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Environmental groups renew their push to ban “cyanide bombs” on public lands

M-44s spray poison in the mouths of animals after they pull on a piece of bait.
Courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity.
M-44s spray poison in the mouths of animals after they pull on a piece of bait.

News brief: 

Seventy-six wildlife conservation groups have petitioned the Department of the Interior to ban the use of M-44s on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. The devices, commonly known as “cyanide bombs,” remain a controversial tool for predator mitigation.

M-44s are commonly set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and target species like coyotes, foxes and feral dogs. When an animal tugs on a piece of bait, the device releases poisonous powder that is almost always lethal. In 2022, ‘cyanide bombs’ were responsible for the deaths of over 5,000 animals, mostly from the target species.

But these traps also have unintended consequences. M-44s caused more than 150 unintentional deaths last year. Kristin Combs, Executive Director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, said they have the potential to kill endangered species, family pets, or, in a worst-case scenario, human beings.

“You've got a totally indiscriminate device that does not care what species it is. And it's out there by itself on the landscape. Certainly, kids can't read signs and don't understand what the warning is,” she said. “At what point do we decide that the risk is too much here?”

“Cyanide bombs” made national news in 2017 when one injured a small boy in Idaho and killed a family pet. Several lawmakers have introduced bills to ban M-44s on public lands since that incident.

Combs said there are many alternative predator control methods that the USDA could employ, including guard animals, better fencing, more human monitoring of herds and other protective devices.

Ranching interests, meanwhile, have defended using M-44s. They say they can be humane and effective when used correctly, often in remote areas. In recent years, the USDA has added new restrictions for M-44s, including adding warning signs near traps and increasing distance restrictions from public roads and residences.

“Our use of M-44 devices strictly follows EPA label instructions, directions, and use- restrictions; applicable Federal, State, and local laws and regulations; and agency and program directives and policies,” said USDA spokesperson Tanya Espinoza in an email.

Currently, the BLM is the only agency within the Interior Department that still allows the use of M-44s. Last year, they were deployed in ten states, including Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. The vast majority of cyanide bombs are not set on BLM land.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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