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Coyotes Under Fire, Page 3: Stonewalled

Campaigns to poison predators have tragic consequences

All Animals magazine

  • Bella                                                                Angel Walker

by Karen E. Lange

Angel Walker wishes she had at least gotten a call early last year when the killing campaign showed up on her doorstep. A county commissioner who leases land surrounding her yard for cattle pasture had decided to have his son, a Wildlife Services agent, place devices known as M-44s near her house. When animals sniff the bait, the spring-loaded devices fire sodium cyanide pellets into their mouths, where moisture turns the pellets into a lethal gas. The first that Walker knew about the M-44s was a 6-inch by 8-inch sign she saw posted on a cattle guard at the foot of her driveway one afternoon as she returned home. When she reached her front door, she found a note instructing her not to touch the M-44s. She thought immediately of her dog, Bella, a 1-year-old pit bull terrier with a sweet disposition whom she had picked out as a puppy: “She was my very first from-scratch dog.”

Walker didn’t know what an M-44 looked like but had reason to worry. At least a half dozen people—pet owners, people walking on public lands, even a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent—have been sickened in recent years by sodium cyanide from M-44s. An unknown number of pet dogs and nontargeted wild creatures have been killed by sodium cyanide and a second highly restricted pesticide Wildlife Services routinely uses—Compound 1080, a chemical so toxic that experts worry bioterrorists could use it to poison the water supply. (The agency’s other coyote control methods result in lethal mistakes too; pets and nontargeted wild animals have been caught in leghold traps or asphyxiated in snares.)

Anxious about Bella, Walker went out with her son to search for the dog. They came upon an M-44 less than 1,000 feet from her house, on a walking trail used by her and her children, near a creek that flows into a lake from which the family got their water. The device, which resembled a shotgun barrel, was sticking up from the ground 3 inches. Scattered all around was orange yellow dust. In a nearby mesquite tree a tiny sign—3 inches by 3 inches—warned passersby. For two days Walker and her family and friends searched for Bella. They found plenty of M-44s, even though cattle don’t usually graze on the land around her house and they certainly don’t give birth to calves there—which is when they would be vulnerable to coyotes. Then, finally, Walker found her dog’s body, near the first M-44 she had spotted. Bella had started bleeding from her nose and mouth, fallen to the ground, gone into convulsions, and died.

“When we found her, you could see [on] her poor little mouth … the powdery yellow substance,” says Walker. “That’s all I remembered for a long time, imagining what she thought—‘Oh my gosh, I’ve done something wrong’—and [how] she started towards home.”

An unknown number of pet dogs and nontargeted wild creatures have been killed by sodium cyanide and...Compound 1080, a chemical so toxic that experts worry bioterrorists could use it to poison the water supply.

When Walker complained in town, she discovered the required paperwork for the M-44 had not been filed. Officials seemed unconcerned. The cattle rancher’s hired hand reset the M-44, which killed a fox. So she and her husband called the Texas Department of Agriculture about the sodium cyanide. But after an inspector visited the property, Walker discovered four dead coyotes strung up along the fence on the road leading to her house. Only following a call to Brooks Fahy of Predator Defense (who says he repeatedly complained to Wildlife Services) were the coyotes taken down. No one from Wildlife Services apologized to the Walkers and no one has been cited for negligence.

Unfortunately, the attitude the Walkers encountered is common among local Wildlife Services agents. That’s because they’re beholden to their “customers”—ranchers who in some states own most of the land where coyotes live, and who sometimes even provide housing for agents, says Shaddox. State Wildlife Services directors in turn promote lethal control because the cost-sharing agreements with local governments and others provide a lot of the funding for their offices, say agency critics. “The trappers on the payroll, most state directors are going to encourage them to get the job done—and getting the job done means killing coyotes,” says Niemeyer, whose persistent questioning of lethal control for wolves left him marginalized at Wildlife Services. “It’s real easy spending federal money. When private people have to pay for their own predator control, they’re going to find out how fruitless it is.”

At the national level, Wildlife Services is famously resistant to scrutiny. When The HSUS submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for records on 5,271 incidents between 2000 and 2010 in which M-44s killed nontargeted animals, it received information on just 58 of those cases. When WildEarth Guardians submitted FOIAs for details of the Wildlife Services budget, it was told these could not be provided because of the way the agency does its accounting. Even when members of Congress asked for specific budget amounts, they got nothing.

Despite the pressure to reduce the budget deficit, the Obama administration and Congress have refused to cut federal funding for the lethal arm of Wildlife Services. Last June, when Reps. John Campbell, R-Calif.; Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.; and Gary Peters, D-Mich., introduced an amendment to slice $11 million from Wildlife Services’ budget and halt the agency’s spending on lethal predator control, the measure was defeated after opposition from the NRA and the agribusiness lobby. This year, The HSUS and other groups are urging Congress and the Obama administration to at least end the agency’s use of Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide.

Coyotes Under Fire, Page 4: Predator-Friendly Pioneers

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