A campaign to end the use of so-called “cyanide bombs” within the United States has received a major boost after the country’s largest public land management agency banned the poison devices on hundreds of millions of acres across the nation.
The move builds on decisions by states such as Oregon to fully or partially prohibit the use of cyanide bombs, also known as M-44s, within their jurisdictions. The US Department of Agriculture uses these devices to kill predators and other wildlife.
“This has been a long road,” said Brooks Fahy, the executive director of the conservation group Predator Defense, who has spent decades fighting the use of cyanide bombs in the US. “I consider this in the annals of conservation wildlife predator issues to be a historic event.”
For decades, a little-known federal program called Wildlife Services has used cyanide bombs to kill wild animals like coyotes that can prey on livestock and cause other problems for agricultural interests. The small spring-loaded devices are primarily planted on private holdings with permission from landowners, but they are also sometimes deployed on public lands. When triggered by an unsuspecting animal, they release a cloud of sodium cyanide that can quickly kill.
Wildlife Services, a program within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, has used M-44s to kill tens of thousands of animals over the last decade. Non-target animals, including imperiled wildlife and family pets, have repeatedly died by these devices as well, and a concerted campaign to ban their use on public land has been gaining momentum in recent years.
Key figures in this effort include the Mansfield family of Pocatello, Idaho. In March 2017, Canyon Mansfield, then 14, was walking with his yellow lab Kasey in the hills behind his family home when he spotted what he thought was a sprinkler head. He reached for the device and accidentally triggered a cyanide bomb that a Wildlife Services employee had placed on federally owned land abutting the Mansfields’ property.
The device sprayed both Canyon and Kasey in the face with sodium cyanide. The dog started convulsing and died, while Canyon was rushed to the emergency room. He was released home later that day. This launched the Mansfield family’s years-long effort to put an end to the use of cyanide bombs.
“The United States government put a cyanide bomb 350ft from my house, and killed my dog and poisoned my child,” Theresa Mansfield, Canyon’s mother, told the Guardian in 2020. “I’m after justice,” she added.
In October 2022, the Oregon representative Peter DeFazio and California representative Jared Huffman, among others, asked the interior secretary, Deb Haaland, to use her department’s authority to prohibit M-44 devices on all federal land under interior department jurisdiction.
On 22 November, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an interior department agency that administers more than 240m acres of land, announced that it was “taking action to end the use of M-44 devices that deliver sodium cyanide on public land”.
Though the agency says that less than 1% of the M-44s used by Wildlife Services in 2022 were planted on BLM-managed lands, advocates are still hailing the ban as a major step forward. Several of the most high-profile human-involved M-44 poisonings, including the Mansfield incident, occurred on BLM land. Advocates also believe the BLM’s decision could help push additional land management agencies such as the US Forest Service, as well as other state governments, to prohibit cyanide bombs.
“Now, we can focus our efforts on pushing other federal agencies like the USDA to follow suit,” said Representative Huffman in a statement.
The agriculture department’s animal and plant health inspection service did not respond to a request for comment.