August 15, 2019

EPA issues interim decision on sodium cyanide bombs amid public outcry

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Coyote Pup (CC BY 2.0) by Larry Lamsa

Sodium cyanide bombs, also called M-44s, are used to kill predators that threaten livestock.

The EPA will allow a controversial federal agency to continue using lethal sodium cyanide bombs to kill predators that threaten livestock. The EPA issued an interim decision re-authorizing use of the sodium cyanide bombs under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) in June.

UPDATE: EPA Administrator retracts sodium cyanide decision

This story continues as originally written below.

Wildlife Services, a secretive agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), uses the devices for what it refers to as wildlife damage management services. Wildlife Services contracts with local government to provide services aimed at reducing livestock losses by killing local predators.

Environmental groups across the country are fighting to ban the use of sodium cyanide bombs, also called M-44s, at federal and state levels. Some attempts at establishing local bans of M-44s have succeeded in recent years. Wildlife Services is no longer allowed to use the devices in the state of Idaho, nor is it allowed to use M-44s on public lands in Wyoming. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown recently signed a ban into law earlier this summer. The bans in Wyoming and Oregon came after family pets and endangered species were killed by the bombs. In Idaho, a young boy was severely injured and his dog killed after accidentally coming in contact with an M-44 installed in a field near his house. Wildlife Services announced a few weeks later it would no longer use sodium cyanide bombs in the state as a result.

In New Mexico, local environmentalists attempted to ban M-44s and other lethal wildlife management devices at the state level, including through the bill dubbed “Roxy’s Law,” which made it to the House floor but ultimately failed. Recent local attempts to ban the devices in Grant County and Doña Ana County have also failed.

M-44’s key ingredient, sodium cyanide, is a restricted-use pesticide regulated by the EPA under FIFRA. The EPA’s interim decision on the chemical is the result of a pending registration review, a process the EPA undertakes periodically for the chemicals it regulates under FIFRA.

In 2017, Kelly Nokes, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, filed a petition on behalf of conservation group WildEarth Guardians requesting the EPA cancel all current and future registrations for sodium cyanide. A federal ban on the chemicals used in M-44s would force Wildlife Services to rely on other means to manage wildlife.

“The EPA has authority over who can use them, or whether they can be used in the country at all,” Nokes told NM Political Report. “We tried this wonky route through FIFRA to try to get a cancellation triggered for actually banning sodium cyanide from being used throughout the country.”

The EPA denied the petition but extended public comment periods for its registration review processes and proposed interim decision. The agency received some 20,000 comments by March 2019, the “overwhelming majority” of which “did not support the continued registration of sodium cyanide,” according to the EPA.

“We submitted substantive technical comments on the proposed interim decision that EPA had come out with,” Nokes said. “The legal standard under FIFRA is that EPA cannot authorize the use of any pesticide that causes unreasonable adverse effects on the environment. We argue that unreasonable adverse effects on the environment are clearly here with M-44s.”

The interim decision released in June is in response to technical comments submitted by Nokes and public comment. The agency decided to modify the use restriction labels that are placed on all M-44 devices to impose more restrictions on how and where Wildlife Services can place the devices. Residents within a half-mile radius of an M-44 must be notified of its installation personally or via a hanging door tag, for example and devices must be placed 100 feet from a public road or pathway. The agency also now requires that free-standing warning signs be placed at access points along property boundaries where no fence lines exist, whereas previously Wildlife Services would not place any warning signs if there was no existing structure to adhere the sign to; and that elevated warning signs be placed within 15 feet of M-44s in the field, rather than within 25 feet.

“The agency is invoking some—albeit minimal—enhanced use restrictions in response to our comments,” Nokes said, but added that the EPA “has really largely turned a blind eye to our many concerns and comments.”

The document is not the final decision on sodium cyanide. The agency must wait until it receives an opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on potential effects of sodium cyanide on species listed under the Endangered Species Act and on the listed species’ critical habitat. That decision is due by Dec. 31st, 2021.