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Nicole Rosmarino Headshot

Sick of Cyanide

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Each year, a federal agency kills thousands of coyotes, wolves, bears, eagles and other native carnivores on behalf of agribusiness using two lethal poisons. These two poisons pose serious human health risks, including death, that far outweigh any perceived benefits, as this video about Amanda Woods and Dennis Slaugh shows. Our nation's decision makers should take immediate steps to ban these two dangerous wildlife pesticides.

In 1972, Pres. Richard Nixon's Executive Order 11643 banned sodium cyanide and Compound 1080. But in 1985 Pres. Ronald Reagan rescinded that order with one of his own, which bestowed a gift upon the livestock industry, as we describe below.

Ever since 1985, sodium cyanide capsules have been ubiquitously placed across the West (and in a few states in the East). The cyanide is delivered to unwilling recipients through M-44 booby traps, devices topped with a smelly-bait lure intended to attract coyotes. When an animal tugs on the bait lure, it triggers a piston that shoots the pellet of cyanide into the animal's mouth. Once the cyanide capsule contacts moisture, it turns into deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, which is readily absorbed. Unfortunately, M-44s attract wolves, swift foxes, grizzly bears, and even eagles and California condors. Some of the animals killed had special federal protections.

To stop this grisly practice, in November 2009, WildEarth Guardians asked Pres. Obama to reinstate the ban on these toxicants (and on aerial gunning of wildlife) on federal public lands.

Every year, approximately 13,000 wild animals and pets are killed by cyanide M-44s. What's unfair is most victims, including most coyotes, had no interest in livestock at all. People have been harmed too, as the video shows - Woods and Slaugh were hurt after coming into contact with sodium cyanide while recreating outside. They are not alone, as this sampling indicates:

Crawford, Colorado
Vernal, Utah
Warm Springs, Virginia

The other poison we've asked the government to ban - again - is Compound 1080, which is literally strapped onto the throats of sheep with devices given the ludicrous name, "livestock protection collar." Silly, because the collars don't actually protect the sheep; they just deliver the poison to the unlucky predator, but also to any scavenger that finds either the dead sheep or the dead predator. Compound 1080's toxic brew can poison both through primary and secondary exposure and no antidote exists. Carcasses contaminated by the substance are considered hazardous waste.

Compound 1080 is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, water-soluble toxin that is treated as a chemical weapon in other countries due to its potential threat to water supplies. Death by this poison takes several excruciating hours of painful convulsions. It is already banned in California, Oregon, and several nations, but remains legal only in eleven U.S. states.

Both poisons are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as having the highest degree of "acute toxicity," but are distributed by an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called Wildlife Services, which spends over $120 million per year purportedly to benefit those in agribusiness. Wildlife Services assassinates tens of thousands of animals annually. In 2008 (the last year that figures are available), it killed 5 million animals, including over 124,000 mammalian carnivores such as wolves, bears, cougars, and coyotes. It killed nearly 13,000 animals by cyanide M-44s and 39 bobcats and coyotes with Compound 1080.

Because of the tremendous damages these poisons can cause to people, pets, and wildlife--especially federally-protected species, they should be banned altogether. Some additional reasons include:

• USDA Inspector General audits showed poor inventory control by Wildlife Services that could lead to theft or unauthorized sale of these "dangerous" biological toxins; and

• The availability of non-lethal alternatives for livestock protection such as guard animals, exclusion devices (barns, fences, and pens) and scaring devices such as fladry (flags tied to ropes that move in the wind).

There's no reason for the federal government to engage in its annual wildlife slaughter. The underlying claim that killing wild carnivores is cost-effective doesn't hold up to any critical analysis. The real reason wildlife are slaughtered is because the agriculture industry lobbies heavily and helps perpetuate the myth that carnivores are evil and ravenous. The real costs to agribusiness come from lightning, snow, and hail.

The most recent data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service show that very few cattle and sheep die from predation. Of the total number of sheep produced in the U.S. only 2.9% were killed by livestock predators. Cattle statistics reveal an even wider gap: 0.18% of total U.S. cattle production was killed by predators; in comparison, 3.7% of cattle died from other causes, including respiratory illness, weather, and theft. To be clear - predators cause less than 3% of total sheep losses and less than 1% of total cattle losses in the U.S.

In 2009, wolves in the Northern Rockies killed 214 cattle, 721 sheep, 24 dogs, 4 llamas, and 4 goats. That same year, severe storms killed thousands of calves and lambs.

The real truth is producers have more to fear from weather and free trade than from predators. But that does not stop the annual madness of dispensing predator poisons that can potentially harm people, pets, and wildlife--even those that are supposed to enjoy federal protection.

While native carnivores' role as livestock predators is exaggerated by some, their value on the landscape is critical and appreciated by many more. Most realize that native carnivores play important roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Not only do carnivores modulate densities of other predators, as well as prey, they contribute to ecosystem health and biological diversity. Wolves in Yellowstone National Park for example, indirectly benefit plant and animal communities by keeping elk vigilant and on the move. As a result, willows and aspens have returned, creating food and building materials for beavers. With beavers' return come the restoration of cold-water streams and ponds with more native fish, thriving bird communities, and happy moose.

It's time to end taxpayer subsidies of an annual program that kills native carnivores at an alarming rate - on behalf of agribusiness which unfairly scapegoats these important animals. And as the video shows, people are harmed by these poisons too. It's time to stop senseless wildlife extermination campaigns. Stay tuned as conservation groups work to push legislation in Congress and demand changes from administrative agencies in the coming months.


U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service photo