Todd Sexton noticed the frothing first. Then, his dog Molly, a 6-year-old Weimaraner he’d rescued as a puppy, collapsed. He ran to it and tried to clear its mouth as the dog gasped for air.
Moments later Daniel Helfrick’s dog, Abby, a 15-year-old Deutsch-Drahthaar, started foaming at the mouth. The two men scooped up their animals and rushed them to a creek about 50 yards away.
Molly and Abby died obviously painful deaths in their owner’s arms as the men tried helplessly to clear their mouths.
“It was like a horror show,” Sexton said.
Sexton later learned the two dogs had triggered M-44s, also known as cyanide bombs or traps, used to kill coyotes and foxes that depredate livestock. The Casper men and their partners were hiking on Bureau of Land Management land about 50 miles north of Casper on March 11, but learned later they may have crossed onto unmarked private land, they said.
The area, which they know unofficially as Cedar Ridge, was a favorite place for them to let their dogs run, while the Helfricks’ 8-year-old daughter explored rock outcroppings and they hunted shed antlers. They had never seen signs warning of traps in the area, Amy Helfrick said. Sexton said he had never even heard of the devices.
After Molly died Sexton found the trap, marked only by a red and white stake less than 1-foot tall. He couldn’t see it in the prairie until he was almost on top of it.
Most people the Helfricks and Sextons have told their story to hadn’t heard about M-44s. Many asked if they were even legal.
They are legal and there are about 300 on Wyoming public and private land, said Kent Drake, the predator management coordinator for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. The department licenses, trains and documents use of the devices for private landowners and commercial applicators.
The two dogs were the first that have died from M-44s in the eight years Drake has been with the department, he said. And while the traps have inadvertently killed animals like wolves and even a black bear and bobcat, no human has been injured by one in the state, he said. Animals unintentionally killed by an M-44 are reported to Wildlife Services. Those incidents may be investigated depending on the circumstances and the species, Drake said.
The M-44 has been around since the 1970s and is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. Only government-hired trappers can place the bombs on federal land. They can be used on state and private land by commercial pesticide applicators and members of the general public if they complete a three-hour training course, Drake said.
The top of the device is baited with a canine-enticing scent meant to attract coyotes and foxes, which unfortunately also appeals to dogs and wolves, Drake said. The device, despite its name, does not explode, Drake said. It’s powered by a small spring. When an animal bites or pulls on the top, it releases a sodium cyanide cartridge. When the sodium cyanide mixes with saliva, or water in the eyes or nose, it creates a gas that kills the animals.
There are 26 rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency for using M-44s. There is supposed to be a warning sign on at least one gate, or entrance into a pasture where there are M-44s.
But Wyoming’s vast landscape means that someone could enter an area with traps without seeing a sign at another end of the property, Drake said. The traps also have to be marked with a small sign within 25-feet of the device. Under the rules, M-44s are not to be used in areas with lands set aside for recreational use, or in areas “where exposure to the public and family pets is probable.”
Some 300 cyanide bomb traps in place in Wyo
Drake said he does not know exactly how many M-44s are in use in Wyoming, but estimated about 300 are likely in place at any given time. Most of those are on the eastern side of the state, where sheep production is more common, there are fewer endangered species, and less federal land, he said.
Drake didn’t know how many coyotes and foxes are killed by the devices each year in Wyoming, but estimated M-44s have a 30 to 35 percent success rate in eliminating predators. The Los Angeles Times reported that last year 12,511 coyotes were intentionally killed nationwide by the devices, along with 688 foxes and 10 feral dogs.
“They are a very good tool in certain situations because coyotes are very crafty animals and it takes a lot of different approaches to get them if they are depredating on sheep and calves,” Drake said.
They also are one of the most affordable ways to control predators. There is a $25 applicator fee, the device costs about $30, but lasts for years, and sodium cyanide cartridges cost less than $1 each, Drake said. Other control methods would involve hiring people to hunt and kill problem animals either from the ground, or using an airplane, which can cost up to $900 an hour, he said.
Producers can, and should, use other means of protecting livestock, said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. They could hire a herder to stay with animals, use electric fences to keep predators out of grazing areas and rely on other animals, like llamas to guard sheep, or even consider certain breeds of livestock that are more resistant to predators, Molvar said.
“If cowboys actually rode horses and stayed with their cattle the way they used to in the old days, none of this would be a problem,” he said.
After a cyanide bomb killed a dog and hospitalized its 14-year-old owner on March 16 in Idaho, Western Watersheds Project was one of 19 conservation groups to call for a ban of the traps in the state. The boy was playing about 350 yards away from the family’s property in Pocatello, when he touched what he thought was a sprinkler head, triggering the cyanide release. The boy was treated and released from the hospital after momentary blindness. The dog died within minutes.
“At some point Wildlife Services is going to recognize that littering the landscape with chemical weapons is incurring a liability they can’t afford to live with,” Molvar said.
The petition to ban the devices included a list of more than 60 instances in multiple states dating back to 1990 when dogs were killed, or humans injured by M-44s.
A few days after the dogs died in Wyoming, Daniel Helfrick returned to the area, looking for signs they might have missed to warn them of the cyanide traps. He didn’t see any. He brought a GPS unit and determined that while they started on public land, they might have crossed onto unmarked private land. The boundary between public and private land in the area is not marked, he said.
Even if the traps were on private land, Sexton feels they should be banned. He grew up in Wyoming and doesn’t have issues with predator control.
“But I don’t believe in killing indiscriminately,” he said. “If they have to kill predators, that’s fine, but let’s make sure we know what we’re killing.”
Amy Helfrick had heard of the traps, but didn’t know how they worked, where they were placed or that they were so deadly.
“It’s a horrible way to die,” she said of watching her dog suffer the poisoning.
She’s grateful her daughter wasn’t next to the animals as it happened. It has been hard enough to explain Abby’s death. Abby was an excellent pheasant hunter, easy going and sweet, Helfrick said.
The incident has changed how Helfrick will exercise and play with her other dog Vita and Sexton’s other dog, Stella.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever take the dogs out like that again,” she said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) introduced legislation Thursday to ban the use of sodium cyanide for predator control. House Resolution 1817 is called the Chemicals Poisons Reduction Act of 2017. A news release from DeFazio’s office cited the deaths of dogs in Wyoming as a recent example of the dangers of M-44s. This note was updated to include the correct number of the resolution — Ed.