Nonlethal methods to protect livestock from predators are gaining momentum as pressure mounts to ban poison-spray traps.
One of the options the rancher is now considering is the use of M-44s.
These spring-trap devices are filled with sodium cyanide, one of the world’s deadliest poisons, and baited with the alluring (if you’re a coyote) scent of rotting meat.
M-44s have long been controversial with conservation groups but made national headlines earlier this year after they injured a teenager and killed a wolf and multiple pet dogs.
Wildlife Services typically deploys the devices—some 16,500 a year in up to 16 states—but in Montana anyone with a pesticide applicator license who becomes certified (via a training course approved by the state) can also do so.
Rather than wait on the single Wildlife Services agent who covers the sprawling region, Nutter figures setting the traps herself when she sees a problem would be more efficient.
And she has five other landowners lined up to take the certification class, too.
But if protected carnivores, such as grizzly bears or gray wolves, take up residence in her area, these traps may be off the table. Listed as endangered in the 1970s, both predator populations are now increasing and reclaiming more of their historical ranges.
Numbers for Montana’s gray wolves, which were delisted in the state in 2011, have increased from a handful in 1979 to more than 550 today. Montana landowners can now legally kill wolves that threaten livestock, but they can’t bait them—so M-44s are out.
Harming endangered grizzlies, which make their way from mountainous Glacier National Park (100 miles to the west) to the prairie, is also illegal, carrying a fine of up to $15,000 and possible jail time.
(Ranchers can legally kill grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—a population the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted this summer—but only if the bears are in the act of attacking livestock.)
Last year, two grizzlies killed 13 of Nutter’s neighbor’s sheep in one night. “Bears and wolves haven’t been here in a long, long time,” she says. “I’m not prepared to deal with problems that happened hundreds of years ago.”
Fourteen-year-old Canyon Mansfield was walking with his yellow Lab, Casey, on public land behind his Pocatello, Idaho, home when he came across what looked like a sprinkler protruding from the snow.
When he touched the device, put there by Wildlife Services, it spewed a powdery orange substance into his eyes, which he immediately rinsed with snow.
Most of the orange cloud, however, traveled downwind into Casey’s face. Canyon watched as his dog went into convulsions and red foam seeped from his mouth.
(A reaction between the powder and saliva releases hydrogen cyanide gas, causing seizures, internal bleeding, and lung failure.) By the time the boy returned with his parents, Casey was dead.
Canyon himself suffered debilitating headaches, nausea, vomiting, and numb hands—all signs of cyanide poisoning. “The bombs that were by my home were unmarked, with no flags, and no one was notified of their placement,” Canyon’s father, Mark Mansfield, wrote in a July op-ed in an Idaho journal. “[Wildlife Services] often do not follow their own rules.”
Created more than a century ago under a different name, Wildlife Services is primarily responsible for resolving clashes between wildlife and humans.
While the agency has a policy of supporting nonlethal techniques, it has drawn sharp criticism from conservationists, animal rights activists, and politicians for what they say is an overly aggressive reliance on deadly measures.
Wildlife Services shot, poisoned, or trapped more than 2.7 million animals in 2016 alone. Birds were the biggest target, largely culled to protect crops and prevent crashes at airports, and the agency killed some 77,963 coyotes, 16 percent of them by M-44s.
Last year the devices were also responsible for the unintentional deaths of a black bear, a fisher, a Mexican free-tailed bat, two ravens, seven pet dogs, 21 skunks, 30 opossums, 57 rabbits, and more than 169 foxes.