A gray wolf from the Shamrock Wolf Pack in northeast Oregon met with a sudden and painful death this week — and it was totally avoidable.
He wasn't even 2 years old when he came across an M44 device — a spring-loaded contraption that baits animals with smell and then shoots sodium cyanide into their mouths. Called an "unintentional take" by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), the wolf — known as OR48 — was one of just six members of the pack and had just been collared for tracking on February 10.
"The M44 cyanide device is used for the elimination of suspected livestock predators, such as coyotes blamed for the loss of profit," R. Andre Bell, public affairs specialist for the USDA, told The Dodo in a statement. "It lures predators with an attractive smell, often from a small piece of bait, then uses a spring to propel a dosage of sodium cyanide into the predator's mouth. The sodium cyanide combines with water in the mouth to produce poisonous cyanide gas."
Cyanide poisoning strangles the animal's cells, making it impossible to absorb oxygen, essentially suffocating the animal to death.
"M44s are a terrible device for killing coyotes by cyanide poisoning, which is a nasty and sickening way to die," Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Dodo. "They should be banned both because they are indiscriminate, killing this wolf as well as often pets and animals, and because killing coyotes in this and other manners is totally ineffective."
These devices are used to kill thousands of wild animals every year.
This wolf's death offers a glimpse into the controversial activities of Wildlife Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that kills millions of animals each year to make more room for human endeavors, like raising livestock on expansive ranches. Ostensibly, Wildlife Services exists "to improve the coexistence of people and wildlife."
But these practices have become increasingly controversial because of incidents like what just happened in Oregon. Gray wolves have been on and off the Endangered Species List, and their status varies by state. According to Amaroq Weiss, west coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity, Oregon prematurely delisted wolves as an endangered species in 2015, "leaving Oregon's still vulnerable, just recovering wolf population at high risk. This wolf's death is the result."
"M44s are an especially indiscriminate tool used by Wildlife Services to kill wild animals, for the benefit of ranchers, using taxpayer dollars," Weiss told The Dodo. "Anything that tugs on an M44 will be poisoned — whether it's the coyote it was intended for or any non-target species including wolves, family pets or a child. Death from poisons is not a painless experience. It's outrageous these M44s are in use at all."
"While predators are far from the leading cause of death of livestock, they are the most visible," Richard Conniff, author of "House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth," wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "Killing as many of them as possible in turn can feel like a deeply gratifying solution, in a way that dealing with disease or bad weather never has been. We seem to kill predators out of mindless, even primordial antipathy, rather than for any good reason. It is how we managed by the mid-20th century to eradicate gray wolves almost completely from the lower 48 states."
In 2015, the Wildlife Services killed 3.2 million wild animals — including bobcats, prairie dogs, coyotes and foxes — by trapping, shooting and poisoning. The slaughter was up half a million animals, from 2.7 million in 2014.
The gray wolf who was killed this week because of an M44 is just another victim of this kind of "wildlife management."
"APHIS' Wildlife Services (WS) is reviewing the unintentional take incident internally with ODFW for further evaluation and discussion on how to address livestock conflicts while minimizing risks of unintentional capture and take," Bell said.
"M44s pose a serious risk to imperiled wildlife, people and companion animals. The devices are cruel and are not part of sound, ethical wildlife management," Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians, told The Dodo. "We call on the government, specifically the wildlife killing program Wildlife Services, to heed this latest lesson and immediately end the use of M44s and other cruel 'tools.'"
To voice your concern about the use of cyanide to kill animals, you can contact the USDA.