The Bureau of Land Management announced last week it will ban the use of spring-loaded cyanide traps on the public lands managed by the department, which includes roughly 250,000 acres in Eagle County.
The cyanide devices, known as M-44 traps, are activated by driving a small pipe into the ground which contains a spring-loaded ejector and a sodium cyanide capsule. The top of the trap is baited with a scented substance to attract animals, and when the animal pulls on the material, a cloud of cyanide powder is shot into the air surrounding the device.
M-44 traps were, for years, used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s secretive Wildlife Services agency to kill coyotes in an effort to protect livestock on public lands. But M-44 traps have drawn a firestorm of controversy for the collateral damage they’ve inflicted on the public, killing family pets and even being connected to the death of humans.
In 2003, Utah resident Dennis Slaugh was on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land near the Colorado border when he touched a loaded M-44 and was sprayed with cyanide. He suffered high blood pressure, difficulty breathing, daily vomiting, and an inability to work as a Caterpillar D8 driver “because he is too weak to climb up into the machine’s rungs,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2008. Slaugh died in 2018; his death certificate indicates that cyanide poisoning from an M-44 contributed to his death.
In 2007 and 2008, petitions were circulated calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend the use of sodium cyanide and sodium fluoroacetate, otherwise known as Compound 1080, another chemical compound used to kill predators. Compound 1080 has been banned in Colorado since 1972, but is still in use in other states and is occasionally found to be still in use in Colorado, as well. In 2001, approximately 30 dogs and cats and 35 birds were poisoned by 1080 in Grand Junction, and in 2009, a wolf that had traveled into Eagle County from Yellowstone National Park was killed by Compound 1080 in Rio Blanco County.
In 2017, Wildlife Services in Colorado agreed to temporarily halt the use of sodium cyanide following a lawsuit from WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity which challenged a Colorado Parks and Wildlife plan to kill cougars and bears “in a scientifically unsupported attempt to boost mule deer populations,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
But a few years later, Wildlife Services began using M-44 traps once again, killing nine coyotes with the devices in Colorado in 2022. The Center for Biological Diversity circulated a petition in June, asking the BLM to ban the use of M-44 traps.
“Because it’s federal public land, (the BLM) can decide what uses to allow on this federal land, and what uses to ban, and this went all the way up to the director of the BLM, and they agreed to not allow Wildlife Services to place these anymore,” said Collette Adkins, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s carnivore conservation program. “So they can still shoot coyotes, or use traps, for example, but they can’t use these cyanide devices, which are particularly indiscriminate and cruel, as far as we’re concerned.”
Adkins said the most high-profile incident regarding an M-44 trap involved a 14-year-old Idaho resident Canyon Mansfield, who was less than a football field’s length from his home when he encountered an M-44 and triggered it, thinking it was a sprinkler head.
The device spewed toxic orange cyanide powder that killed his dog in front of him and left him injured, as well, giving him severe headaches and moments where he couldn’t feel his arm.
“The United States government put a cyanide bomb 350 feet from my house, and killed my dog and poisoned my child,” Theresa Mansfield, Canyon’s mother, told the Guardian newspaper in 2020.
Adkins said Canyon was likely spared due to the wind direction at the time.
“That was on BLM land right behind his house,” she said.
Adkins applauds the BLM for the decision to ban the devices, saying it’s a positive step toward completely eliminating M-44 traps.
“This is such a big deal because the BLM administers so much land across the West,” Adkins said. “I think it’s probably a sign that even the people that are policing these are sick of the danger and they’re sick of the bad press. I think these are on their way out.”