is blowing to our left so I’d want to be a little more upwind,” says Stephen Vantassel, a vertebrate pest specialist with Montana’s Department of Agriculture.

Behind his office in Lewistown, Vantassel is showing me how to set up an M-44. He carefully screws the cap onto the part buried in the ground. 

“This is the most dangerous part because if it fires, that dust is going to go somewhere, so you want that dust moving away from you. So you’re going to be wearing your face shield.”

An M-44 is a spring-loaded device that kind of looks like a sprinkler head. The cap is wrapped in fabric that smells like meat, and if a coyote or fox bites on it and pulls up, it sprays sodium cyanide powder – a federal Category One toxicant – into its mouth. 

Vantassel has me stand back as he sets off the trigger with his hand.

A white powder shoots up several feet into the air in a thin, straight line. Because this is a demo, the substance is cornmeal – not sodium cyanide. The real stuff can kill a coyote in less than five minutes

Some ranchers say M-44s are one of the few tools they have to protect their livestock and livelihoods, but these devices could be taken away. In 2017, a teenage boy in Idaho survived an accidental poisoning from an M-44 near his house. His dog did not. The incident received national attention and fueled several environmental groups trying to ban them.

After Oregon banned sodium cyanide devices this spring, several Congressman re-introduced legislation that would do the same at the federal level. 

Erik Molvar is the Wyoming-based executive director for Western Watersheds Project, an environmental conservation organization. 

“There seems to be a lot of momentum right now to get rid of M-44s for good so that we can be safe out there and we don’t have to worry about tripping over a hidden mine that’s going to unleash a poison gas that could kill members of the human community, or non-target wildlife or pets and other domestic animals,” Molvar says.

Molvar’s organization is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, an agency that uses M-44s to control coyote populations. 

“We need to end the war on wildlife in the western United States, and the livestock industry needs to change their business model so that they can coexist with all of the native wildlife,” says Molvar.

But the former president of the Montana Wool Producers Association says ranchers shouldn’t have to gamble with their livelihoods. Dave McEwan says he uses M-44’s on his property in northern Montana. 

“I don’t spend four weeks a year with no sleep lambing so that I can feed coyotes,” says McEwan.

He has around 700 breeding female sheep and says protecting them is a lot of work and expensive. 

“We’re using guard dogs; we’re using fencing; we’re using my diligence or somebody’s diligence. Some people use herders. You know, that’s a couple thousand dollars a month. Guard dogs aren’t free, and fencing is always maintenance,” McEwan says.

Even with all this, McEwan says predators – mostly coyotes – kill about 30 percent of his lambs every year, and sheep that are stressed and always on the look-out don’t put on as much weight. 

So McEwan uses lethal tactics, as well. He pays Wildlife Services $900 to come out to his ranch in the early spring to shoot coyotes from a small plane. The rest of the year he works with an agent to install and monitor M-44s in his sheep pastures.

McEwan says not having these devices can be catastrophic. 

“We lost 75 lambs to coyotes when we pulled the M-44s in those two weeks,” he says.

M-44s cannot be used in places where there are federally protected predators. When a pair of grizzly bears showed up on his ranch and killed 15 of his sheep, he had to remove the devices until Fish, Wildlife and Parks moved the bears and gave the all-clear that they were out of the area.

Ranchers can get compensation for livestock killed by grizzlies, wolves and cougars. But there’s nothing in Montana to cover livestock killed by coyotes.

Even if there was, McEwan says, “Compensation is not the answer. I don’t raise sheep and I don’t do this, what I do, to have them, basically have their guts ripped out and then lay there and die and half of them consumed so they can kill another one tomorrow.” 

It’s hard to find solid stats on the number of livestock being killed by coyotes and how many M-44s are actually out on the landscape. Stephen Vantassel with the Department of Agriculture says there probably aren’t any on public land in Montana. But Wildlife Services declined an interview, and these records aren’t made available to the public.

What is publicly available are the numbers of wildlife killed by the agency.

Last year Wildlife Services killed 110 coyotes and 5 red foxes with M-44s in Montana. They shot almost 7,000 coyotes; caught another 800 with snares and 100 with leg-hold traps.

Carter Niemeyer worked for Wildlife Services in western Montana from 1975 to 2000. He says there were probably at most a couple hundred M-44s set in Montana at any given time, mostly on private land with some on public land where sheep producers had grazing rights. He says he thinks there are fewer today.

Niemeyer says one reason is that livestock producers have started using guard dogs.

“I would bet the majority of Wildlife Services trappers cannot in good conscience professionally set M-44s with all these sheep dogs,” says Niemeyer.

He says it would just be too risky, even though rancher Dave McEwan says they can be trained not to go near the devices. 

Niemeyer says another reason for fewer M-44s is that there are fewer places in Montana where they’re allowed as human and wildlife populations grow and spread out. 

He says he recently talked to one of his former colleagues who still works for Wildlife Services in Montana.

“He just said that the country is so full of people and pets, and everyone accompanied by dogs these days, that he himself, he doesn’t set them. He didn’t feel comfortable putting them out because of the risk. To the best of his knowledge, most of the trappers prefer not to use them, which is similar to my experience.”

Niemeyer says there are better options for managing predators. 

A number of studies argue non-lethal methods like guard dogs and range riders are actually more effective at protecting livestock. Plus killing off one pack of coyotes could lead to another moving in, and killing the older, breeding female can trigger her younger sister or daughter to start having pups. 

But Niemeyer doesn’t expect M-44s to disappear without a fight.

“In my opinion, the M-44s, whether they’re totally banned tomorrow isn’t going to make a tinkers-damn-worth of difference in predator control, but agriculture has a huge, powerful, effective lobby,” says Niemeyer. 

Back in Lewistown, Stephen Vantassel, Montana Department of Agriculture, pushes back on Neimeyer’s position. He says ranchers have so few tools to deal with predators already that losing one more would make their work even harder.

Vantassel packs up the M-44 demo, and we walk into his office. Vertebrate biology books line his shelves. A poster of illustrated owls hangs by the door.

“It’s hard for urbanites to understand,” he says. “They’ll say, they may use arguments like, ‘Well, the coyote’s just doing what’s natural to the coyote.’”

He counters with a shoplifter analogy.

“Maybe the shoplifter’s just hungry and wants a candy bar, but that’s costing that store owner money the same way that coyote is costing that producer money. So when you think about the thin margins that some of these producers are working under, these types of losses can be – not just only emotionally severe but also – financially severe.”

Vantassel says there are a lot of misconceptions about M-44s. 

“I understand that some people have opposition to M-44s, but when people call them cyanide bombs ... You watched it go off. Were your ears ringing? Did you feel the shockwave? So you can see how that’s really flamboyant, and it doesn’t help the conversation,” says Vantassel.

He says the safety and effectiveness of any tool – whether it’s a hammer or an M-44 – depends on the user. 

Anyone who uses M-44s in Montana must be trained and licensed by the Department of Agriculture, and it’s not an easy process. You have to take a test to get certified, and there’s a lot of paperwork and record-keeping. Last year Vantassel trained one person and licensed two others. 

Currently, M-44s are allowed in Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, and West Virginia. Idaho has temporarily banned the devices since 2017, and Colorado only allows them on private property.

Federal legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to ban certain poisons used in predator control.

Collette Atkins is the carnivore conservation director and senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations trying to ban sodium cyanide and M-44s.

“We’re going to keep asking for a nationwide ban,” says Atkins. “We’re going to be working on a state by state basis to get bans in place, and we’re going to continue to let the public know how dangerous these devices are. Hopefully either the EPA will cancel its registration, or we can get federal legislation passed.”

The Environmental Protection Agency opened a public comment period earlier this year on the agency’s proposal to reauthorize the use of sodium cyanide for M-44s. 

“There were more than 22,000 comments submitted. Only ten asked the EPA renew its registration. So there’s just a very small but vocal minority of people, largely representatives of the agriculture industry, that want these devices to continue to be used,” Atkins says.

The EPA has not yet announced a decision.