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Trump Administration Authorizes ‘Cyanide Bombs’ to Kill Predators Again, Months After Backlash

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

The Trump Administration will reauthorize the use of so-called “cyanide bombs” to poison coyotes, foxes and feral dogs that could threaten private livestock. The decision comes four months after halting their authorization amid public backlash.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Thursday it would include new safety requirements to protect humans and pets, such as additional signs and increased distances the distance the “cyanide bombs” must be from homes and roads.

The traps, also known as M-44s, are planted in the wild and designed to lure in predators with bait then release a deadly dose of sodium cyanide.

But for many advocates, these adjustments don’t go far enough.

“This appalling decision leaves cyanide traps lurking in the wild, threatening people, pets and imperiled animals,” said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The EPA imposed a few minor restrictions, but these deadly devices have just wreaked too much havoc to remain in use. To truly protect people and wildlife from these poisonous contraptions, we need a nationwide ban.”

The EPA first announced its decision to re-authorize the traps in August, and then reversed the decision just a week later amid outcry.

The agency had opened a public comment period, and according to the EPA’s own summary, “The overwhelming majority of comments from the general public, including the more than 20,000 letters from the [Center for Biological Diversity] write-in campaign, did not support the continued registration of sodium cyanide predacide uses.”

In a press release in August announcing the agency was reevaluating its authorization, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said, “This issue warrants further analysis and additional discussions by EPA with the registrants of [sodium cyanide].”

On Thursday, the EPA announced it had come to a decision. It will reauthorize the traps, but add a 600-foot buffer around homes where the traps can’t be placed (unless the landowner has given written permission). They’ll also increase the buffer distance around designated public paths and roads from 100 feet to 300 feet.

The agency will also now require two elevated warning signs within 15 ft of the traps, facing the two mostly likely directions of approach. Currently one one sign — 25 feet away from the trap — is required.

Besides the United States Department of Agriculture, the states of Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming are registered to use the cyanide traps.

Advocates have strongly pushed back against the decision, arguing there remains public opposition for a nationwide ban of the devices.

“Tightening up use restrictions is turning a blind eye to the reality of M-44s,” Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, said in a statement. “In my 25 years working with M-44 victims, I’ve learned that Wildlife Services’ agents frequently do not follow the use restrictions. And warning signs will not prevent more dogs, wild animals, and potentially children from being killed. They cannot read them. M-44s are a safety menace and must be banned.”

What is a cyanide bomb?

The spring-loaded traps are also known as “M-44s” and are covered with bait. When animals bite down, the traps release sodium cyanide into their mouths, killing them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Service, whose mission is help resolve wildlife damage and reduce threats to human health and safety, places them on public lands. State agencies in South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico and Texas are also authorized to use them.

According to an analysis of the Wildlife Service’s data the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Environmental Law Center, M-44 traps killed 6,579 animals in 2018 and 13,232 animals in 2017. In 2017, more than 200 animals were killed accidentally, including raccoons, opossums and a bear.

“Cyanide bombs” were in use before the Trump Administration. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, M-44s killed 13,530 animals in 2016 under the Obama Administration, and 321 of those deaths were non-target animals including family dogs and a black bear.

Why are cyanide bombs controversial?

The traps grew more controversial after a M-44 in Idaho injured a young boy and killed his dog in 2017. His family sued the government for more than $150,000.

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed reauthorizing the use of M-44s at the end of 2018, and opened a public comment period. The EPA’s own review of the period said that “an overwhelming majority” of the 20,000 comments were against the traps, but the review also included comments from rancher groups that stressed economic losses predators could could cause them if they attacked their livestock.

Oregon has banned the cyanide traps, and Wildlife Services in Wyoming settled a lawsuit to limit the traps’ use back in August, per the Center for Biological Diversity. Such moves came after increasing pressure from environmentalist groups that argue the traps also kill animals that pose no threat to livestock and are don’t actually effectively ward off predators.

Correction, Dec. 6

The original version of this story misstated the status of Oregon’s ban on cyanide traps. They are fully banned, not temporarily banned.

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com