Lethal Control: A Film About the Reckless Use of M-44s

Wildlife Services' use of cyanide endangers humans, dogs, and other animals.

Posted Feb 21, 2019

"'I've said it's only a matter of time until a child is killed,' [Peter] DeFazio, a Eugene Democrat, said in a June news conference in Washington, D.C. 'And we came awfully, awfully close in this instance, and it is still only a matter of time unless we get these things out of the environment.'"

Wildlife Services (WS), is well known for indiscriminately using horrifically brutal methods to control "problem" animals. Their mission statement reads, "The mission of Wildlife Services of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services (WS) is to provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist. WS conducts program delivery, research, and other activities through its Regional and State Offices, the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) and its Field Stations, as well as through its National Programs." Along these lines we also read, "WS' vision is to improve the coexistence of people and wildlife." Anyone who follows the killing ways of WS fully realizes that their conception of "coexistence" — living in harmony or peacefully with other animals — is a rather perverted one in that it has entailed the killing of millions upon millions of animals using brutal and inhumane methods. (For a film about WS see "EXPOSED: USDA's Secret War on Wildlife.") They also put out false information. (See, for example, "Reports of record wolf depredations based on misinformation" in which it's reported, "The Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission has been claiming that wolves killed a record number of livestock last year. But that’s misleading, because Wildlife Services, the secretive federal agency in charge of killing wolves in Idaho, is using a new method to verify wolf kills that is inaccurate and overbroad.")

M-44 "cyanide bombs" are very dangerous and horrific devices. A report by Predator Defense summarizes how they're used, M-44 incidents and victims, how people can support a bill to ban M-44s nationwide, and M-44s in the news. It's well worth reading. 

One specific case served to call global attention to the reckless use of M-44s by WS. On March 16, 2017, 14-year old Canyon Mansfield went for a walk with his dog, a three-year old yellow lab named Kasey, near their Pocatello, Idaho home. What should have been a good time for both turned into a tragedy when they confronted an M-44 cyanide trap put out by Wildlife Services. Kasey died after greatly suffering, and somehow Canyon survived to tell a horrific story. Other cyanide bombs were discovered nearby. (For more details see "Boy sprayed by cyanide explosive: ‘By the grace of God I’m still alive’," "Family dog's cyanide death highlights obscure government tool," and also click here.) 

I wanted to know more about a new film called "Lethal Control" that covers this incident, so I asked filmmaker Jamie Drysdale if he could answer a few questions about it. Gladly, he said "Yes," and our interview went as follows. You can find out more about this landmark film in an essay called "'Lethal Control' film details Wildlife Services' deadly use of M-44's."

Why did you make "Lethal Control?”

I made the film as part of my master's work in Environmental Journalism from the University of Montana. The stories surrounding M-44 cyanide ejectors that I encountered in my reporting were so raw, universally alarming, and so under-covered in the media, that I knew I had the potential to create something compelling that was personally meaningful and had a real chance to make a difference.

Why did the sad story of Canyon Mansfield and his dog Kasey motivate you to go public with the horrific killing ways of Wildlife Services? 

 Jamie Drysdale
Canyon Mansfield and Kasey
Source: Jamie Drysdale

I had been looking for an angle on Wildlife Services for a while, and certainly during my time in Journalism school. When the devastating news of the Mansfield incident came through, and in the same week as a similar story out of Wyoming, I knew it was time to throw whatever I could at the story. My only concern was prying too deeply into the lives of a family who had just been through a tragedy. But thankfully, the Mansfield’s enthusiasm for my project and their perseverance on this issue was an inspiration and helped push me along.

Please tell readers about M-44s and how they are used and why Wildlife Services is unregulated, despite what their spokeswoman otherwise claimed. 

M-44s are spring-loaded cyanide traps with baited lures specific to canids. They are used primarily to control coyote populations on behalf of the ranching industry, hunting groups, and other private interests.

In the film, a spokesperson for Wildlife Services does claim, “if nothing else we’re regulated.” And what she meant was that as a Governmental program they are required to document all their activities, and as she said “all our data is out there.” But as you will see in the film, there are some, including ex-employees of Wildlife Services, who call into question the validity of much of the reporting and documentation around predator control. Also, while kill number (as reported by Wildlife Services) are pretty easy to find online, there are other aspects of the program including their funding that are much harder to get access to as a citizen, or even as a member of congress. Representative Peter DeFazio from Oregon calls them “harder to penetrate than our intelligence agencies.” So I think regulated is a pretty loose term here.

What are your major messages?

I really want people to get their own messages from the film. For me, in making the film, my personal mantra was, “How is this worth it?” This theme was born out of a video clip I received from a public hearing in Idaho where Madison Mansfield, the older sister of Kasey who was nearly killed by an M-44, is seen demanding an answer to that same question from the Wildlife Services director in Idaho. These devices are certainly dangerous, they are very inconsistently used and regulated, and they kill and injure hundreds of pets and endangered species every year and nearly killed a kid. So, I wanted to find out what quantifiable benefits do cyanide devices provide and to whom to justify such risk. I tried to interview as many stakeholders as would talk to me around the West to gather the facts so that I could let the public decide, “Is it worth it?”

Please tell readers about the wide-ranging group of people you interviewed.  

I interviewed M-44 victims, current and former Wildlife Services employees, environmental activists, scientists, and local law enforcement officials. The victims were the Mansfield family who lost their dog Kasey and nearly lost their son Canyon, Todd Sexton who lost his dog Mollie, and Dennis Slaugh who triggered a device in 2003 and has suffered from health problems ever since. It was really intense to interview these people and ask them to re-hash a life altering tragedy. Watching them relive these moments behind tears impressed upon me the responsibility that I now had to make the best and most honest film I could. 

The one voice that I really wanted in the film that I did not get was the sheep ranching industry. Multiple organizations declined my requests, and I truly believe that as a journalist you can only reach out for people to tell their side of the story for so long until their reticence becomes part of the story. Even so I still am disappointed that they wouldn’t talk with me.

How important has Brooks Fahy’s work at Predator Defense been in advocating for M-44 victims and alerting the public about the hazards of this horrific device?

Brooks is certainly one of those people who have found their cause. And it is inspiring to see the tireless work that he does at Predator Defense, and of course a big part of that is educating the public on M-44s. The Mansfield family did not mince words when they spoke of their gratitude for Brooks, how he contacted them right away after their incident, and dropped everything and came to Pocatello. They said that he was really the only person who could provide the context and clarity that they needed at that chaotic time in terms of, “What just happened?” “Who did this?” and “Why.” He became their guide through this new chapter of their life, and they are not the first family he has helped.

Why should people be concerned about the use of M-44s?

"The simple fact is, and this isn’t up for debate, that M-44s are deployed on public and private lands in fifteen states, using all of our tax dollars, explicitly to kill native wildlife in the service of private interests."

People should be concerned about M-44s because they are viciously lethal and it’s impossible to know where they are. If you are lucky you can get a state agency to tell you yes or no if they are currently being used in your county, but that is rare and as specific as they get. As Carter Niemeyer, who worked for Wildlife Services for decades tells us in the film, there is still tremendous pressure for government trappers to use these devices applied by supervisors because of pressure on down the chain. Certainly, some trappers are more responsible than others and, as Carter told me, some are downright surgical with their placement and very timely with their recovery. But he and others have also told me stories about rogue trappers and unsavory characters within the agency who run around with cyanide in their pockets and almost zero accountability. 

That’s the physical danger of these devices, but what may also be concerning to those who see my film is the level of secrecy within this agency, the lack of scientific justification behind their work, and the very specific brand of environmental engineering that devices like the M-44 are employed to carry out. The simple fact is, and this isn’t up for debate, that M-44s are deployed on public and private lands in fifteen states, using all of our tax dollars, explicitly to kill native wildlife in the service of private interests.

Are you hopeful that M-44s will be put to rest via federal legislation?

 I really have no idea what the most likely path towards banning M-44s will be. Whether it’s federal legislation or a community-by-community domino effect as more of these stories come out, it will eventually happen. But after reporting this film and talking to people from all sides, there seems to be no justification for such devices and I hope they are gone sooner than later.

What else would you like to tell viewers?

I would say if you like the film, get involved. Find out if M-44s are in your area and call your local officials and ask if they even knew they existed. When I first met with Canyon Mansfield at his middle school (Canyon is the boy from Idaho who watched his dog Kasey seize and die after triggering a device within sight of his home), he told me he just wanted to keep the momentum going. “I’m glad your here,” he said. “It seems like people are already starting to forget, and that’s just what Wildlife Services wants.”

What are some of your current and future projects?

Right now I’m focusing on getting this film seen by as many people as I can. Hopefully in the future I can produce more films and work as part of a bigger team (and on a budget of more than $2500!) to create films that help keep the health of our environment in the front of people’s minds where it belongs. 

Thank you Jamie for taking the time to answer my questions. I know there are numerous people who do not know about M-44s or the horrific ways in Wildlife Services slays countless animals each year, including 13,530 animals who were were killed by M-44s in 2016, 321 of whom were non-target animals. I hope your film and this interview get people to ask questions and then expose what Wildlife Services does to a broad audience, many of whom don't know about their killing ways. It's most unfortunate that in November 2018, the EPA announced  it will not ban M-44 cyanide bombs

Note: The first public screening of "Lethal Control" will be in Eugene, Oregon, at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the University of Oregon on March 2, 2019, 11:00 to 12:30, at the EMU, Redwood room. (See also.) It’ll also be screened in Washington D. C. at the Capitol for a congressional staff briefing on April 2, 2019. Congressman Peter DeFazio is sponsoring the screening to support  the introduction of the Chemical Poisons Reduction Act of 2019. Brooks Fahy will be there along with the Mansfield‘s. The first hearing of Oregon bill (SB 580) to ban M-44s is on February 28, 2019, in Salem, Oregon. The trailer to Jamie‘s film will be screened at the hearing. 

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