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Guest Opinion: Keep Montana Livestock Safe — Without M-44

In recent weeks, M-44 cyanide ejectors mistakenly killed a wolf in Oregon, injured a young boy and killed his yellow lab in Idaho and poisoned two more dogs in front of their families in Wyoming. These are just a few of the hundreds of “non-target” deaths caused by M-44’s throughout the country each year. These horrific incidents, and the use of M-44’s to poison our wildlife, must come to an end.

M-44’s are essentially stakes in the ground fitted with a smelly bait that, when pulled by an animal, shoot sodium cyanide powder into its mouth. In 2016 alone, M-44’s were used in a handful of states, including Montana, to kill more than 12,500 coyotes and nearly 700 foxes, primarily in an effort to protect livestock.

Most are set by the federal agency Wildlife Services. Others are set by private businesses and individuals. In Montana, for example, Department of Agriculture rules allow anyone who wants to set M-44’s to do so, as long as they have undergone a training course and passed a written exam.

Non-target kills

But there are many problems with these devices. First, they can be indiscriminate. They can kill any coyote or fox that comes along and tugs on the bait, whether that animal has ever bothered livestock or not. Every year, M-44’s kill hundreds of non-target animals: black bears, fishers, swift and kit foxes, eagles and pets.

Second, they are deadly. When any animal — target or non-target — triggers an M-44, there is no second chance. They are so dangerous that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued 26 use restrictions limiting the ways, reasons, and places that M-44’s may be employed, and requiring anyone setting them to carry a cyanide antidote kit and to alert local medical professionals in case an accident occurs.

Better solutions

Third, killing predators is rarely a long-term solution. Soon after a coyote, or family of coyotes, is killed, others from a nearby territory will simply take their place. Instead of poisoning thousands of predators year after year, we should increase our investments in durable measures such as electric fencing, livestock guardian dogs, and herders and riders on horseback that can reduce livestock-predator conflicts over the long term while keeping both livestock and wildlife alive.

I’m excited to have recently begun working with Wildlife Services and ranchers to install specialized electric fencing called “turbo fladry” around pastures in Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota to protect cattle and sheep from wolves and coyotes. These projects have so far proven effective, instructive, and a welcome opportunity for collaboration in an era of political divisiveness and rancor.

Non-lethal efforts like these are not a panacea for preventing conflict. In some situations, predators may need to be killed. But removals should be done in a targeted, humane manner that selects not only for the intended species, but for the intended individual as well. Setting M-44’s in places where non-target, non-offending animals could be killed is antithetical to that outcome.

With so many other tools available to protect livestock, there is little reason to continue to rely on something as risky as an M-44. The time has come for us to move past the days of poisoning our wildlife. Accidentally killing family pets, or any other animal, is not just a mistake — it’s a tragedy. There are more proactive, humane, and collaborative ways for us to protect livestock that ensure a place for our native carnivores and the safety of our (human and animal) families. It’s time to retire the M-44.

Zack Strong is a wildlife advocated with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Bozeman.

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