The director for USDA Wildlife Services in Oregon said the agency has removed all M-44 cyanide poison traps from Wallowa County, following the unintended poisoning of a wolf in February.
Director Dave Williams said Wildlife Services has reviewed what contributed to the fatal accident and shared that information with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages wolves in the state. The two agencies are in ongoing discussions about how to prevent another wolf death, Williams said.
“We don’t feel good about that,” he said.
Williams said Wildlife Services has removed M-44s from areas identified by ODFW as places wolves are present, including all of Wallowa County. ODFW officials confirmed that took place.
“We appreciate that Wildlife Services has voluntarily removed M-44s,” ODFW Wildlife Division Administrator Doug Cottam said in a prepared statement.
“We also recognize we want to increase our communication between our agencies,” Cottam continued. “We want to develop a more effective system to ensure that Wildlife Services’ staff working in areas with wolves know what ODFW knows about wolf activity.”
OR-48, a 100-pound male from the Shamrock Pack, died Feb. 26 after it bit an M-44 device, which fires cyanide powder into a predator’s mouth when it tugs on a baited or scented capsule holder. Wildlife Services set the trap on private land in an attempt to kill coyotes. Williams would not give any more detail about where in Wallowa County the incident took place, but did say they had the landowner’s blessing to place M-44s on the property.
Wildlife Services, a federal agency, kills predators or other wildlife that damage or pose a threat to property, livestock or humans. The agency describes M-44s as an “effective and environmentally sound wildlife damage management tool,” but the wildlife activist group Predator Defense calls them notoriously dangerous.
The devices are designed to kill canids such as coyotes and foxes. The cyanide powder reacts with saliva in an animal’s mouth, forming a poisonous gas that kills the animal within one to five minutes.
Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, said M-44s indiscriminately kill dogs attracted by the scent and are a hazard to children or others who might come across them in rural areas.
The Wallowa County incident is complicated by Oregon’s management and protection of gray wolves over the past decade after they entered the state from Idaho and formed packs, quickly grew in population and spread geographically.
Previously, Wildlife Services did not use M-44s in what the state designated as areas of known wolf activity. After wolves were taken off the state endangered species list in 2015, it was ODFW’s understanding that Wildlife Services would continue to avoid using M-44s in such areas.
“We discussed our concerns specifically regarding M-44s,” ODFW spokesman Rick Hargrave said last week. “We didn’t want those devices in those areas.
“We believed it was clear what our concerns were,” Hargrave said.
Williams, the Wildlife Services state director, said he wants to focus on preventing another wolf death rather than “who messed up here.”
He said the Wallowa County case was the first time the agency has killed a wolf in Oregon. Overall, the agency has recorded “lethal take” of “non-targeted” animals — ones it didn’t intend to kill — in 1.3 percent of cases, he said. He said the agency twice unintentionally caught Oregon wolves in foothold traps, which nonetheless allowed ODFW to put tracking collars on them before releasing them unharmed.
“Some of our tools are more forgiving than others,” Williams said.
He said Wildlife Services is discussing with other state and federal agencies about the future of M-44s in a state that continues to see wolves expand in population and geographic area.
“We’ll see where we can draw some lines in the various counties where we can agree that we don’t want to set M-44s,” said Williams, noting that there may still be places where the poison can be the right tool.
Yet Williams said lethal methods are not their preferred solution, and that Wildlife Services puts on workshops to help ranchers protect livestock with non-lethal methods. In one case two summers ago, agency personnel spent 260 hours over four weeks helping protect a sheep flock from Umatilla Pack wolves, he said. The work allowed ODFW to avoid having to kill wolves due to depredations, he said.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association views the Wallowa County incident as a matter of agency-to-agency interaction and is “staying on the sidelines” in the investigation, said Todd Nash, a Wallowa County rancher who is the group’s wolf policy chair.
Livestock producers, of course, have a keen interest in the state’s wolf management policies and outcomes.
“It’s never a good time politically to have a dead wolf,” Nash said.