Dec. 6 (UPI) -- The Environmental Protection Agency has re-approved the use in five states of coyote-killing M-44 devices, also called "cyanide bombs," after temporarily halting their use in August.
The EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs on Thursday announced safety improvements in the the controversial devices approved for use by U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife agents to kill livestock predators in South Dakota, Texas, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico.
The EPA initially approved the use of the devices and then withdrew its approval for more consideration this summer.
The devices lure predators with a bait mechanism and then spray toxic sodium cyanide into the animals' mouths. M-44s have been called cruel by environmental groups.
Amy and Daniel Helfrick of Casper, Wyo., watched two family dogs die after they accidentally discharged an M-44 during a spring hike on public land in 2017. The device had been left in the ground by USDA Wildlife Services agents as bait for livestock predators.
"We were just out hiking looking for antlers, when we saw the dogs foaming at the mouth," Helfrick told UPI. Having been raised on a ranch and seen weathered signs warning of poisoned bait all his life, Helfrick and his brother-in-law knew what had happened.
They rushed their German wirehair and a Weimaraner to a creek to try to wash the poison out of their mouths. One dog died before reaching the water.
"My dog died in my arms [in the creek]," Helfrick said. "Thinking about it, we're lucky my 8-year-old daughter didn't get the cyanide on herself when she was hugging the dog goodbye."
During the same month in 2017, an Idaho teen was injured and his dog killed by an M-44 device.
"I see this little metal tube sticking out of the ground," Canyon Mansfield, 15, of Pocatello, Idaho, told documentary maker Jamie Drysdale in describing how he first saw the M-44 that killed his dog.
Canyon was splashed in the eye by the cyanide that exploded from the spring-loaded device on the hill behind his home. In 2018, Canyon's parents successfully sued the federal government for $150,000.
"Even the local sheriff thought it was a bomb, and Wildlife Services is supposed to tell local hospitals and first responders if [the devices] are being used by trappers," Montana filmmaker Drysdale said. "Wildlife Services has no accountability and is very secretive. It is definitely acting as a rogue agency."
"Pet owners should leash and closely supervise their pets to keep them away from areas where M-44s may be in use," a statement from Wildlife Services said. "When an unintentional injury or death occurs, Wildlife Services reviews the circumstances to determine if procedural changes are needed."
Idaho has issued a temporary moratorium on the use of M-44s on public lands. Other states such as Colorado and Oregon have banned the devices.
Even though the EPA has approved the devices for Montana, "I don't think we should live in fear of these things," said Drysdale, who completed the film Lethal Control as a master's degree thesis project at the University of Montana in Missoula.
"People should feel general outrage that their native wildlife is being manipulated by these devices all across the West," he said.
The EPA said new safety improvements for use of the device include better signage and restricting the devices to buffer zones of 600 feet from homes and 300 feet from any public road.
According to data released by the USDA's Wildlife Services, M-44s killed more than 6,500 animals last year in the United States, mostly coyotes and foxes. In 2017, M-44s killed at least 13,232 animals, including "foxes, opossums, raccoons, skunks and a bear," Marjorie Fishman of the Animal Welfare Institute said in a statement.
"Government data show that relatively few livestock are actually killed by predators -- less than 1 percent for the entire U.S. cattle inventory and 4 percent for the U.S. sheep inventory," retired Colorado Bureau of Land Management economist Charles Romaniello wrote to the EPA in a public comment this spring.
"No one has demonstrated that putting lethal toxicants into the environment confers any benefit to the livestock industry itself."
But ranchers and livestock associations this week applauded the agency's re-approval of the devices.
"Livestock producers have to contend with predation of livestock on a daily basis, and having access to every tool in the toolbox allows our ranchers to continue to protect the herd," said Ethan Lane, spokesman for the Arvada, Colo.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association, in a statement.
"M-44s are an important tool for livestock producers," said Bob Skinner of the Public Lands Council. "Ranchers [must] maintain access to this predator control device."
In Wyoming, Helfrick said, he's not shocked that the EPA is re-approving the cyanide predator bombs.
"It's a state run by the cattle ranchers. It's insanely sad, but not surprising," he said. "Is it going to take a child dying before M-44s are banned, before people wake up?"