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Green groups sue Trump administration over pet-killing cyanide bombs

A Labrador at the Crufts Dog Show in Birmingham, England, on March 11, 2017. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

Toxic traps that attract predators and pets

Four environmental and animal-welfare groups sued the Trump administration on Tuesday, alleging that the U.S. government’s continued use of predator-killing poisons — which also kill family pets and harm people — is breaking federal regulations that protect endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses M-44 poison traps, commonly known as cyanide bombs, to kill coyotes and predators that may hurt livestock, but the toxic devices also have the power to harm federally protected species (like grizzly bears and the Canada lynx), the new lawsuit alleges.

In 2016, the “bombs” — which are placed in the ground like landmines and spray animals with poison when they are attracted by the bait — killed more than 13,500 animals, at least 321 of which were non-target species, such as foxes and domestic dogs, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services data.

“Cyanide bombs are indiscriminate killers,” said Collette Adkins, an attorney for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of the four groups suing the government. WildEarth Guardians, the Humane Society, and the Fund for Animals have also joined the suit.

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Montana, also alleges that the government’s use of another poison, Compound 1080 — which is embedded into collars worn by domestic sheep and other livestock to kill attacking predators — is equally dangerous. The collars’ poison sacks can be accidentally punctured, leaving a toxic trail that can kill wildlife.   

The four groups want the wildlife agency to finish a joint study with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about how the two poisons may hurt protected species. The EPA launched the consultation — which the suing groups claim is a requirement of the Endangered Species Act — in 2011, but it was never completed. Both M-44s and Compound 1080 should be banned until the study is finished, the lawsuit argued.

“The agency’s delay in completing the required consultations allows deadly poisons to continue to harm protected wildlife and contaminate their habitats,” the lawsuit claimed.

A protected wolf and a family dog killed

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the USDA have planted thousands of M-44s — which look like lawn sprinklers — across the U.S., mostly in rural areas of Western states, to kill coyotes that prey on farmers’ cattle, sheep, and goats.

While the majority of animals killed by the cyanide bombs are coyotes and other intended targets, the toxic traps can harm any animal that takes the bait. In 2016, 2 percent of M-44 deaths were non-targeted animals.

On March 2, an M-44 in Oregon killed a gray wolf. While the species was removed from the endangered list in 2010, it still is protected under Oregon’s wolf plan, a statewide conservation effort meant to increase pack populations. Oregon officials said the wolf’s death was the first in the state’s history caused by a cyanide bomb.

Two weeks later, on March 16, a 14-year-old Idaho boy was injured and his Labrador Retriever, Casey, was killed when the teen accidentally detonated a M-44. Canyon Mansfield said he was playing with his pet in a field when he touched the sprinkler device, sending cyanide into the air.

The suing environmental groups said at least 40 other family dogs have been killed by M-44s in the past 20 years. They pointed to the recent deaths of the Idaho retriever and the Oregon wolf as reasons why the traps need to be more thoroughly studied.

“The recent tragedies prove current restrictions are failing to ensure people, domestic animals, and imperiled wildlife are not at risk from these dangerous and outdated tools,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for the New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians.

An endangered Endangered Species Act?

The new lawsuit hinges on the argument that the federal use of M-44s and Compound 1080 breaks the Endangered Species Act, a 1973 law that protects threatened animals. But environmental activists worry that the act itself may be endangered under the Trump administration.

In February, the Republican-controlled Senate held a hearing to “modernize” the act, a two-hour session that was mostly tense criticism from conservatives who claim the law’s regulations hurt business.

Lawmakers have not moved to change the law or gut it entirely, but conservationists warned that such a motion would be in line with the new administration’s pattern of cutting regulations. Trump’s White House has already cut federal protections for a species of bee that former president Barack Obama put on the endangered list.

The new lawsuit is not the only way that advocates are attempting to eliminate the use of M-44s.

Following the death of Casey, the Idaho Labrador Retriever, the dog’s family filed a petition with the White House asking it to ban governmental use of the toxic traps. As of Wednesday, the petition had more than 3,000 signatures — but it would need another 97,000 to get a response from the Trump administration.