A 14-year-old boy and his dog were walking last month on a hill near their home in Pocatello, Idaho, when they came across something in the ground that looked like a sprinkler head. But when the boy touched it, it exploded and spewed powder that sickened him and poisoned his dog to death.
The object was one of the M-44 cyanide traps that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has long used to kill predators that threaten livestock — and the damage it had done to Canyon Mansfield and his Labrador retriever, Casey, quickly fueled outrage over the devices’ use on public lands.
On Monday, the controversy led the USDA agency that places the traps, Wildlife Services, to announce a moratorium on their use in Idaho. In a letter to conservation groups, Jason Suckow, Wildlife Services’ Western regional director, said the agency had “ceased all use of” and removed the devices from all private, state and federal land in Idaho. He added that Wildlife Services would provide organizations 30 days’ notice before resuming use of the devices in the state.
The announcement came two weeks after 19 conservation groups filed a petition seeking the cyanide traps’ ban in Idaho. The petition said that the device that Mansfield found was planted on federal land within one-quarter mile of three homes, and it noted that Casey wasn’t the first dog killed by an M-44 — and not even the first this year.
Two dogs were killed by a cyanide trap in Wyoming earlier in March, according to news reports and the petition. USDA records also show that the bombs have unintentionally killed more than 200 feral dogs since 2008, as well as 22 pets and livestock animals since 2013.
Opponents say those deaths and Mansfield’s close call provide a graphic illustration of the indiscriminate nature of M-44 traps. The bombs have killed more than 100,000 coyotes — their primary target — since 2009. But they have also killed Mexican gray wolves, grizzly bears, California condors and other protected species.
“We’re glad to see these indiscriminate killing devices being pulled from Idaho — that’s an important step toward protecting wildlife, people and pets from these cyanide bombs,” Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement on Monday. “We hope this ban becomes permanent not just in Idaho but across the country, because there [is] no place for these devices where the lives of innocent people and animals will not be at risk.”
U.S. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) is also hoping for a broader ban. He recently introduced a bill that would prohibit predator control methods that use sodium cyanide, the powder used in M-44 traps, and another poison called Compound 1080.
“It is only a matter of time before they kill someone,” DeFazio said in a statement. “These extreme so-called ‘predator control’ methods have been proven no more effective than nonlethal methods — the only difference between the two is that the lethal methods supported by the ranching industry are subsidized by American tax dollars.”
Mansfield’s family, meanwhile, has launched a petition calling for a federal ban, which they propose to call “Canyon’s Law.”
“The ban in Idaho is an exciting first step,” Mark Mansfield, Canyon’s father, told the Idaho State Journal. “But we don’t want Wildlife Services to issue a temporary ban and then reinstate M-44 use once everything has blown over.”
The M-44 that killed Casey and left Canyon with regular headaches wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. Wildlife Services had pledged in the fall to stop placing the devices on federal land in Idaho, and it has since acknowledged that this trap, which was placed in February, violated that policy. The new moratorium extends that previous pledge to state and private lands.
Why the device was planted on federal land despite the previous moratorium is unclear. Local officials told the Associated Press last month that they are conducting a criminal investigation into its placement and plan to turn over findings to county prosecutors.
“The problem we have is that we have houses in every direction from where the device was placed,” Sheriff’s Det. Lt. Andy Thomas told the AP. “We know the boy got it on his eyes, arms and legs. We have no clue why he’s not dead.”